The biggest event in local golf this year is the 2019 PGA Championship, scheduled for May 16-20 on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island. This marks the 101st playing of the major tournament, which was first held in 1916 at Siwanoy CC in Bronxville.
The Westchester club pros who have qualified to play in the championship have close ties to the Black, the site of the NYS Open for many years. We asked several of them to tell us what it was like competing with the stars of the PGA TOUR at other PGA Championships and to give them (and us) some tips on how to score on Bethpage Black.
Rob Labritz, director of golf at GlenArbor, has competed in the major five times so far and went home from Whistling Straits with the low club pro trophy in 2010. He enjoys many memories from the tournaments over the years. “My first tee shot in my first PGA Championship was at Hazeltine in 2002. I was so nervous, I couldn’t get the ball on the tee because my hand was shaking so bad,” he says, then adds with a chuckle, “I striped it down the middle and cruised on to make a sweet double.”
Labritz has won the NYS Open on the Black three times. He says the key to the course is simple: “You have to drive the ball in the fairway. Period. Numbers 1, 2, and 6 are shorter holes that you can attack, but you must get used to hitting long irons into many par-4 holes. You can actually take advantage of the par 5s out there.”
Greg Bisconti, director of golf at Saint Andrew’s, played in three PGA Championships over the years. He actually held the lead after 12 holes in his first try and won the low club pro award in 2009 at Hazeltine. He credits much of his success to the local golf scene. “Everything the Met Section is and the golf courses we get to play here really prepare you for play at the highest level,” he says. “I love to compete, and standing on the stage on Sunday with PGA Champion Y.E. Yang was the culmination of everything I’ve ever worked for.”
Bisconti won his first college tournament at the Black playing for St. John’s. “It’s so difficult, but it’s fair,” he points out. “When you play good shots, you’re rewarded. The course is just always in your face and can knock you on your butt. You have to be 100 percent focused and dialed in on every swing.”
Another multiple-PGA Championship competitor is Century assistant pro Frank Bensel, who competed in it twice so far. “For a club pro, it’s the pinnacle of your golf career,” he says. “It’s a good test of how your game stacks against the best players in the world. It gave me great confidence.” He adds that “the courses were difficult, but no more so than a Met Open course.”
Bensel also won the NYS Open on the Black and expects it to hold up well against the PGA Championship field. “I am sure the rough will be high,” he says, “but if you can keep it in the fairway and get it on the greens, you can score. Ball striking is huge, because if you miss either one, you’re going to make a bogey.”
Metropolis’ head pro Craig Thomas also competed in the PGA Championship and at one time held the course record on the Black. His 64 was tied in 2017 by Cameron Young of Scarborough, who was the first amateur to win the NYS Open. •