This is the season for top-10 lists, isn’t it? I just saw Tom Doak’s top-10 list of the most fun rounds he played in 2017; it arrived the other day in a newsletter-style holiday card. My mind quickly went to one of my own favorite rounds of the year, at Bethpage Black, set up by Pete Bevacqua, the PGA of America chief. That game was in September. Man, that seems like a long time ago.
The Bethpage round was special for any number of reasons. For the place, the people, our camaraderie. It was a day of golf that I regard as some kind of weird reward for my misspent adulthood. Pete had made the tee time and invited a friend since boyhood, Larry Marchini; Jon Miller, the veteran NBC Sports executive; and me.
Pete and Larry and Pete’s late father — Dr. Arthur Bevacqua, Westchester County, N.Y., dentist — logged plenty of rounds at Bethpage when Pete and Larry were in high school and college and BPB was a course with great bones, shaggy greens and dirt tees. Pete and Larry’s shared history added to the day, no question about that. The match was Larry and Pete against Jon and me. Or, as Jon put it so delicately, “Italians against the Jews.” Jon and I played OK, but we didn’t have a chance. It was obvious that Pete and Larry have been better-balling their way to $20 paydays for decades. They were never out of the same hole.
The day got me thinking about a monthly Vanity Fair feature, a mirror-of-the-soul personality test called “The Proust Questionnaire.” One of its questions is, “When and where were you happiest?” Doak’s effort, to reveal his top-10 most fun rounds, is difficult enough, in part because of what gets left out.
In certain moods, the dateline for my answer is a golf course, somewhere in the world. That makes me like you and a million others in our tribe. Drill deep into the head of any golfer, you’re going to find some emerald answers to this where-and-when query. It’s amazing, hearing Jack Nicklaus talk about some of his schoolboy golf tournaments, Jack Grout in the pro shop, Charlie Nicklaus in the vicinity but not hovering.
I regret that I never asked Arnold Palmer, with the precise language Marcel Proust posed it, where and when he was happiest. But I visited the general subject with Palmer on several occasions. His first visit to Augusta National and his first Masters win would be right near the top, I’m sure of that. His early Tour travels, with his bride Winnie in a 19-foot trailer hitched to their Ford, would be, too — even if they both half-hated it at the time. Memory plays funny games that way.
But I believe Arnold’s private, true when-and-where moment would have something to do with piloting his own airplane, enveloped in the deep serenity of cockpit hum, the pleasing backing chorus of a low-voiced air-traffic controller on top of it, with Mother Earth six miles below.
My Bethpage game came the day before the first round of the Presidents Cup. Larry is a New York banker, though that phrase likely gives the wrong impression of him. He doesn’t belong to a golf club and he was wearing a baseball hat that carried concentric rings of dried, chalk-white perspiration that could surely be carbon-dated to various dog-day afternoons. Plus, his swing screams caddie yard, not TrackMan. New York banker and working stiff. Pete’s the same way. He went to Notre Dame and Georgetown for law school and he logged some years at the USGA and he’s joined some fancy clubs. But the vibe he emits is that of a workingman. Guy swings hard.
Pete and Larry caddied together for a decade or so, through high school and college, at a ritzy Westchester club, Bedford Golf & Tennis. They know each other’s every move. (They both told me later told me about their gloveless backyard boxing matches, Larry throwing 50 punches to Pete’s one, the fights, I sensed, typically ending in split decisions, friendship restored. Isn’t that the way of teenage fisticuffs?)
Larry smacked his opening tee shot off the elevated first tee a mile right and into the wrong fairway but still made par. His partner’s face registered no surprise. “Larry does that,” Pete said. “He’ll do that six times a round. He’s a great athlete.” The comment has stayed with me because Larry doesn’t look like a great athlete, but we all know that to make pars in the wind you have to do a lot right, especially on a course like Bethpage Black. It takes athletic skill.
The course, famously public and difficult, is fantastic, and surprisingly playable. (Almost any course is playable if you start each hole from the tee where you belong.) I grew up on Long Island, about 30 miles east of Bethpage, but we headed east for most of our 1970s golf. Back then, the name of Bethpage’s architect, A.W. Tillinghast, would have meant little or nothing to me. What we knew was that you had to sleep in your car to get a tee time. In the lore of the place, that was the starting point.
I was surprised to learn that Larry, Pete and Dr. B. didn’t sleep in a car for their games. Dentists, more then than now, were apt to take slides on Wednesday afternoons. That was their prime time to play. It was all ritualized.
“Dr. B would be in the basement, doing his billing and we’d be yelling down, ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!'” Larry told me. “He was a great man, but slow. Drove Pete crazy.” The day was one round, sometimes an emergency nine, or a full 18 on the longest days, followed by a dunk in the ocean at Cedar Beach, a cold municipal shower, then dinner at a steakhouse in the Bronx called Rota’s, old man Rota himself in the back, chomping on a cigar, counting cash, near a wall with a bullet hole in it. Life as a movie.
“Dr. B loved golf,” Larry said. “When it was just the two of us, he’d say, ‘Pete should stick with golf.'” The father died in a car accident, in December 1997, just as Pete was starting his career as a lawyer. He was 64 and Pete was 26. The driver of the other car was a kid caddie at Bedford. Pete, at one point the Bedford caddie master, knew him. Arthur Bevacqua had just dropped Pete’s clubs off to get regripped — Neumann wrapped leather! — as a surprise, big-ticket Christmas gift. Pete still carries the invoice in his wallet: 13 grips, $20 each.
These days, the PGA of America and Bethpage Black are attached at the hip, and it would be hard to overstate Bevacqua’s role in making that happen. BPB will be the site of the 2019 PGA Championship, slated for May, and the 2024 Ryder Cup, set for early fall. You’ll see two different courses, both spectacular. I’m guessing you’ll see two or three PGA of America events at Bethpage for decades to come.
“My father would be pinching himself,” Pete told me.
“It wouldn’t be an ego thing—well, of course, ego would be part of it—but if Dr. B could see where Pete is now, he’d be so happy and proud,” Larry told me, out of Pete’s earshot.
By email, about two months after our Bethpage game, I asked Pete the Proust question. Where and when were you happiest? It was out of the blue, I offered no golf preamble. As I waited for the response, I wondered (and half-expected) those Bethpage Black games with his father and Larry to show up in my inbox.
“Wells, Maine. On any of a number of summer days along Crescent Beach, right on the ocean, a quarter mile down the road from the Wells Lobster Pound that I have frequented each summer since August of ’71, three weeks after I was born.
“The time of day is after six and prior to true dusk. Dogs are allowed on the beach after six so dear Fredo can join us. Yes, after Fredo in The Godfather. ‘I’m smart! I’m not dumb, like everyone says!’ The kids in shorts and sweatshirts. My wife, Tiff, and I in much the same. No shoes, of course.”
His response goes on in that vein for a while.
I thanked Pete for his letter and asked if his boyhood games at Bethpage Black with his father and Larry were in the running for his where-and-when-were-you-happiest.
“Probably number two,” Pete wrote back. “My father was and is the most influential person in my life by a country mile.”
After our round, the Jews paid the Italians and our foursome went to the Bethpage clubhouse bar for some Arnold Palmers, etc. Pete and I asked for our drinks to be topped off after our first gulps. The barkeep, a classic New Yorker of the old school, said, “Refills are not free ’round here, fellas.” We over-tipped and headed out.
Through the clubhouse windows, I’m guessing Pete could see dirt tees, shaggy greens, his father on a hot Wednesday afternoon, a towel around his neck.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]