The Bear at Grand Traverse Resort – Acme, MI (Architect: Jack Nicklaus)
The Bear, named for its famed designer Jack Nicklaus, opened in 1985 and is still considered one of the toughest tests of golf in the state of Michigan. The Bear has often been ranked in the top 20 toughest courses in America over its lifetime by Golf Digest. Nicklaus’ signature design features Scottish terraced fairways, tiered greens, deep grassy roughs, moguls and mounds and deep pot bunkers. With rolling land, trees, lakes and streams, fruit orchards and a variety of wildlife, the Bear provides a mixture of different features that people will see in different places – but rarely on one course.
Located near the Cherry Capital of the World, Traverse City, Michigan, the Bear is part of the Grand Traverse Resort in the township of Acme. The resort is home to 3 courses, a spa, multiple restaurants, and a 17 story glass conference center and hotel. As a guest, the resort also provides you with access to the east side of the Grand Traverse Bay, you know…..if water, boating, and the beach are your thing.
The Bear was the 2nd course built at the resort surpassing its older sibling, the Spruce Run course, in scale, difficulty, conditioning, and fame from the day it opened. The Wolverine course by Gary Player was built in the last decade or so to complete the trio of tracks found at the resort. While not as difficult, the Wolverine course offers golfers an equal amount of panache with conditions similar to what they’ll find on the Bear .
As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of Northern Michigan golf courses, the views and surrounding natural areas on most golf courses up here are nothing but spectacular. The same can’t be said about the Bear. As the attractions to the area have grown, so has the infrastructure around it. The area around the Grand Traverse Resort (GTR) is more metro than just about anything else you’ll come across in this part of the state. There are actually convenience stores within a mile of the proshop. That sounds like an odd thing to say, but play anywhere else north of Grand Rapids and that’s usually not the case. Because of the urban sprawl (and I say that sarcastically), you don’t always feel as though you are playing away from your normal weekend club back home.
Don’t get me wrong, the views that you do have of the East Bay are just fine, but you’re more likely to notice the neighboring homes and condos as well as the low flying planes heading in and out of the Cherry Capital Airport. The unique part of this layout is that the property at some point was mostly a large cherry orchard. The first evidence you see of this is crossing the street from the 2nd green to the 3rd tee. .
What the Bear lacks in scenery it more than makes up for in golf course, routing, and overall layout. Jack was given a large canvas to paint when he took the job of building the course and he pulled no punches in providing a mix of holes that includes a links style loop through a meadow, shots that play over marshes with forced carries, moguls and terraced fairways that repel errant shots, and a separate stretch of holes through dense woodlands. To top it off, Nicklaus gave the course 18 uniquely undulated greens that are sure to mind fuck you at some point in your round.
The routing of the course takes you out and away from the clubhouse only returning you to it at the end of your 18 hole round. There are no quick nines here. The tenth tee is on the far side of the property with the halfway house you’ll need to hit for lunch and other refreshments. Most of the holes play relatively flat with no rise or fall to the green or away from the tee. That’s quite strange in this region. The lone exceptions to this are the down hill tee shot on 15 and the rise back up the hill playing the long par four 16th hole.
As I noted above, the greens can be quite tricky. They roll very true, but were all divided into sections which is a Nicklaus staple in green design. If you don’t leave your approach to the green in the proper section you’re almost certain to 3 putt. For the most part, the first read you make it the correct one and the putt will be true. They’re quick compared to most greens cut for resort play, they are smooth and hand mowed and rolled, and are truly a joy to putt on.
I’ve played enough golf at GTR to give a fair and accurate assessment of the course conditioning and overall maintenance at the Bear. In other words, this wasn’t a fly by that allowed for me to only judge them on a good or bad day. The Bear is typically in tour quality condition. As noted above, the greens a true, smooth, hand cut and likely running about 10.5 to 11 on the Stimpmeter. Because it doesn’t drain like a course with Sub-air, the course can play soft and the greens hold very well. The super here isn’t stingy with the water, that’s for sure.
The bunkers are pristine and always hand raked by the maintenance staff. None of that bullshit rake dragged by an ATV here. The sand isn’t tricky either, the ball pops out like it should and doesn’t bury or plug easily. The fairways are always in good condition and provide adequate roll on shots that should run out. You might see a few soft spots here and there in the morning, but it’s hard to complain about them with as lush as they are in such a short growing season. The rough at the Bear is quite playable and fair, but if you hit it in the heather, forget about it. You won’t find it, nor should you, that shit is way the fuck off line on most holes.
The range and putting green conditions mirror what you’ll find on the course, so that’s a plus for the course and a job well done by the super and his staff.
The peak season rack rate at the Bear is $125. There are some discounts available for resort guests or guest of members, and you can also access the course via EZLinks.com for about 25% off. The green fee at the Wolverine is similar, but you’ll find that the Spruce course is considerably less.
Because of the layout, the conditioning, and the Nicklaus name on the design GTR can get away with that asking price and still keep the demand somewhat high. They will nickel and dime you for range balls on top of the green fee, but if you’re spending over $100 what’s another $6 on a bucket to get loose before your round. Is the course worth it? Absolutely, at least one time. The course is so much fun and if you’re in the area with 5 hours to kill and love golf, get over there and open your wallet. Is it worth popping the $125 to play again the next day? Probably not. There’s just too many other options in the area to try. Still, the course gives you everything you want and more at a price that’s a little steep, but not outrageous.
Being a resort course one would expect close to five hours to play and complete your round, especially due to the tricky greens and difficulty of the course. However, pace of play is not even close to being what most would consider slow at GTR. I think the price tag keeps the hacks and casual weekend player away and that allows for a decent pace for those who paid the freight to get on the course. The staff on hand that you see and interact with were pretty solid at GTR and the Bear too. The shop staff took good care of me even though I played as a paired up single on my most recent round there and the starter was at least average in his pitch to the group on the 1st tee. The the halfway house had ample options which is nice if you’re up for something more than just a hotdog. I’d recommend the cherry chicken salad, naturally in the Cherry Capital of the World, it’s a local favorite.
The beverage cart showed up every time you felt the least bit thirsty, but the girl driving it didn’t know how to sell her goods. Chicky, if you want to sell beer and Gatorades to groups of men, take your coat off and show off what the good lord blessed you with.
The Scott Hebert Golf Academy is on the scene if you’re game needs a quick fix. The range and practice facilities are well kept and conditioned and there are multiple putting greens and short game areas to hone those parts of your game. The resort does not offer a caddie program, but the course isn’t an easy walk as some of the greens and tees are a few hundred yards apart.
Beyond golf the resort has everything you could ask for and more due to its access to the bay. Traverse City is a quick drive away with plenty to do for everyone, even wine tasting if you head out of town to the Old Mission peninsula. What? Sipping wine and eating cheese isn’t for you and your gang? Then an absolute must for any buddy golf trip is a strip club. Those are impossible to come by in most of this region. Fear not. My local sources tell me there is a secret gentlemen’s club in the Grand Traverse area.
Having friends and family around here (and being a cheap-ass) means I’ve never had the pleasure of staying on the grounds of the resort, but it looks pretty nice. Take a look for yourself above. With fine dining, wine bars, a candy shop for kids, a spa, and even a nearby casino and the rest of the Traverse City area at your finger tips you can’t beat the amenities offered by this resort.
As I told you in the background above, the Bear has been renowned for its difficulty since the day it opened. Missed shots are severely punished and playing it will require several long forced carries that are hard for the average player to pull off. Throw in the undulating greens and the speed they roll and this just isn’t a place for a weekend hack to enjoy him or herself. I would never recommend the course to a player that can’t carry their tee shots 200 yards on average.
Warnings aside, the Bear is a great test for low handicapers and pros that have the skill to manage the course. The Michigan PGA played the Michigan Open here for years for good reason. If you click on the card below you’ll notice that it has a rating over 76 and slope near 150. Those numbers don’t lie.
Of the Nicklaus courses I’ve played, the Bear is my favorite. Perhaps I just have fond memories of it from playing tournaments there in my youth. It can be a little unfair at times, but it also will reward good shots and smart decisions.
Per usual, this rating isn’t based on a 5 being “way too fucking hard”. I’m rating a course a 5 when I’d say it’s playable and enjoyable, but not easy, for players of all levels. The Bear is fucking tough, and it’s really hard on the hacks and novices, so the rating I’m giving it in this category is lower than you’d think.
The Bear is a must play if you’re a golf nut in the Traverse City area, but the price tag will shy you away if you’re not ready to drop $100 and lose a dozen balls as a 20 handicap. If you’re staying at the resort, play the Bear and the Wolverine with your buddies, and play the Spruce with your wife.
Score: 3.83 (out of 5)