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PGA Championship 2019: The unsung hero who helped turn an overgrown muny into a major-championship darling

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Dave Catalano doesn’t like to take bows. It’s just not who he is. But as he sat with a bottle of water in his hands Tuesday and looked at the sprawl of the PGA Championship, he couldn’t help but smile.

“We changed the face of golf here,” he said. “I’m very proud of that.”

When Catalano says “we,” he’s referencing all the people who worked for him at Bethpage State Park during the almost 16 years that he was the park’s director. He’d rather give them the credit for staging the 2002 U.S. Open, the first ever held on a true public golf course.

And, while a lot of people deserve a lot of credit for that Open, David Fay, the former USGA executive director who first hatched the idea of bringing a major championship to Bethpage’s Black course, says quite simply, “We couldn’t have put it [the Open] on without Dave Catalano.”

It was Fay, who on a whim pulled off the Southern State Parkway en route to a dinner party on Long Island in 1995, jumped a fence and began walking the Black course. Two friends—Metropolitan Golf Association executive director Jay Mottola and top local amateur George Zahringer—had told Fay he should consider the Black as a U.S. Open site, even though the golf course was in awful condition.

Fay walked three holes while the sun was setting and thought, This is OK. Then he got to the fourth hole, with its famous cross bunkers and it’s winding uphill route to the green. “That’s when I got it,” Fay said years later. “From then on, I was hooked.”

Fay returned to his office and dashed off a memo to this staff. The first sentence said: “I have a dream.”

Seven years later, after the USGA had spent $5 million to revitalize and renovate the golf course, Fay’s dream came true. And no one played a more important role in making that dream reality than Catalano.

Copyright USGA/John Mummert

Dave Catalano

“Dave is one of those guys who, the first time you meet him you think this guy gets it, ” Fay said Tuesday by phone. He’s not at Bethpage this week because his job as Fox’s golf rules expert will have him in North Carolina for the U.S. Senior Women’s Open. “He had to keep a lot of people happy: the people working for him, the people he worked for in the state government, the people who play all five golf courses regularly plus the pesky USGA.

“He did it without breaking a sweat—or at least without breaking any sweat that I saw. Whenever I had a question or an issue, I went to Dave and he would just say, ‘consider it done.’ And it was.”

RELATED: How will a PGA at Bethpage differ from the U.S. Opens it has held before?

Catalano first worked at Bethpage in 1967 as a kid picking up papers in the picnic area. He worked in the state’s park system in different roles until he was sent back to Bethpage as the boss in 1996. That happened to coincide with the USGA and the state of New York brokering the deal to bring the Open to Bethpage—which turned out to be fortunate for both sides.

Catalano’s first job was to hire a superintendent to help oversee the renovation of the Black and all five of the park’s golf courses. He hired Craig Currier, then just 26, and stood back and let Currier go to work.

Working with the USGA, Currier crafted a golf course that was long and challenging. Both he and Catalano worried that the best players in the world might shoot lights-out on their golf course.

“There was no way to know until they got here,” Catalano said. “We didn’t want to see the legend taken down.”

They did have one moment of real concern. About 10 days before the players were scheduled to arrive, Tiger Woods and Mark O’Meara came to play a practice round. Woods had six of his last 10 majors at that point, and Catalano worried that if word got out he was playing the golf course, the media might descend quickly.

“So we sneaked them out on the third hole,” Catalano said, laughing. “Told no one. But Craigie was out there following them. I think Tiger birdied five of the first six holes he played. He called me and said, ‘Big Dog, I think we’re in big trouble.’ ”

They weren’t. Woods won the tournament by shooting three-under-par 277. He was the only player to break par. Phil Mickelson finished second at even-par 280.

“Winning score was three under—shot by the best player in the world,” Catalano said. “Runner-up was the second best player in the world. I thought we did pretty well.”

They did well enough that the USGA announced three months later it would bring the U.S. Open back to the Black in 2009.

Catalano and Currier became father-and-son close and worked together until Currier left to run Glen Oaks Country Club in 2010. A year later, Catalano retired at age 64. By then, the ’09 Open had been stage at Bethpage and—as Catalano points out—the face of golf had changed.

“He’s right,” Fay said. “Look, the Bethpage Open led to Torrey Pines getting the Open [2008 and, upcoming, 2021]; it led to Chambers Bay getting built and getting an Open [2015], and Erin Hills [2017], same thing. All municipal, public courses with different kinds of owners [state, county, private]. But that Open and the success of that Open led to all of that and, regardless of how you feel about those golf courses, it was a good thing for golf.”

Catalano is on the executive committee for this PGA. “It means I’m here,” he said, smiling. “I’m window dressing.”

No one believes that. Catalano knows everything there is to know about the Black, about the infrastructure of the clubhouse and all the surrounding venues in the park. If there’s a question that ne answering or an issue that arises, Catalano is there as the championship troubleshooter. Plus, he has clubhouse parking and a cart to get him around for the week.

David Cannon/Getty Images

David Fay

“No one deserves it more,” Fay said. “If we don’t pull off that first Open, there isn’t a second Open or a PGA there.”

The Black has also hosted the PGA Tour’s Barclays Championship twice, and in five years it will host what many anticipate could be the most raucous Ryder Cup in history. While Catalano is thrilled that the PGA of America has aligned with Bethpage, he remains a bit mystified about the end of the USGA’s relationship.

“Some of it was politics,” Fay said. “Some of it was, largely because of the weather, ’09 was not The Godfather, Part II, which was the great sequel of all time.”

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“The politics,” as Fay called them centered on then attorney general/now New York governor Andrew Cuomo attacking the USGA for initially not offering refunds after lengthy rain delays virtually wiped out play on Thursday and Friday.

“I was in a Dunkin’ Donuts at about 5:15 on Saturday morning and it was packed,” Fay said. “All I heard was people moaning about paying all the money they paid and not seeing any golf. I said, ‘That’s it, we have to give these people refunds.’

“But, as a result of the way the whole week felt: the rain, the politics, the Monday finish, the executive committee was a little hesitant about going back. When we hesitated, the PGA—very smartly—moved in.”

Ted Bishop, who became president of the PGA of America in 2012, had come and played the Black and loved it. He and then-executive director Pete Bevacqua moved quickly and, in 2013 the PGA announced the Black would host the 2019 PGA and the 2024 Ryder Cup.

Fay isn’t here this week, but the presence of his “dream” can be felt tangibly by all those who remember how it came to be a real thing.

“Let’s face it, the USGA took a big chance,” Catalano said. “It was a leap of faith to think that a bunch of people working for a government could do the job that people from the private sector had always done in the past. I think we showed that, if you work at it and you pay attention to detail, you can get it done.”

He smiled. “The proof is in the pudding.”

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