Prepping the course, working behind-the-scenes at PGA Championship
By KATE MOSTACCIO
The narrow fairways, high roughs, well-placed bunkers, and small greens of the legendary Bethpage Black course gave professional golfers a challenge during the 2019 PGA Championship May 16-19 as they vied to take home the Wanamaker Trophy and $1,980,000 of the $11 million purse.
Brooks Koepka’s seven-stroke lead may have dwindled, but he managed to hold on and cinch the top prize and the trophy. And while Koepka now stood in the spotlight ranked number one in the world, none of it would have been possible without the dedication of staff and the behind-the-scenes work at the state-owned Bethpage State Park.
That’s where PEF members Vincent Herzog and Michael Hadley, and their crews, came in.
“We start thinking of conditioning two years out,” said Herzog, golf course construction superintendent at Bethpage. “With an event of this magnitude, with this many people and this many moving parts, it takes planning that far out to make it a success.
“Some of the construction started last fall on getting the infrastructure in place,” he said, explaining that on any given day of the championship, there could be upward of 40,000 spectators in attendance. “There’s vending, seating for the spectators, hospitality. All of that needs support infrastructure,” Herzog said. “We needed roads for dining; for back of the house deliveries. It’s almost a small city that is built inside the facility for this golf tournament.”
The grounds are regularly maintained but “we do a little extra as far as maintenance of the course,” said Hadley, the Black course superintendent. “Our regular activities are amped up.”
Herzog and Hadley aren’t new to major tournament play, which helped them manage the huge task before them.
In 2002, Bethpage Black hosted the U.S. Open — the first publicly owned and operated park to do so. The park welcomed the U.S. Open back to the Black in 2009, and went on to host the 2012 and 2016 Barclays Tournaments. The park is slated to host the Ryder Cup in 2024.
“Our biggest challenge is coordinating across so many levels,” Herzog said. “You have to be able to multitask and plan.”
The Black course is nationally ranked as one of the top 10 public courses and “has a reputation as one of the most challenging and rewarding courses to play in the world,” according to a fact sheet from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP).
Hadley is responsible for daily maintenance for the Black course. “My job involves taking care of the turf, whether it’s the irrigation, fertilizing, running the crew, assigning jobs,” he said. “I’m responsible for getting it ready for play every day.” And on a regular day, depending on the time of year and the weather, that could mean anywhere from 500 to 1,000 rounds of golf, he said.
Herzog’s daily job lies in construction and renovations on Bethpage’s five golf courses — the Black, Red, Blue, Yellow and Green. “It can be anything from rehabbing bunkering or building new greens or tees,” he said. “There is a lot of irrigation troubleshooting or repairs and installs.”
In addition to grounds and infrastructure work, another group of PEF members was on site during PGA Championship play in May — fire protection specialists from the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control, providing support to the Farmingdale Fire Department.
The members from State Fire provided “Gator-style” all-terrain vehicles with water tanks and pumps and staffed them for the duration of the event.
“The concern was getting the assets to the tents on the course,” said Roy Plume Jr., a fire protection specialist. “There were a lot of people, a lot of tight paths. They wouldn’t be able to get a large piece of equipment to certain areas of the event very quickly.”
The all-terrain vehicles afforded the fire personnel the maneuverability they needed to get to all parts of the hilly Black course. State Fire teams can deploy to support local departments when events take place on state property, Plume said.
Staff coming together and working hard to put on a great event is what Herzog and Hadley say stands out most from their experience behind the scenes of this year’s championship. “I’m most proud of the staff,” Herzog said. “They did a phenomenal job and they stepped up to the tasks.”
“I second that,” Hadley said. “We produced one of the best golf courses in the world — we were told that by the best players in the world. Knowing that our planning actually worked and came together. We were successful with everything we tried to do.”
And the PEF members who made the PGA Championship possible work daily to make the Black course, and the other courses at Bethpage, available for the general public — offering them the unique chance to walk and play the same greens as professional golfers.
“There are no other courses in the Long Island region that would have the capacity to hold a tournament like this,” Hadley said. “The Black course is such a hard course and a challenge for the professionals.”
“It feels good to be able to give the public the opportunity to play a championship course,” Herzog said. “It’s the people’s country club. It’s great to provide that.”
Free youth golf day; golf course facts and figures
In conjunction with New York’s Bethpage State Park hosting the 2019 PGA Championship in May, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Free Youth Golf Day as a way to introduce children across the state to the game and the opportunities available at state parks.
Youth 18 and under will be able to golf free on July 20 at all 28 New York State Parks golf courses.
Under the NY Parks 2020 initiative, Cuomo has made a financial of $17.5 million for state golf courses to fund improvements like irrigation systems, cart paths and clubhouses, with a nearly $2.6 million investment into Bethpage State Park to host the PGA Championship, upgrading the clubhouse, parking lots and walkways, and improving the Black course.
Approximately 600,000 rounds of golf are played at state park golf courses each year, according to a state parks press release, bringing in an average of $17 million in annual revenue. Under the state golf program, which contracts with PGA professionals, both experienced and novice golfers can take lessons from some of the best players in the sport.