In the run-up to this week's U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, there was much talk about the people. Robert Moses, mastermind of the New York State parks system, called Bethpage "the People's Country Club." That appellation and the fact that for the first time in its 101-year history the Open is being played on a public course prompted dimpleheads to dub this the People's Open. As we are reminded almost hourly now, anyone can play Bethpage. It's laughable, however, to think that the 102nd Open signals a new era of inclusiveness in golf. On the contrary, the Open illustrates that even if the game doesn't require a prohibitive amount of money (greens fees are only $31 at Bethpage on weekdays, $39 on weekends), it probably requires a prohibitive amount of something else—in this case, time and the right spinal curvature to sleep in your Honda. The hubbub surrounding this Open only strengthens the notion that by any measure, golf is costly to the point of being exclusive, even at public courses. And it suggests that we golfers secretly, perversely, like it that way, even at a supposed shrine to democracy like Bethpage. I'm not talking about excluding certain groups. Rather, the harder it is to get on a course, the happier I am to play it. That not just anybody can get on any course at any time is a good thing, as long as exclusive doesn't mean unfair.
Exclusivity comes in many forms. At Bethpage, a 90-hole public golf mecca owned by the state of New York, it's in the numbers: Thousands of golfers would love to play there—in some cases regardless of which course they play. Recently an affable accountant from nearby Rockville Centre spent his second consecutive Friday night waiting in the parking lot. But not to play the Black. (Golfers were allowed to play the Black course only once in the nine weeks leading up to the Open, and our accountant had already done so.) No, he was waiting to play the Red course, of which the 1st and 18th holes, as he knew from having played there the previous week, were lined with corporate tents and thus shortened to par-3s. The man, bless his heart, was wasting away in line, for the second time in eight days, to play an undistinguished 16-hole course.
The Black, as you've no doubt heard, inspires such nutty displays of dedication every day and turns away far more people than it can accommodate, even though 36,000 rounds were played there last year. There is a telephone lottery for New York State residents, but I don't have the patience for that option, and I don't want to bother with camping in my car. For those who do, it's a point of pride to endure such absurdities and all the more gratifying when they finally walk around the big black iron railing that looms over the 1st tee, go down the stairs and step onto the tee. Is Bethpage exclusive? Sure. Is it fair? Assuming that the telephone call-in system isn't rigged—and not everyone is convinced it isn't—absolutely. As the car campers know, surviving the ordeal is part of what makes playing there so momentous. Besides, if you don't like it, you've got other options.
A few years back, sensing an opportunity, developers invented the upscale daily-fee course as a way for the muni player to feel like a country clubber for a day. Where you feel it most is in the wallet: Greens fees are usually in the $100 range. Again, definitely exclusive. Again, perfectly fair. Don't like it? Go to Bethpage and pay another way.
By now you might be taking me for a snooty country clubber. No way. A friend of mine recently paid in excess of $25,000, including initiation fee, annual dues and an assessment for course renovations, to join a neat little club in New Jersey. That's way too rich for my blood, but then the point of clubs is to exclude. Again, perfectly fair—and perfectly satisfying, I imagine, once one has cleared the considerable financial hurdles.
Crazy crowds, high greens fees and exorbitant initiation costs—all those challenges make it more rewarding to get on some courses than others. But there's one way to avoid those hardships and still find that cherished exclusivity: playing country clubs as a guest. I highly recommend this strategy. Being a guest is cheaper than playing an upscale public track, although the caddie costs can be steep. It's easy to get a tee time, and best of all, there are no membership dues.
Car camping? Forget it. I'd rather be the Kato Kaelin of golf. It may be the most convoluted way to reach the 1st tee, but that's what makes it the most fun.