THE SIGN THAT greets you on the first tee pretty much says it all:

"Warning. The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers."

In other words, tread very carefully out there.

Welcome to the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on the western end of Long Island. It was built, along with four other 18-hole layouts, during the Great Depression as part of FDR's WPA program.

Seven years ago, it made history by becoming the first truly municipal daily-fee course to host a U.S. Open. We're not talking Pebble Beach or Pinehurst (No. 2), which are great and open to the public but can cost whatever's left of your 401(k) to play. Bethpage is the East Coast version of Torrey Pines, which hosted last June. That 2002 Open was a rousing success, which is probably the biggest reason why Torrey got its chance, and why Bethpage is getting another so quickly.

There are about 35,000 rounds played at Bethpage Black annually. Golfers park their cars in line the night before just for the chance to get a tee time. Even folks who can go to country clubs. And they'll tell you it's worth the effort. New York state residents pay modestly priced greens fees - $50 on weekdays, $60 on weekends - which only adds to the attraction.

In 2002, Tiger Woods led most of the way and wound up beating Phil Mickelson by three shots as it was about to turn dark on Sunday. It was his second consecutive major win, and second Open title in 3 years. Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington also were integral parts of the story line. So the championship hardly lacked for marquee value. Which, of course, is exactly the way New Yorkers prefer things.

That was the week the big-city crowd fell in love with Lefty, an affair that would continue through the 2004 Open at Shinnecock Hills (which Mickelson lost at the end), the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol in northern New Jersey (which he won) and the 2006 Open at Winged Foot (where Phil gave the trophy away on the closing hole). Those feelings should be even more heartfelt this time, now that his wife Amy is battling cancer.

That was also the week that fans really got on Garcia, who was dating tennis star Martina Hingis at the time. He was also going through a period when he would regrip his club about 100 times before actually taking a swing. Naturally, the crowd let him know about it. And occasionally, he let them know right back. Since his game isn't in, shall we say, top form at the moment, maybe they'll take it easy on him. Or not.

You might recall that Friday's weather conditions made the place play particularly nasty, especially in the afternoon. Fortunately for Woods, he went off in the morning, a fact of the draw that Garcia seemed only too willing to point out as being more than coincidence. Apparently, some things never change. Anyway, there were 28 rounds in the 80s. And one 92 (by Felix Casas). The one detail the U.S. Golf Association can't dictate is Mother Nature.

Bethpage has a bunch of forced carries off the tee. In '02, more than a few players were actually having problems reaching the fairway on Nos. 10 and 12. That shouldn't be the case any longer, even though they still are two of the four par 4s that will measure just over 500 yards (another checks in at 490).

Mike Davis is now the guy in charge of setting these up, and the players gave him rave reviews a year ago. Once again there are a few holes, including 18, where forward tee boxes can be utilized to try and entice some players to drive the green. Risk-reward, when used properly, is rarely a boring ingredient.

Despite all the rhetoric, keep in mind that the only thing fair about this is it's the same for everyone. *