Grand Traverse: The Bear is a Real Test
Acme, MI - It is a common myth that bears are docile and even cuddly: Teddy Bears, Gentle Ben, Yogi Bear, children's books filled with fluffy, endearingly gentle creatures whose only desire is to forage for blueberries and maybe pilfer a picnic basket. Savvy campers and hikers, however, know that nothing could be further from the truth.
Similarly, golfers who have played the Jack Nicklaus signature golf course, The Bear at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa know that at any minute, it can eviscerate a good round with one swipe of its paw.
Grand Traverse Resort and Spa boasts three fabulous courses (The Bear, The Wolverine, and Spruce Run), but by far the most challenging is Nicklaus's Bear. In fact, with a slope of 146 from the blues, 144 from the whites, and 137 from the reds, the course ranks as one of the most difficult in the Midwest, much less in Michigan.
Part of the difficulty of the course lies in its varied terrain: The feeling overall is linksy, with Scottish-like terraced fairways, tiered greens, fescue rough, moguls, mounds, and deep pot bunkers where the sun may never shine. Offsetting this links style, however, are distinct hallmarks of Northern Michigan: apple and cherry orchards, rolling hills, hardwood groves, lakes, and streams. No two holes are similar, and shot-making is at a premium.
The features of the newer Wolverine course (see accompanying review) that make it so playable are absent on this tougher course. From the tees on The Bear, you are often unable to see the dozens of hidden fairway bunkers. The terraced fairways drop off heartlessly into the thick rough. The greens are severely contoured, and many (Nos. 5, 8, 9, 12, 13, 15, and 18) are protected by water that force approach shots to carry the green, making "target golf" the mantra of everyone who plays here.
This is not to say that high handicappers should not play The Bear. The course can be set up for players of nearly every level. In fact, at only 6,176 yards from the whites and 5,281 from the reds, distance is really only an issue for the macho Grizzly Adams types who insist on playing the blues (7,065 yards). And, to be honest, there are several holes that are very receptive to par or better scores by even the likes of accountants, florists, and travel writers. But....
Just as with real bears, it is precisely when you start thinking that you're safe and in control when you are in the most danger. While you are happily swinging away on the par 3s, all of which rate handicaps of 14 or higher and offer some birdie opportunities, the par 4s and 5s are lying in wait, licking their chops.
Only two of the par 4s measure less than 400 yards from the tips, and none of the par 5s are shorter than 500 yards. Consider also the fact that eight of the holes on the back side have water in play, and you begin to feel more and more like bear food.
Although the picturesque and long 450-yard par 4 3rd hole is listed as the number one handicap hole on the scorecard, it is the shorter and even more visually striking 5th that ranks as the toughest on the course. The 15th fairway is bisected by a stream running diagonally through it. The landing area on the far side of the stream is guarded by a bunker on the right side, and the water itself runs along the left side.
The stream eventually empties into the lake that guards the front and right side of the triple-tiered green. Take an extra club here to clear the water with your second, and be grateful for a bogey because it feels like a par.
The back nine play even tougher than the front, if that is possible. It is ironically fitting that the course is located in a town called Acme, because you may well feel like Wile E. Coyote when your score blows up in your face. It pays to spend the $6 on a yardage book, as the creeks that come into play on Nos. 10 through 14 are tough to measure from the tees and fairways.
When you reach Nos. 15 and 16, you should take a moment to call a temporary truce in your battle with The Bear and admire the stunning beauty of the course itself and the surrounding landscape that frames the design. The fairway of the 543-yard, par-5 15th hooks to the right around a sparkling pond, leaving no option from any spot in the fairway other than shooting over the water. The lay-up area and the multi-leveled green are all protected by bunkers (see the photo on the scorecard).
The 451-yard par-4 16th, which is quite possibly the most difficult hole on the course from the championship tee, runs back away from the pond (and the golf ball that you most likely lost there). It is a dogleg left with trees and distinctive mounding running up both sides of the fairway to the green.
The green itself is shaped like a clover-leaf and protected front left by the deepest, darkest, damnedest bunker on the course. You could lose all of your clubs, your cart, and, if you're playing for money, your shirt, house, and self-respect in this bottomless pit. In other words, miss right if you are going to miss.
Finally, the 467-yard par-4 18th has got to be one of the prettiest finishing holes in Michigan. This beast presents you with a serious choice off of the tee: The fairway splits around a large maple tree and trough of rough. To land on the narrower right finger of the fairway, you'll need a straight shot skirting over 175 yards of wetlands. Anything more than 255 yards off the tee in this direction will land you in the lake that guards the green.
If you go left instead, you have more room side to side, but the fairway narrows at about 260 yards off the tee here, too. No matter which route you take, you will be faced with a daunting, terrifying approach over the lake to the wide, rather shallow green. Of course, you can choose to take an extra shot and play around the lake on the narrow ribbon of fairway to the left, but this is definitely not what Grizzly Adams, or The Golden Bear himself, would do.
The Bear hosts the Michigan Open each year, and proves a real test for even the best golfers in the state. Below-average golfers may feel overwhelmed here, but most of the course is negotiable for all but the rank beginner. It is even worth playing just for the experience: Not many courses can boast the natural splendor and the great architecture of The Bear. It is a pleasure just to amble around the hand-watered, meticulously kept greens in the footsteps of Jack, even if your score does grow to the size of a Kodiak.
Take heed, though: Do not expect to play gently with this wild, unpredictable course. On the set of the TV show "Gentle Ben," several men stood around with shotguns ready to take down the title character if he went berserk. You will need every gun in your golf bag to safely handle this Bear, too.
October 17, 2001