Approximately 10.2 million people visit Tennessee’s Great Smokey Mountain national park every year, making it the country’s most-visited park of its kind. Now add in another 30 million people who annually visit the state’s other 54 parks.
Those numbers should give you a good slope rating for the visual appeal of natural surroundings in the Volunteer state.
At this point, the amount of golfers traveling here pale in comparison. But it might not be that way for long, thanks to The Bear Trace.
This collection of courses, which includes four layouts within Tennessee state park grounds and a fifth in the middle southern portion of the state amidst a rural setting, is slowly but surely growing in stature.
The Bear Trace moniker refers to the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, whose stated intention as designer of these courses is to provide the average golfer access to championship golf courses at affordable rates. Mission accomplished.
The Bear Trace is also a reminder of the historic Natchez Trace, a well-traveled thoroughfare running north to south across Tennessee, that played an instrumental role in the growth of the South in the late 1700s, and now is a scenic highway.
Another reference to Tennessee’s past is the split-log clubhouses you’ll see at each of the courses. These structures may be an homage to the past in style, but the resources are contemporary, with food services, equipment, apparel, and other requirements for a good round of golf fully satisfied.
With over 190 golf courses as part of his design, co-design, and re-design portfolio, Nicklaus has made as significant a mark in this area of the game as he did as a competitor while winning twenty majors and a total of 70 PGA Tour events.
The sun never sets on the Nicklaus design empire, because he has done work across North America, Hawaii, Guam, Japan, China, India, South Africa, and all across Europe.
GOLF Magazine’s “Top 100 You Can Play” list includes fifteen Nicklaus course designs. Having enjoyed competition so much, Nicklaus has created excellent venues for events, with over 300 professional tournaments worldwide having been staged at courses designed by him, including the Ryder Cup, PGA Championship, U.S. Amateur Championship, and the World Cup.
Most of these excellent layouts have been out of the reach of the average golfer because they are part of private clubs.
But with The Bear Trace, Nicklaus has succeeded in providing courses that the average golfer can play while enjoying woodland settings, good course conditioning, and playing challenge equal to the best private and resort courses. All at an affordable price, even for those who have not won 70 PGA Tour events.
Recognition for the level of Nicklaus’ accomplishment with The Bear Trace has come quickly: the Cumberland Mountain, Tims Ford, and Chickasaw courses were named to GOLF Magazine’s “Top 10 You Can Play” in 1999, 2000, and 2001 respectively, while The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay received an Honorable Mention in 2000.
While it’s true that you will put plenty of miles on the car to visit all the Bear Trace courses due to their locations across the state, each site is different and worthy of repeated visits. Four of the courses are no more than a thirty minute drive from an interstate highway, proving that being secluded does not necessarily mean being remote.
Finding them is easy: large, brown state park signs on major roadways point out your proximity to the parks, and there are more signs for each individual course. And all of the courses have accommodations nearby.
The state parks offer a wide range of other activities to complement the golf, and the stops in between the courses can be interesting.
You can listen to blues music on Beale Street in Memphis, check out the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga (the world’s largest to feature a freshwater fish aquarium), or venture to Dolly Parton’s very own Dollywood near Knoxville.
In the state capital of Nashville, there is a new $37 million Country Music Hall of Fame (see sidebar) and Gruhn’s Guitars, which has one of the best offerings of vintage guitars anywhere in the world. You may get interested in a nice Gibson L5 for $6,000. In fact centrally-located Nashville is a great starting point for you to begin a journey along the Bear Trace.
Head east out of Nashville along I-40 until you come to Crossville, in the heart of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau.
The Bear Trace at Cumberland Mountain is a 6,900-yard layout that capitalizes on elevation changes and natural features, such as flowing brooks and clustered, mature pines.
The course was the first Bear Trace when it opened in May of 1998. The layout begins with three good par four holes, each measuring just over 400 yards. The fourth hole, a 494-yard par five that features a downhill tee shot, provides something of a breather, and the green can be reachable in two shots if your drive gets a good roll.
The signature seventh hole, a 393-yard par four, incorporates another of the region’s natural resources, layered flagstone, along the front of the green.
The lateral green is protected by front and back bunkers, so a precise approach shot is a must. The eighth is a short par three, but a ravine provides trouble in front of the green. There is room to bail out to the right, and you may even get a favorable bounce left and watch your ball roll back onto the green.
The opening holes of the back nine bring more elevation changes into play.
At 449 yards, the par-four 10th hole only rates as the third handicap hole, which provides a clue as to what is to come. Some consider the 12th hole driveable — if you can hit your tee shot 325 yards.
Otherwise, you may look forward to hitting an iron off the tee to the narrow fairway. The 13th requires some shotmaking ingenuity and is simply a great par four.
At 466 yards from the tips, the hole demands a strong drive, but you’ll get some extra distance thanks to yet another downhill fairway. The approach shot is difficult, with the green tucked across a creek toward the right. Because it is possible to have a downhill lie for the second shot, there is also the daunting prospect of pulling the ball into that water hazard.
The drive at the 515-yard 15th is uphill, but I watched former University of San Francisco golfer Gary Fisketjon reach the green in two by hitting driver off the fairway for his second shot, and then sink a 15-foot putt for eagle.
In fact, being able to hit driver off the fairways provides a sense of the quality of the conditioning of The Bear Trace courses.
The 16th is another tournament-worthy hole, 212 yards from the back tees and all carry across a pond. With a bunker fronting the green, the hole appears to be a fond homage by Mr. Nicklaus to the 12th at Augusta National. Two 400 yard-plus par fours end the round, with the number-one handicap hole being the 450-yard, uphill 18th.
The second course in the Bear Trace fivesome to open (in May 1999), Harrison Bay is located approximately 20 minutes north of downtown Chattanooga, with several of the holes playing along Chickamauga Lake. In fact, water is a factor on twelve of the holes.
While the course does not have the elevation changes of Cumberland Mountain, the setting has strong visual appeal thanks to the water features. The landing areas on all of the driving holes are generous, with most of the greens open in front, bringing the bump-and-run shot into play, even if you’re hitting a 5- wood to get it to the green.
Right out of the gate this course demands length off the tee, with the opening trio of holes consisting of a 420-yard par four, a 579-yard par five, and another par four measuring 428 yards. Still to come on the front nine are three more par fours of over 400 yards, with the ninth hole rated as the most challenging.
The back nine starts off without too many difficulties to blow up a scorecard, but the 14th hole could change that. This par three is all carry over a portion of the lake. At 176 yards from the back tees, the hole has plenty of bailout area to the right, but the length will induce any golfer to shoot straight for the pin.
The three finishing holes are a 420-yard par four, a 534-yard par five, and a 434-yard par four dogleg left. Your drive on the latter must reach the top of a hill at mid-point down the fairway for any hope of reaching the green in two. The course plays to 7,140 yards from the back tees.
Northwest of Chattanooga by an hour’s drive, or south from Nashville about the same distance, the Bear Trace at Tims Ford is situated on a peninsula surrounded by Tims Ford Lake.
This 6,764-yard layout, which opened in July 1999, may be the most playable of the Bear Trace courses for higher handicap golfers, with few forced carries to complicate scoring. Even errant shots usually have broad rough areas allowing an angle back toward the green, or at least the fairway. The former use of the land as pasture is apparent, but the site also has many stands of massive oak trees.
The opening hole is straightforward, with a right side fairway bunker being the only distraction, but bunkers border each side of the green. The fourth hole, at 453 yards from the tips, is a strong par four, followed two holes later by a 202-yard par three. The front nine has three par threes, with the ninth hole being the last of them, a 170-yard carry over a pond.
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The backside has an early test at the 444-yard, par-four 11th hole, but there is no trouble on the hole and the green is open in front.
The three finishing holes are a 549-yard par five dotted with fairway bunkers, but sufficiently open to allow creative routes to the green; a 175-yard par three guarded in front by a bunker; and then the long, 439-yard 18th. Tims Ford Lake is visible along the right side of the fairway, but it doesn’t come into play.
From Nashville try the especially scenic route to the Bear Trace at Chickasaw and Ross Creek sites via the Natchez Trace south to Highway 64, then head west toward the courses.
The Chickasaw course, which will be 18 months old this November, is approximately thirty-five minutes south of Jackson and one hour northeast of Memphis. The clubhouse sits on a rise overlooking the first and tenth tee boxes, with the 18th green situated below the hill.
The setting for this course definitely contributes to its challenge. There’s an array of wetlands and marshes that frequently come into play, along with the occasional snake habitat not to be traversed. Flowing water from Piney Creek and several small tributaries meanders throughout the course, traversing seven of the holes on the back nine. Several holes feature split fairways with landing areas adjacent to a stream, natural marshland or both hazards.
This 7,118-yard layout begins with an epic 571-yard par five that features a broad lake along the left and marshland along the right for the drive. Your second shot must carry a stream. The back tee box for the fifth hole is on a small peninsula extending out in a pond, with 199 yards downhill to the green of this par three.
The seventh requires an accurate tee shot to one of those split fairways, leaving you with two options. A marshland on the right requires a good carry, with a creek flowing out of it that crosses the fairway. Going left on this split fairway is the more reachable option, but a fade or slice may find the creek in this direction. More marshland then appears along the left side of the fairway all the way to the green. Despite having only a single bunker, this uphill, 423-yard par four is a good test.
The ninth has more marshland to carry, this time on the second shot of this dogleg left, 561-yard, par five. The marshland intrudes across the fairway, but the landing area for second shots is bordered on the right by two fairway bunkers. Fortunately the fairway slopes right to left. There are two more large bunkers to the left front of the green.
The real test begins on the back nine. A stream crossing the fairway is the danger on the tenth hole, with longer hitters needing to go with three wood on this 394-yard, par four.
The 12th is a downhill par three of 225 yards, which plays shorter than its length because of a 90-foot drop in elevation. Even if it plays thirty yards shorter than it says on the scorecard, it will still take plenty of club to reach the green. After the fairly straightforward par-five 13th, the two strongest par fours on the course come next.
A tee box perched high on this hole makes the 462-yard distance seem less daunting, but stay on the left side of the fairway to have the best angle to the green. A stream crosses the fairway a hundred yards out to add to the interest.
Next is the 428-yard 15th hole that has marshland along the left side of the fairway and a narrow landing area on the drive, with an uphill approach shot to the green.
The only non-downhill par three on the course is the 17th, a flat 218-yard hole with marshland and a lake extending along the right from tee to green. While some bailout is available along the left front and side of the green, this may be the most visually intimidating, yet appealing, hole on the course. The 18th is a dogleg left par four of 428 yards, with an uphill approach shot and four bunkers surrounding the green.
“One of the design elements we worked on at Chickasaw were the contours around the greens,” said John Gardner, the Nicklaus Design associate who has worked on the two Bear Trace courses opened most recently, Chickasaw and Ross Creek.
“The ninth is a par five reachable in two for more than the usual number of golfers because of the contouring to the right front and side of the green, which can feed the ball onto the green. With the site at Chickasaw we evaluated a lot of different routing plans to preserve the environment, yet still create challenging golf holes for every level of player.”
The recently opened Ross Creek Landing is routed through gently rolling countryside outside Clifton, Tennessee, very near the Tennessee River. The course measures more than 7,200 yards from the back tees. During the construction and design phase, adjustments were made to shorten two of the par fives so that the golfer may have the opportunity to reach the green in two shots.
Nicklaus also designed the fourth hole into a driveable par four that forces you to choose between laying up safely or attempt to reach the green in two.
“The course offers a variety of wooded and meadow golf holes,” said Gardner. “Oak, hickory, hackberry, cedar and even some cypress line the fairways. Marshes and ponds have been created to benefit the environment and provide strategy on some of the golf holes. A good example of this is number two, where two large cypress trees on either side of the fairway affect the second shot.”
“During the construction of the course, special efforts were made to preserve stream corridors and existing woods and meadows,” added Gardner. “New grading for the golf course was carefully tied into these existing features so that it appears that the course has always been here. From the 12th through 16th holes, hardly any land was moved at all — it was a perfect terrain for a golf course.”
The story of how The Bear Trace was created involves a number of participants, all with the same mission: build championship courses for the average golfer. Golf Services, which has evolved to become BlackHorse Golf Management of Houston, was chosen in 1994 to create a plan for the system of golf courses envisioned by the state of Tennessee.
The program was conceived during Ned McWherter’s term as governor, and the state of Tennessee dedicated $20 million to develop golf courses at state park locations. What Golf Services brought to the equation was expertise in course development and management. Jim Hardy, chairman of BlackHorse Golf Management, and the founder of Golf Services, has more than 30 years of experience in the golf industry as a course designer, developer and operator.
Hardy’s professional background in golf goes far beyond beyond course architecture. While attending Oklahoma State University he was a NCAA All-American Golf Team selection in 1966. He also played on both the PGA Tour and the Senior PGA Tour and working as a television analyst for golf broadcasts, serving with NBC, ESPN, CBN, and MIZLOU networks.
“Tennessee has always had a reputation for being one of the most scenic and hospitable states in America,” said Hardy. “For the initial stage of The Bear Trace, Tennessee brought to the equation several key elements: one, land suitable for golf courses, which was identified at four state parks across the state; two, financing for the project at reasonable rates; and three, their participation reduced the initial expenses to develop the courses and thus has allowed the courses to charge reasonable rates going forward.”
It’s expected that new sites for additional Bear Trace courses near Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville will be announced by the end of 2001.
For now, special packages and assistance with travel logistics for the existing Bear Trace courses can be obtained by calling 1-866-770-2327, or visiting www.beartrace.com.
John Companiotte is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.