SUWANEE, Ga. - If it's true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, is self-replication the severest type of self-idolatry?
If so, the notion of a golf course comprised of 18 replica holes of a single architect's work might seem the ultimate expression of hubris. But when the architect in question is Jack Nicklaus it isn't so much a matter of self-interest but good business - Nicklaus' name on any golf course development usually means big bucks for all involved and virtually assures the public will be interested.
There is certainly no shortage of interest in Bear's Best Atlanta, a deluxe 18-hole layout roughly 40 minutes northeast of downtown. At both Bear's Best Las Vegas and its sister course in Atlanta, opened September 2002, the designs are comprised of holes taken from original international Nicklaus designs that mirror the given topography of the site. Where the desert of Las Vegas was best suited for Nicklaus' western courses, the hilly and forested Atlanta property features holes from as far away as Great Britain and Ireland.
If anyone has earned the right to be canonized in a golf course it's Nicklaus, and at least in the case of the Bear's Best designs he got to do the tribute himself. But lionization was not the original intent.
Owner Club Corp's initial concept, hatched in the booming mid-1990s, was to cater to large corporate outings by building upscale public courses designed to accommodate 144 players at a time in both morning and afternoon flights. As the economy, and subsequently high-rolling corporate entertainment, softened the goal shifted toward simply attracting a wide variety of golfers by highlighting examples of Nicklaus' work (Nicklaus isa partner in the Bear's Best ventures), although corporate accommodation is still a specialty.
Construction on the Atlanta course started in 1998 with a bang, literally. Roughly 4 million cubic yards of rock had to be detonated and hauled away from certain areas before any serious ground work began. Then came the difficult process of finding holes from the Nicklaus ouvre that fit the wild terrain. With Team Nicklaus' design stamp on nearly 250 courses worldwide they had approximately 4,500 potential holes.
Using computer blueprints of nearly every Nicklaus course ever built matched against topography maps, the architects were able to eliminate thousands of holes that didn't fit the terrain and cull a more workable number that could be tested in the field. Equally helpful as the computer, however, was Nicklaus' own mind.
"With Jack, he did so much of it off pure memory recall," says Bear's BestOperation Manager Jeff Whitt. "He could look at the site and immediatelysay a hole from Cornwall or Gleneagles would be perfect here. Then with theCAD blueprints they could assure that the hole would fit to the correctscale. He made sure that if they were going to do it they were going to doit perfect, 100-percent to the inch compared to the original design."
The layout - several years and an additional 3 million cubic yards of earth moved in the making -- is comprised of holes from notable courses such as Gleneagles, Mount Juliet, Muirfield Village, Old Works, PGA "Championship" Course, TPC of Michigan, and Sherwood Country Club. Beginning at number one, an elegant and simple downhill par-4 from St. Mellion in England, and continuing through number five, the routing rides the terrain out to a lower sector of the property where the next six holes run out and back over the flatlands along the Chattahoochee River. Holes 12 through 18 wander through the hills back toward the clubhouse, culminating in a monstrous par-4, the 18th at Castle Pines in Denver.
One remarkable aspect of Bear's Best Atlanta is that in spite of its necessarily disparate parts the course plays amazingly complete, gracefully even. While there are different bunker styles and varying green sizes and shapes from green to tee there's nary a flinch of reaction - it's just one solid hole after another. Against the notoriously rugged North Atlanta countryside the routing remains gentle and overall the course is rather forgiving; even from the championship tees Bear's Best plays quite shorter than its 6,857 yards.
Already one of the top draws in the market, Bear's Best Atlanta is successful not really because it's a compendium of far-flung Nicklaus'designs but rather because at the core it's scenic and exciting golf with lavish maintenance. It doesn't truly matter that it's a replica course-after all, how many players have witnessed first hand Elk Ridge Club, Governors Club, The Club at Nevillewood, The Golf Club of Purchase, or Spring Creek Ranch? That then begs the question, is it really a replica course if no one knows what's being replicated?
Still, this is a design of replica holes, and so in that respect it's critique-proof. That's the neat trick with replica courses: they're innocent of intrinsic criticism since they're simply otherworldly twins of some faraway original and can only succeed or fail in their ability to duplicate. In that sense they're mere doppelgangers, or in the face of scrutiny, Corsican Brothers - don't like the green at the par-4 15th at Bear's Best? Fine, but it's really the first hole at Sherwood Country Club that's taking the heat.
So the golf is great, but why not just let Nicklaus lay out a course with similar holes that aren't replicas? Is the Bear's Best brand (there are plans to open several more throughout the country) golf's ultimate embodiment of creativity, capitalism, and conceit?
"In our commodified industry, where the tendency is for everybody to do the same thing, it's hard to differentiate properties." Whitt says. "You want to stand out, and to create a unique brand we had to be different." It's working, too. With a progressive caddie program that keeps foursomes moving lockstep at four-hour rounds and full tee-sheets since opening, Bear's Best Atlanta seems to be just what the market wanted.
"Jack said when he was at The Masters (in April) he had more people commenting and complimenting him on the Bear's Best courses than any he's ever designed," Whitt says.
"It's a novel experience (playing Bear's Best) because you're getting a taste of these courses you might otherwise never get to play and feel the flair of those holes, and you're playing them in the context of when and where they were designed. Some of the original holes are almost 30 years old. It's kind of like a history of Jack's architecture."
Despite laying claim to one the highest green fees in the Atlanta metro area, Bear's Best seems to be attracting just about everyone. Nicklaus aficionados, corporate entertainers, and players seeking one of the most complete golf experiences in the area will want to visit Bear's Best.
$75 Monday-Thursday, $95 Friday-Sunday. Rates include caddie for the group,tips not included (recommended tip is $20 per bag and up, depending on service).
Opened: September 2002
Architect: Jack Nicklaus
June 5, 2003