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There's more than a trace of Nicklaus in all five Bear Trace courses

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

CLIFTON, Tenn. - Destiny seems to have brought Paul Gardner and the Bear Trace Golf Trail together.

Gardner, chief executive officer of First Resorts, a collection of resort properties near Lake Tahoe, has always held a fancy for bears. But it was only by chance that he became linked to the Bear Trace Golf Trail, the collection of five Jack Nicklaus signature designs spread throughout Tennessee.

While visiting family in the Clifton area in 2003, he stumbled upon Ross Creek Landing, the fifth and final of the trail courses to be built. Gardner, who has adopted bears as his theme for more than 30 years, fell in love with the place.

"I have bears that visit me twice a week, live ones," Gardner said of his ranch home near Lake Tahoe. "I've always been fond of bears. Seeing the Bear Trace course, I figured this was the place for me."

Hence, the birth of The Bear Inn Bed & Breakfast, a stylish, log-cabin motel parallel to the 15th fairway of the course. The addition of the Inn, coupled with what many consider to be the top public course in the state, is sure to bolster the area's economy and attract golfers in droves. Players will have to work hard to find Clifton - the course is nowhere near a major population center - but their journey will be rewarded.

Ross Creek Landing

When Ross Creek Landing opened in October 2001 it immediately became the toughest of the Bear Trace stops. Although the Bear Trace at Chickasaw in Henderson has a similar slope (134 to RCL's 135), this course plays more like a championship test with heroic carries over water and wetlands.

You're twice as likely to lose more balls than any other trail course. But with that challenge, comes the satisfaction of making a hard-earned par.

"I knew (the course) was good, but I didn't know it was this good," Jack Nicklaus told TravelGolf at its grand opening media day in September 2002.

The course seems to have everything a top-notch facility requires. The landscaping and flowers are a delicate touch, and even the clubhouse has a family feel. Head professional Kris Hertzske's dog Norman, a tiny, black-and-white mutt, hangs out by the indoor fireplace and there's also "Rocky" the outdoor cat.

The Bear Inn

If you've ever been to any of Gardner's other properties - the Inn At Heavenly Bed & Breakfast Lodge, the Fireside Lodge Bed & Breakfast and the Lake Village Resort -- you'll note their one common element. Gardner puts handcarved bears made of California Redwoods at each of his properties.

But the Inn wasn't always so inviting. Ask locals about the former motel that occupied the property and you'll hear some wild stories. The picture book inside the Inn's lobby paints the story of just how difficult the transformation was in vivid detail.

"It was a dump, but it had possibilities," Gardner recalled. "That is my forte the last 30 years, buying ugly ducklings and turning them into swans."

The two-bed suites can only be explained as rustic luxury. There are satellite TVs, refrigerators, microwaves and little touches of class, like the wooden bear carving as a toilet paper stand.

The upstairs restaurant was just taking shape as of this spring. In time, it will be rented out as a 100-person banquet hall for weddings and celebrations. But its main purpose will serve hungry golfers and guests.

Gardner's grand plans over the next two years call for an outdoor pool and spa services. There are lots for condos, which owners eventually will rent out as guest cottages. Three hot tubs are already up and running.

The course and the Inn have already combined for a whale of a golf package. For $109 on weekends from April through November, golfers can stay at the Inn, play golf, eat free breakfast (at the Inn) and lunch (in a box at the course) and return to the Inn for complementary drinks and appetizers from 5 to 7 p.m. The price drops to $89 on weekdays in high season and weekends December through March.

The verdict

There's no doubt Ross Creek Landing is the best stop on the Bear Trace Trail. The golf demands more dramatic shot-making than any of the other four layouts. Add the charming Bear Inn to the mix and you've got a true golf destination. The biggest complaint I've heard about the Bear Trace courses has been poor conditioning, but with a new management team in place within the last year, led by director of operations Ron Bargatze and marketing director Tommy Smith, improving the courses' appearances are a point of emphasis. Golfers are sure to benefit.

Off the course

To outsiders, this tiny town on the Tennessee River appears to be a mini Mayberry, the sleepy residence of TV's Andy Griffith.

Clifton was settled in the 1800s mainly for its location, on the cliffs (hence the name Clifton) of the river. Traders and farmers used the waterway to transport goods.

In the 1900s, Clifton became an even more important as a river port with the advent of the steamboat.

It took years for the town to recover from the Great Depression, but the area has experienced a rebirth since the 1990s, thanks to a bridge built over the river and several new roadways.

Besides golf, tourists enjoy boating, fishing, hunting and several annual festivals in the rural surroundings.

"With the recreation, the opportunities (for growth) are unlimited," Gardner said. "I'm ecstatic about the cooperation I've received from the local developers. They have done a remarkable job. … I'm not there to hit and run (to earn money). I'm there to be good for the community. I look forward to great future expansion in the Clifton area and on the Tennessee River."

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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