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Tennessee answers Alabama's RTJ Trail with Bear Trace courses

By Chris Dortch, Contributor

CLIFTON, Tenn. - In September 2002, on the grand opening day of the fifth Jack Nicklaus-designed Bear Trace course in Tennessee, the big guy himself flew in for the proceedings.

Of course Nicklaus brought his clubs, all the better to test out first-hand his handiwork at the course, called Ross Creek Landing. Midway through a round he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying, Nicklaus made a comment that elicited knowing nods of the head from those who heard it.

"I knew [Ross Creek Landing] was good," Nicklaus said. "But I didn't know it was this good."

It didn't take long for Nicklaus' opinion to be shared by the golfing press. Less than a year after the course opened, it was chosen as the best public course in Tennessee by Golf Week magazine. Golf Magazine placed RCL on its list of Top 10 Places You Can Play for 2002.

Yes, Ross Creek Landing is good, great even. But is it the jewel of the Bear Trace? That's hard to say. Even Ron Bargatze, vice president of operations for the Bear Trace courses, wouldn't make that claim.

"It's sort of like trying to pick a favorite from among your children," Bargatze said. "You just can't do it. All the Bear Trace courses are excellent in their own way. I have fun playing them all. It's impossible to rate them or rank them."

Since Ross Creek Landing opened, Tennessee golfers, and a growing number of out-of-state players, have lined up to test the give Bear Trace courses, four of which are built alongside state parks, as was the original intent of the project. All are picturesque, playable and challenging, which was the task Nicklaus' design firm faced when it was hired in 1994 to give Tennessee an answer to Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Trail.

Nicklaus, with nearly 200 courses to his credit, was drawn to the project because of his desire to build courses that the average golfer could play. The old criticism that Nicklaus builds courses according to his particular game and shot pattern is not valid at the Bear Trace.

"That's the way I used to design, but I got a lot of criticism for that," Nicklaus said at the Ross Creek Landing grand opening. "Some of the golf courses, when guys walk out, they say that Nicklaus has been here because it plays left to right. I don't think I'm stupid, but I certainly listen to that, to the criticism, and figure out how to deal with that and try to mix up the golf course and balance it out. Left to right, right to left. I try to work with it to get a balanced golf course that's balanced in direction, balanced in doglegs, balanced in water, and I just try to get it balanced in all aspects."

Judging by the accolades each course along the Bear Trace (a name created by combining Nicklaus' nickname with the Natchez Trace wilderness road that originated in the Tennessee in the 1700s), Nicklaus and his design team achieved the balance he sought.

Not so well thought out, it seems, was the location of the five courses. Only one, the Bear Trace at Harrison Bay near Chattanooga, is built within an easy drive of a major city or close to an interstate highway. Thus far, Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville, the state's largest cities, are without a Bear Trace course.

Indeed, traveling to some of the five courses might make golfers wonder whether the old Natchez Trace is still in business. We're talking remote here. To play the Bear Trace, you have to traverse the lengthy Volunteer State and its many back roads, but given its scenic beauty, that isn't a bad thing. More than 40 million visitors a year seek out Tennessee's state parks, a market the project's originators clearly wanted to tap. Obviously there's much to see in Tennessee.

But what of the urban market? Some experts believe that any of the current Bear Trace courses could set up shop near Memphis, Nashville or Knoxville and churn out 40,000 rounds per year.

"We will not do any more courses unless they are near population centers and easily accessible from the interstate," Bargatze said. "Any expansion would include increasing the rural and urban balance. "We are interested in that and working on that as we speak. We're in the early stages."

For now, though, Bargatze, the state of Tennessee and RedStone Golf, which runs the five courses and leases the state park property, are happy with the array of courses that make up the Bear Trace. Rounds per playable days (i.e., when it doesn't rain) are up across the board, except at Harrison Bay, where the course was shut down for two months to install new putting surfaces.

Bargatze's charge when he took over as the project's director of operations was to institute a membership plan (prices are extremely reasonable) and making conditions optimum at all the courses. Harrison Bay, for example, has undergone several cosmetic and functional changes. Each of the courses have a country club look and feel, all for $35- to $55, including cart.

Country club conditions and playability at working man's prices? That's what the Bear Trace is all about. Here's a quick look at each of the five courses:

The Bear Trace at Cumberland Mountain (Crossville, Tenn.)

This course differs from the other Bear Trace layouts because of its mountainous terrain. That makes for numerous elevation changes and some stern tests on the more heavily contoured greens.

The 6,900-yard course was the first Bear Trace opened, in May, 1998. It takes its place alongside 11 other courses in the Crossville area, but holds its own as one of the more challenging.

Cumberland Mountain's signature hole is the 393-yard par-4 seventh that features layered flagstone in front of the green and a waterfall to the right. Don't miss the green short.

The 10th tee offers an expansive view of the golf course; it's the highest point on the property. The 10th is a 449-yard par-4 that begins a challenging stretch of holes. No. 11 is a reachable par-5, No. 12 a driveable par-4 (at least for big hitters) and No. 13 a brute of a par-4 at 466 yards from the tips.

The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay (Harrison, Tenn.)

When the folks at Redstone Golf first explored the land that would become the second Bear Trace course, they stumbled across an old cemetery. The first gravestone they came to had the name "Hogan" on it. Suffice to say they knew they were in the right place.

Golfers in Chattanooga have fallen in love with the Bear Trace, despite some ongoing problems with some of the greens that have been corrected by a switch to Champions Bermuda. Some believe the course, which offers views of Harrison Bay on 12 holes, could be the second most beautiful in the surrounding area, only to The Honors Course.

Harrison Bay offers plenty of challenges, but like all the Bear Trace courses, golfers can choose their challenge, with five sets of tees. The course plays at a healthy 7,140 yards from the back, making it the longest in the Chattanooga area.

Harrison Bay's perils seem to come as you make your way toward the clubhouse. Though the fairways are lined by a thick stand of pines and hardwood trees, the fairways are fairly forgiving. No. 8 is a 202-yard par-3 that plays downhill, which shortens the distance. But Nicklaus has provided bunkering on both sides of the green, making the target more narrow and intimidating. No. 9 is a 434-yard par-4 with another shallow green that required a precise second shot.

No. 18 is one of the more difficult finishing holes in the Chattanooga area. The tee shot on the 434-yard par-4 should be on the right side of the fairway and on top of the hill, so you can get a look at the green below. Don't go left on the approach-two bunkers guard the green.

The Bear Trace at Tims Ford (Winchester, Tenn.)

Like Ross Creek, it takes a little work to get to Tims Ford, but the trip is well worth the effort.

Built on Tims Ford State Park and surrounded by Tims Ford Lake, this could be the most scenic of the Bear Trace courses, and certainly it's the most populated by wildlife. Expect to see deer, geese and wild turkey during your trip around the course.

If it's the most scenic Bear Trace course, Tims Ford might also be the most playable. The only one of the five on the Trace that plays to a par of 71, Tims Ford measures 6,764 yards from the back tees. Fairways are fairly generous and most of the greens aren't heavily contoured.

The course turns a little less friendly toward the finish line. No. 15 is a 377-yard par-4 that features a sharply sloping green-the back is a good five feet lower than the front. Three putts are plentiful there. No. 16 is a 549-yard par-5 that features a split fairway that it shares with another par-5, No. 3. If a player choose not to test the long native grass on the right and bunkers of the left of the fairway, he can simply blast his tee shot left of a stand of trees and into the rough alongside the No. 3 fairway. Bunkers continue to be in play as you journey the left side of 16. No. 18 might be the toughest test at Tims Ford. From the back tees the par-4 plays 439 yards. Trees guard the right side of the fairway and there is tall grass and a fairway bunker left. The green is contoured and guarded by a couple of menacing bunkers, one on either side.

The Bear Trace at Chickasaw (Henderson, Tenn.)

Chosen by Golf Magazine as "One of the Top Ten Places You can Play," Chickasaw well deserves such accolades. Environmental concerns delayed the course's construction, but a balance was struck between introducing a great golf course and protecting the natural habitat. Heavily wooded like its Bear Trace brethren, Chickasaw also features natural wetlands that come into play and Piney Creek, which weaves its way across the course.

Chickasaw stretches to 7,118 yards form the back tees, and you get a good idea of what you're going to be up against for the day from the very first hole. The 571-yard par-5 is surrounded by a lake (left) and marshland (right). The second shot has to carry a stream.

The Bear Trace at Ross Creek Landing (Clifton, Tenn.)

Play this golf course once and it would be difficult to counter Golf Week's assertion that it's the best public course in the state. Some who have played both courses compare it favorable to Pete Dye's masterpiece in Chattanooga, The Honors Course. That comparison is justified. Both courses offer stern challenges, particularly from the back tees, and both are strikingly beautiful.

Ross Creek Landing greets you in friendly enough fashion-the trip to the first tee winds through an old barn that Nicklaus wanted to keep largely intact. The first seven holes are manageable. Then the golf course begins showing its muscle.

"The first seven holes kind of lull you to sleep," Bargatze said. "Then 8, 9 and 10 slobber knock you."

Don't be frightened by that assessment. These holes are fun to challenge. No. 8 is a beautiful par-5 with water down the left-hand side of the fairway. From the back tees, it measures 556 yards. Try to reach the green in two if you will, but the penalty for a poor second shot is steep. No. 9 is a brutish par-4 at 453 yards from the back, but its fairway is generous enough to allow golfers to have a bash with their drivers. No. 10, another par-4, requires length and accuracy. Miss left and your ball is likely gone, but a drive in the fairway is only half the battle. The green is guarded by a gorge that requires a bridge to cross. Miss the green short and you're likely to part company with your ball- permanently.

Some Nicklaus standbys do show up at RCL. No. 4 is a driveable par 4 that plays just 259 from the blue tees, 292 from the back. No. 12 is a classic risk-reward par-5 that is reachable in two shots - if you dare.

The Bear Trace offers several membership plans. Call (866) 770-2327 or go to beartrace.com for more details.

The Bear Trace at Chickasaw
Henderson, Tenn.
888-944-BEAR (2327)

The Bear Trace at Cumberland Mountain
Crossville, Tenn.
888-800-BEAR (2327)

The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay
Harrison, Tenn.
(877) 611-BEAR (2327)

The Bear Trace at Ross Creek Landing
Clifton, Tenn.
(866) 214-BEAR (2327)

The Bear Trace at Tims Ford
Winchester, Tenn.
888-558-BEAR (2327)

Chris Dortch, Contributor

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