Courtesy of Nicklaus Design
The Bear’s Club marked a transition point in Jack Nicklaus’s design outlook when it opened in 1999. His architecture had typically been analytical and, while still lovely, oriented toward factoring how players might break down the features tactically. That strategic backbone is present in The Bear’s Club, but the team approached the design more holistically than they had previously, factoring in aesthetics to an unprecedented degree. Instead of building holes on a golf site, Jack and his associates created a golf environment, expanding and enhancing a dune ridge running through the low pine and palmetto scrub and anchoring large, sensuous bunkers into the native vegetation. The course is part of an upscale residential development near the Intracoastal Waterway, but it blends so well you wouldn’t know it. The change in perspective that Nicklaus Design developed at The Bear’s Club pushed the firm toward similar successes in the 2000s like Sebonack (with Tom Doak, no. 43), The Concession (no. 133) and Mayacama (no. 137).
More from Golf Digest Architecture Editor emeritus Ron Whitten:
Forgive me if you've read this before. This review of The Bear's Club, the Jack Nicklaus design that opened on Dec. 31, 1999, making it perhaps the last new golf course in America to open in the 20th Century, was first published in the late, great Golf World magazine, in the April 6, 2001 issue to be exact. Since Golf World was never digitized, to my knowledge, and the only collections of back issues known to me are at Golf Digest's offices and my own office, I suspect very few of you have read this recently. I repeat it here partly because it's also about my one-and-only round of golf with the legend, Jack Nicklaus.
Here it is, from early 2001:
There is no steely determination in Jack Nicklaus's game anymore - at least there wasn't during a recent casual round on his latest design, The Bear's Club, an exclusive private club in Jupiter, Fla. Instead, Jack spent the day needling his son, Jackie, grousing about imperfections in the hybrid Bermuda fairways, questioning the quality of the pine straw on the walking paths, hitting a couple of squirrely drives, making a couple of brilliant recoveries and cracking jokes.
Yes, Jack Nicklaus has a sense of humor. He looked in my bag, filled with Nicklaus brand clubs, with angular clubfaces and shafts that had the flexibility of broomsticks. "Are these your clubs?" he gasped mockingly.
No, I responded. They're loaners from the pro shop.
"Didn't think so," he said, then paused for the punchline. "I've never met anyone who's actually bought my clubs."
Later, on the fourth green, bearing down on a 40-footer for a birdie, I hit it fat, advancing the putt maybe 10 feet. Jack walked over to me and whispered, "That my putter, too?"
It was a comfortable round with Jack, in part because The Bear's Club is impressively comfortable. It's not your typical condo-covered, lake-laden Florida course. It's old Florida, with lots of pines and palmettos, and slightly scruffy around the edges. There's a natural 12-foot-high sand ridge running across the site. Jack enhanced it and added a couple of others that look equally natural. He integrated the design into its environment by retaining native brush wherever possible, separated from playing areas by transition areas of sand and pine straw. I loved the bunkering. It was big, high-banked, sweeping stuff, a very un-Florida-like in look and feel, using an imported grade of sand from Ohio that won't wash out with every rain shower. The back sides of most bunkers are merged into native sand and pine straw, so they look like blowouts emerging from sand dunes.
Did I make a fool of myself while playing with Jack? Yes. On the 10th hole, we grabbed some apples from an ice cooler. Later, as Jack's friend Ivor Young helped me look for my ball on the edge of a lake, he finished his apple and casually tossed the core into the drink. So I did the same, but tossed mine back over my shoulder. A few seconds later, I heard Jack yell out Young's name.
"Ivey," he yelled. "What are you doing, throwing that apple in my lake? I don't want your apple floating in my lake."
Ivey laughed. Jack didn't.
"I'm serious," he said as he hustled over. "Apples float. Look, look. There it is. Floating in my lake. Go get it."
So Young got a club from his caddie and fished the apple core out of Jack's lake. I said nothing, but after I hit to the green, I casually moonwalked back to fish my apple out of the lake. But by then it was floating too far from shore. So I walked off, waiting for Jack to jump me for littering. But he never did. He obviously never saw my transgression.
I committed more foolishness in the clubhouse after the round. I began ranting about The First Tee program, complaining too many projects are being built for too much money, leaving no funds for long-term maintenance and operations. It's golf's equivalent of a Democrat's answer to everything, I said: Throw a lot of money at a problem, feel like you've solved it and pat each other on the back.
Jack sat quietly while I huffed and puffed. When I finished, he said, "You know, Juli Inkster and I are national co-chairmen of The First Tee program."
I took that as my signal to offer my thanks for the round and hit the road. The exit curved right along the lake on the 10th. As I drove out, I saw it floating out in the middle. My apple, Jack's lake.
Second 100 Greatest: Debut appearance.
2023-'24 ranking: 180th (highest).
Best in State: Ranked sixth, 2013-'14. Ranked eighth, 2015-'22. Ranked ninth, 2011-'12. Ranked inside the top 15, 2007-'09. Ranked inside the top 25, 2003-'05.
Current ranking: 11th.