After two days of benign conditions, Bethpage Black bites back on Saturday

Tiger Woods had four three-putts on Saturday.
Carlos M. Saavedra/SI

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — For those who had the audacity to bill Bethpage Black as soft, who even dared to say it played “easier” just a couple of days ago, the famed course seemed intent to set the record straight Saturday. After baking under the hot August sun over the last two days, the course that saw 51 players break par in Thursday’s first round took its revenge.

Just 22 golfers shot under par in Saturday’s third round, most of them beneficiaries of early tee times. Among the 29 who teed off before 10 a.m. Saturday, 13 broke par. As for the other 46 that set out on the Black Course as it dried up and saw the wind began to swirl, only nine saw red numbers. By the afternoon, the greens had dried out and hardened to the point that, as Greg Chalmers remarked of one particular patch, “It was like glass back there.”

“There’s two or three of them that were barely even alive at this point,” said Ryan Moore, whose round of one-under 70 put him in a tie for sixth at 5 under, five strokes behind leader Sergio Garcia. “Honestly, I would say the greens overall rolled about three or four feet faster than they have the last two days, and that’s a big adjustment to make.”

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Player after player walked off the course shaking their heads trying to explain just how fast and firm the greens had gotten. Some remarked the course might be on the verge of becoming unplayable or out of control.

“Usually when you are putting on fast greens, you have an idea where the ball is going to stop,” Garcia said after shooting a two-under 69 and seizing the 54-hole lead at 10 under par. “Today, you didn’t. You thought the ball was going to stop two feet behind the hole, and it went six.”

The conditions were reminiscent of the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills—incidentally, just 60 miles east of Bethpage—where the grounds crew was forced to water some of the greens intermittently because they had become so hard and fast. Retief Goosen won that tournament, shooting a one-over 71 on Sunday; only he and Phil Mickelson finished under par over 72 holes. There, too, the firm and fast greens had given players fits.

“There’s firm and fast, and then there’s this,” said Nick Watney, who finished even par Saturday and sits two strokes behind Garcia. “Firm and fast is good. It identifies the best player, I believe, but at the same time, they are close to losing control of some of the greens.”

Garcia recalled his first putt on the third hole, a 230-yard par 3. A downhill putt about 35 feet from the hole, he told himself to be careful of the slope. When he hit the ball, he knew it had been a bit strong, but Garcia then watched as it rolled some six feet past the hole. He three-putted for a bogey. It was, however, his only three-putt of the day.

“I don’t know [how I managed only one],” he said laughing. “At the end of the day, all you can do is try to trust the line you pick, and the speed you think it’s going to be. And then just hope that you are guessing it right.”

Trusting in his game has been the key for the resurgent Garcia, who finds himself 18 holes away from back-to-back PGA Tour wins. Last week, he won the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., his first victory on the PGA Tour in more than four years—and he did it with a local caddie on his bag. This week at Bethpage, he has hired a spotter from CBS Sports. For the last two weeks, Garcia has been walking his own yardages, studying his book before selecting his own clubs and sorting out his own shots.

He doesn’t put too much emphasis on the coincidence of his improved play with his lack of a professional caddie, but admits: “The good thing about this is that I feel like I’m more committed to some of the things I’m doing…. Sometimes I think my mistake is that sometimes I seem to trust more what I hear than what I feel … these couple of weeks, they’re kind of helping me go with what I feel and just try to trust my own feelings a little bit more than sometimes if somebody tells me to do one thing, and I just do it for lack of confidence in myself.”

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With a two-stroke lead going into Sunday, Garcia’s confidence has grown strong despite the fearsome conditions at Bethpage. But if there is one thing the course has shown is its fickleness. Even with the lead, there are no guarantees for the 32-year-old Spaniard, and plenty of others remain within striking distance, including Mickelson and Tiger Woods, both four under par.

Woods, who had been bothered by a stiff lower back Friday, seemed much better 24 hours later; he and he rest of the field will be hoping they can say the same about the greens on Sunday.