Relax in nature at Jack Nicklaus' Grand Bear Golf Course in Mississippi
SAUCIER, Miss. - You remember a golf course's driveway about as often as you focus on what type of socks someone is wearing. But you'll remember the driveway at Grand Bear Golf Course.
For one thing, it's six miles long, six windy miles through woods with nary a sight of another human being this day. For another, as you get closer to the clubhouse, signs telling you what Paul Azinger, Jesper Parnevik and Jack Nicklaus himself shot on the course come into view.
Usually, the drive to the golf course is something to be endured. Here, it pumps you up to play the game.
"I've had a number of golfers tell me that drive got them in the right mood for the day," Grand Bear Head Professional Mike Buckley said. "You're in those tall trees and it just sort of separates you from whatever you were doing before coming to the course."
Of course, the drive, the trees reaching for the sky and the famous golfers' score signs wouldn't matter if the course didn't measure up. Grand Bear does, thrusting you so far out into the Mississippi woods that you could think you're those kids from The Blair Witch Project. Only everything's pretty and nice rather than frightening and fearsome.
Yes, it's a Jack Nicklaus design. But it's a nice Nicklaus.
"It's certainly the fairest Jack Nicklaus course I've ever played," Buckley said.
There are wide, wide fairways, offering plenty of room to spray your ball around. It reminded this golf writer of Nicklaus' Lake Tahoe-area course Old Greenwood in design temperament, only Grand Bear is much more secluded.
Forget about not seeing even one house. At Grand Bear, you can play on a pretty crowded day and barely see many other golfers.
The holes are well spaced out and often hidden from view from each other by towering trees and marshlands. A few of Grand Bear's holes wrap around the Biloxi River, and it's cool to be able to look down from a raised green and see a white sand bank below. You're not going to go down and plop in the sand, but just the thought that you could makes for an interesting conversation point.
You'll find this same type of sand in Grand Bear's bunkers, and it's not bad to hit out of either.
"I feel like I'm Huck Finn or something," visiting golfer Eric Chambers laughed.
What you won't feel like is a harried commuter or a number. Grand Bear's a nice antidote for everyday work life. On this day, a hawk flew over the par-5 11th. Recently, a big turkey decided that the back of Bear's driving range qualifies as the perfect sunning spot.
You'll also see the biggest bumblebees you've seen anywhere. Bumblebees that could eat a butterfly for lunch. That might not sound like a plus, but it adds to the effect of being in a place where nature hasn't been shoved aside or modeled to fit into a bunch of artificial hole looks.
Grand Bear's the kind of place where you could see yourself hanging out on the clubhouse veranda after putting out on 18, talking to your buddies about No. 14 - the tough par 3 where you shoot right over the Biloxi to reach the green. Even if you never really linger anywhere.
This isn't a spot you'll be in any hurry to leave, which helps explain why so many golfers seem to come back to the clubhouse and ask to play another nine holes on replay.
Buckley helps set this atmosphere with a down-home manner - not to mention local-sounding accent - that can make golfers feel like they've hit the mother load of Southern hospitality, even if Buckley was born, raised and Red Sox-reared near Boston.
"I've been here a long time," Buckley said when someone noted that you'd never mistake his Mississippi drawl for a Boston accent. "This place grows on you."
You can see that as soon as you get on the drive.
The Verdict: Grand Bear Golf Course
Grand Bear is the rare course that could be both a great starter or a great finisher for a golf trip. Play Grand Bear as your first course on a Mississippi Gulf Coast trip, and you'll receive a thorough introduction to the reasonably-priced nature wows of this region - without getting too beat up (unless you play it from the back, back tees with the 143 slope rating, 7,204 yards and a good share of daunting forced carries). On the other hand, you could also play Grand Bear as the climax of the trip and nobody would walk off feeling shortchanged.
Nicklaus' Bear provides all the theater you need.
On a beautiful, bright blue-sky day, you'll really get lost in the course and perhaps even start to decompress. On some fairways, those tall trees creep in (though not as much as they did before Hurricane Katrina), and the fun shots really start when you're skirting along the edges.
Still, you should lose more worries than balls - unless your driver's wilder than a bucking bronco.
Either way, feel free to scream. You're out in nature. Real nature. The wild turkeys don't mind.
Mississippi Gulf Coast hotels
Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi brings plenty of style, hi-definition 42-inch plasma TVs and plush beds. Plus, it's right across the street from Mary Mahoney's, a must-eat fine dining institution with some of the richest food on the planet.
The Beau View condos are even a little newer than Hard Rock and full of luxury amenities like gleaming steel refrigerators. Having three bedrooms and a balcony that overlooks the Gulf of Mexico doesn't hurt either.
Opened in 1999, Grand Bear is approaching its 10-year anniversary. That still makes it one of the younger courses in an area with a surprisingly long golf history.
April 21, 2008