Hacking Bethpage

Before the bots, a group of degenerates figured out how to control one of golf’s most sought-after tee sheets

“Hello. You have reached the Bethpage reservation system. Please enter your driver’s or non-driver’s identification number, followed by the pound sign, to begin.” It was 1999, I was 24, and golf ranked somewhere between food and shelter on my list of needs. Almost every night, I’d join the thousands flooding the New York State Parks automated phone system at exactly 7 p.m., desperate to score a coveted morning tee time for the following week at the Bethpage golf complex. Like so many other schmucks, I thought the system was just old-fashioned luck of the draw. Until I joined the Nassau Players Club.

I had recently moved to Long Island from Boston, and I dove into the local events: LIGA, MGA, USGA and the like. I held my own, and in 2001 a group of sticks asked me to join their club. The Nassau Players wasn’t a mob initiation, but that didn’t mean we weren’t fiercely proud of our organization. 

At the time, it was one of the only non-real-estate golf clubs outside of the U.K. Our numbers were capped at 100, and this was serious golf; we were constantly battling with Whisper Rock GC in Arizona to have the lowest average handicap in the country. When I made the club championship finals in 2012, my 1.7 index had me outside our club’s top-25 players.

These were not country club kids. We had cops and firemen, small-business owners and salesmen. I’m a commercial photographer. Bethpage was our unofficial home. I’ve played the Black Course more than 200 times—probably twice that on the Red. And those are low numbers in the club. We did the sleeping-in-the-parking-lot thing, but only when we had to. Usually we’d pay a dude $80 for him to sleep in the lot, and at 3:45 a.m. we’d all show up and jump in his car. I still don’t know who that guy was.

In those days, I caddied part time at Piping Rock and Shinnecock, cruising the Long Island Expressway in my minivan that doubled as a mobile home. We had a standing game at Bethpage on Wednesdays and Fridays at 5:24 a.m., and state-park regulations mandated that we arrive an hour in advance. That put me out the door of my Brooklyn apartment at 3:30 a.m. The Black was still the headliner, but real ones played Red. When the circus came to town for the 2002 U.S. Open, we walked through a hole in the fence of the Yellow, crossed behind the makeshift USGA range and spent a week on the grounds for a grand total of zero American dollars.

Lipping Out No. 28
New York fans, like these at the 2009 U.S. Open, will do anything to see major championship golf at Bethpage Black. For the Nassau Players, that meant sneaking in through a hole in the fence on the Yellow. Photo by Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images.

But, no matter how good we were, we were still at the mercy of the all-powerful automated phone system. So we set about beating it. At first we relied on sheer volume: Club members would grab cases of beer, set up two or three phones adjacent to one another, hammer (516) 249-0707 (I’ll never forget it) and hope for the best. We’d usually secure a few prime tee times on the Red, then spend the rest of the week trading license numbers and swapping tee times until the proper games were set up.

Then Tony and Frank cracked the system. 

Tony and Frank aren’t their real names. I’m not sure if any laws were broken or if a statute of limitations exists in this situation, but I’m not taking any chances. Close as we were, they never filled many of us in on every detail, but here’s what I know:

Tee times for the Black opened at 7 p.m. At 6:58, the phone lines opened. If you could hang around without getting kicked off the system, or if you happened to get in when one of the first waves of callers hung up, you’d get a time. A full day’s tee times got cleared out in four minutes. Since the lines opened only two minutes before the system started accepting calls, Tony and Frank skipped Black entirely and focused on the other four courses. 

Times for the Red, Green, Yellow and Blue opened at 7:30, and Tony and Frank discovered two things that no one else did: first, that the phone lines started accepting calls at 7:15, and second (and most crucially), how to bounce around the system for 15 minutes, making them first in line when reservations could be accepted.

Through a long period of trial and error, they determined that you could punch in an incorrect driver’s license number twice before entering a legitimate one, and that you could stall for exactly 10 seconds between entering each digit. Two wrongs and a right took 10 minutes. From there, they calculated how many seconds they could pause between each prompt (“On what day would you like to play?” “Which course would you like to play?” “How many holes would you like to play?”). It all added up to almost exactly 15 minutes. Once they had the system gamed, they programmed it all into an auto-dialer and hooked it up to eight separate phone lines.

Our lines were the first eight into the system every night, meaning we’d pick up whichever eight times we wanted, on any day, at any course outside of the Black. The Nassau Players essentially controlled the tee sheet.

Imagine the optics of that. The same guys every weekend—sometimes doing full club tournaments—playing in the best slots at the most small-D democratic club in the country. The general public was outraged. And this was New York—we had some loud characters who weren’t shy about owning the tee box for all to see.

In the final episode of The Office, Andy Bernard looks into the camera and delivers his most memorable line: “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” We knew. Every time we teed it up, laughing and mocking the robotic automated-phone-system voice, we understood how good we had it.

The state of New York finally went to an online reservation system in 2018. By then, I was already moving on from my heyday in the club; I’d bought a house in the Hudson Valley. I gave up my membership in 2020. Today, when I hear people complaining about how the online bots now snatch up every available tee time, I can’t help but chuckle and wonder if Tony and Frank just moved from an auto-dialer to a laptop.

Michael Altobello has been a Broken Tee Society member since 2018.