I had read good things about Grand Bear, but the website is one of those website’s that doesn’t do a course justice. In fact, I think there only is a page about the course on the Grand Biloxi Casino Hotel site so I didn’t give it too much attention besides that it is well ranked among public courses in Mississippi. In an unrelated bit of planning I ended up staying at the Grand Casino and there I saw heavy advertising for the Jack Nicklaus designed course. I called over and was told it would be open that afternoon.
The course is located north of I-10 in between Gulfport and Biloxi so it is in a pretty central spot for the area and for someone traveling through. The neat thing about getting there is that the only road to and from the course runs through the southern part of De Soto National Forest. The road snakes through the forest which is filled with scenic pine trees. There were maybe 10 cars in the parking lot when I got there so I was surprised when the proshop told me that they do not normally allow someone to walk on. I could have pleaded my case, but before having to do so the proshop took my money and set me up with a cart. Plus, they let me out a half hour early for the twilight rate of $49 so it worked out well.
Before I could get to the 1st tee I realized that this is a premier course in the area and that I would be in for a treat. The course is given 4.5 out of 5 stars by Golf Digest and the scorecard lists seven various awards that the course has been given in recent years. I drove by the putting green on my way to the 1st hole and it had a shine that indicated perfection. I decided to play the Golden Bear Tees which play 73.0/139/6733 and got started playing the nicest course that I have played in over a year. I have played a handful of other Jack Nicklaus designs and enjoyed many of them. A staple about his courses that I like is that they are forgiving off the tee. Sometimes I think he gets a bit carried away with the mounding in the greens, but he has designed some of my all time favorite courses including Reflection Bay at Lake Las Vegas and Old Works. Diablo Grande Legends and The Lost Gold Course at Superstition Mountain are on the list of other quality Nicklaus courses that I’ve played.
All the holes at Grand Bear play through the pine trees and much of the area just off of the holes is cleared out so at first glance it doesn’t seem that a championship layout is likely. I think an aerial shot of the holes would suggest a repetitive and somewhat uninteresting course to play. However, that is not the case. The course is filled with nuances which make every hole different and fun to play. That, combined with the sights and smells of the natural pine trees, created a course which gets ranked as one of my all time favorites. For the most part the course is open so a wayward shot can still be played and allows for an outside chance at a par. I love not having to search for my ball on every hole where I miss it just off the rough line. It makes for an enjoyable round and at least allows me to pitch it back into play. I am a fan of hitting perfect shots for a career round, not having to hit perfect shots to avoid penalties and that is exactly what Nicklaus has done here. In addition, there are many slopes that seemed to feed the ball back to the fairway and onto an edge of a green. The course was firm when I played so I had to be aware of a big bounce on the greens and a shot chasing through the fairway. In order to get the ball close to the hole a shot had to land in the correct spot with the correct spin and if either was missing then it wouldn’t end up inside 10 feet. I missed a couple approaches on the short side and could only get it to 15 or 20 feet at best on my chip or bunker shot. This is the type of course where par on some of the holes is a great score and a score that I was proud about. The course has all sorts of challenges including doglegs, slopes in the fairways, chipping areas, bunkers, angles, and a good mix of distances. Precision is needed for a great score but I think a good score could be had if someone brings an average game.
The course doesn’t have any shortage of entertaining holes. The 1st is 392 yard par 4 where someone can play right of the fairway bunker or carry it for a short iron into the green. The 3rd is a 192 yard par 3 where I had to factor in the firm conditions and land it short of the green to chase it back to the flag. The 4th is a short par 4 where position is key off the tee and the 6th is one of the more interesting holes on the course. The tee short is straightforward but the approach shot gets all of the attention. The green complex is not heavily bunkered but there is a deep collection area left of the green (maybe 15 feet below the green level) where the ball will feed if someone misses the green left. Missing right leaves a tricky downhill chip which could run off into the chipping area if the shot has any pace to it. The 7th has a deep bunker short of the green so it would help to be able to hit a cut on that hole. The 8th has bunkers up the right side of the fairway so it opens up any number of lines off the tee. The 10th and 11th are great back to back holes and offer a chance for a couple birdies. The 10th is a 368 yard par 4 that plays shorter than that as it doglegs hard right. The fairway slopes with the hole from left to right and my 3 iron ended up with 30 or 40 yards of roll as it hit the perfect spot in the fairway. The approach played to a flag in the back section of the green which is on a lower tier. The 11th is a 489 yard par 5 with a fairway easy tee shot for a short par 5. I had only 170 yards to the front of the green and a straight shot is important if going for it in two no matter the distance into the green. The green is very narrow and has bunkers left and right so the 2nd shot has to be perfect if it is going to get close. I pulled my approach into the bunker and had no chance to keep it on the green even though I was pin high. The course gets a little more narrow from the 13th to the 18th and I got more conscious of trying to avoid a wild shot. The 14th, 185 yard par 3 with trouble left, is one of the signature holes. There is room to miss right, but it will leave a tough chip to get close. Any shot left will kick into the natural hazard. The 17th is a 414 yard par 4 with a tee shot that plays at an angle across a creek bed. I missed right and had a long 2nd shot into the green, but there is plenty of room right and it turned out to be a fair hole even with the trouble. The 18th is a 425 yard par 4 that plays back up a hill but it still allows someone to make a par and go home feeling good.
The condition of the course was immaculate and the only spots that weren’t perfect were the tees which were starting to be overseeded. The greens were flawless and very quick. The bunkers had beautiful looking white sand which was fluffy to play from. I never play well from fluffy sand because I think I am scared to take a big swing from a greenside bunker but my poor play from the bunkers had nothing to do with their condition. The ball sat down a bit in the rough, but I could get pretty much any club on it cleanly. I’ve had the pleasure to play a bunch of different golf courses over the years and this ranks up there in my top 15 or 20 courses that I’ve played.
I do not have an official way to rank courses, but there are certain things like scenery, conditioning, playability, value, and variety of holes that affect my opinion. My personal favorite right now is Old Works as the scenery was great, it was unique with the black sand bunkers, and it was only around $50 during peak season. Right behind Old Works on my list is Sand Hollow which has the most dramatic scenery of any course that I’ve ever played. The red rock in that area is like nowhere else, holes hang off of cliffs, and it was still fairly open to play. I am sucker for pine trees and Grand Bear is smack dab in the middle of a pine forest so the sights and smells are unique, the value was great, and the course offered challenging shots that an amateur could pull off. I am sure that someone could get the same quality experience from nearby Fallen Oak or The Preserve, but Grand Bear didn’t cost me $100 or more. This goes on my list as one that cannot be missed.