Golf Course Review - Great Bear Golf Club

FACTS AND STATS: Course Architect: Jack Nicklaus (1997). Year Opened: May 1997. Location: East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Slope: 139. Rating: 73.4. Par: 71. Yardage: 7,025.


1 - Par 4 376 Yds 10 - Par 4 460 Yds

2 - Par 3 189 Yds 11 - Par 3 222 Yds

3 - Par 4 455 Yds 12 - Par 4 405 Yds

4 - Par 5 514 Yds 13 - Par 3 199 Yds

5 - Par 4 462 Yds 14 - Par 4 451 Yds

6 - Par 4 436 Yds 15 - Par 5 523 Yds

7 - Par 3 175 Yds 16 - Par 3 191 Yds

8 - Par 5 578 Yds 17 - Par 4 441 Yds

9 - Par 4 373 Yds 18 - Par 5 575 Yds

Par 36 3,558 Yds Par 35 3,467 Yds

Key Events Held: Tour qualifier (formerly Nationwide Tour).

Awards Won: Ranked #4 best public-access course in PA - Golfweek (2006), Top 100 Women Friendly Courses in the U.S. - Golf For Women, Architecture Award - Top 20 Courses in PA - Golf Digest (2007-08), Four stars by


HISTORY: Great Bear Golf Club (formerly Great Bear Golf & Country Club) is the second of just three Jack Nicklaus-designed courses in Pennsylvania and the first venue in the northeast section of the state.

In an area so rich in golf history, it's only fitting that the game's greatest player of all-time and one of the leading course architects designed a course in the Keystone state.

Nicklaus began traipsing through the old farm region of Middle Smithfield Township near the Pocono Mountains and the Delaware Water Gap in 1994 and made several site visits throughout the construction of the course.

Within a year, virtually each hole was under construction, but the building of the course was not an easy task, as environmental violations continuously slowed the process down.

When the venue first opened in 1997, developer and local businessman Peter Ahnert's dream received rave reviews and accolades. The then-private signature course was rated as one of the top-20 courses in a state which includes such notable places as Merion, Oakmont, Aronimink and Philadelphia Country Club.

In less than a year, however, the club, which had an original membership asking price of $21,000, dropped its dues to $15,000 in an effort to attract more members.

Although the new clubhouse opened three years later in 2000 and membership grew, Great Bear continued to struggle financially and by January 2001 the club was up for sale for the asking price of $11 million.

A private members club since its inception in '97, Great Bear's economic struggles continued and the course closed following the 2010 season, as Ahnert failed to keep pace with the escalating financial problems of the time.

Fast forward to September 2012 and the auction of the golf course.

Although he was the only bidder, local businessman Charlie Kirkwood, who owns nearby Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort, purchased the club for a mere $850,000.

Kirkwood's Shawnee Inn is rich in golf history, as it was designed by legendary architect A.W. Tillinghast and it played host to the 1938 PGA Championship, as Paul Runyan defeated Sam Snead, 8 & 7. Snead would later go on to represent Shawnee as its touring pro. It should be noted that Shawnee hosted the likes of Walter Hagen, Arnold Palmer and Jackie Gleason during its heyday.

With its new ownership, Great Bear has reopened in the spring of 2013 and is once again the crown jewel of the Pocono Mountain golf region.

"Although Nicklaus did not assist in reviving the course," said Rob Howell, Great Bear general manager, "hard work, a good staff and support (both financial and people/equipment) from the new ownership, certainly helped. In addition, retaining the previous superintendent and maintenance staff, with their knowledge, skills, experience of Great Bear, was also a contributing factor in how quickly we were able to turn things around."

The layout is virtually unchanged, as greens have been aerated, bunkers refurbished with 120 tons of sand, the practice facility renovated and the clubhouse parking lot and driveways paved.

"Now that I have so much of myself invested in (Great Bear Golf Club), I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," said superintendent Keith Snyder. "It's a great group here - the members, the staff, the ownership. The support they've shown in preserving the club as the type of golf facility it should be is tremendous. This is a great opportunity for all of us."

Snyder, a Penn State graduate of the turf management school, grew up in the Pocono Mountain region in the mid-to-late 1990s, before working in Wilmington, Del., at DuPont Country Club.

"The golf course suffered just a little for being closed for a while, but the bank was smart enough to keep us around to protect it from catastrophic failures," Snyder said. "We even mowed the greens to in-season heights because we were always hopeful a buyer would come along and we could open it back up right away."

The bottom line, only time will tell if Great Bear Golf Club can regain its lofty status as a premier golf facility.

"Our focus will be on past members interested in returning to Great Bear and then reaching out to potential new members," Kirkwood said. "The level of response and commitment to membership will dictate the direction of our marketing in the new year."

HOLE-BY-HOLE REVIEW: The opening hole at Great Bear is a simple par-4 that swings to the right. The key is the tee shot, as it must favor the right side for the easiest approach. Too far left and your second shot will be semi- blocked by trees or worse ... out of bounds. Your approach will be downhill with a short iron to a well-guarded, shallow green. Bunkers protect the front portion of the wide putting surface. Miss long and you'll be fortunate if you land in the back bunker, otherwise, you'll catch the road. The green slopes from left to right and features three tiers. What started out as a pretty easy starting hole can really be quite a test if you're not careful.

Although not the longest par-3 on the course, the second is the most difficult of the bunch. Playing slightly downhill from the tee box, No. 2 requires a mid-iron to a very long and narrow green, fronted by a deep bunker that sits well below the promised land. The two-tiered putting surface runs from back to front with another trap on the right side. The left is protected by a hill, covered in deep rough. Making par here is a great score.

It goes from the hardest par-3 to the most difficult par-4 on the course when you step up to the third tee. Moving to the right and playing uphill, the third is a long two-shotter that requires a very accurate tee ball, as thick rough and trees protect the entire right side, so don't try to cut too much of the dogleg. The left is no bargain, either, but thick rough is better than a lost ball. Your second shot, with a long iron or hybrid, will be played downhill to the very large putting surface with a bunker guarding the left- front portion. This hole is rated the hardest at Great Bear, and with good reason.

The par-5 fourth is a definite birdie hole, that is as long as you hit the fairway off the tee. At just 514 yards, this hole can be had. Even if you're forced to lay up, only two bunkers down the right by the green can cause problems. Avoid them and you'll have a realistic chance at birdie. The putting surface runs from right to left and is wide and shallow, so long will make for a difficult up and down. Remember, think birdie!

Another difficult hole, the fifth is the longest par-4 on the course, reaching 462 yards from the black markers. Doglegging sharply from right to left, you'll need to split the fairway to have a clear approach to the green. Even with a successful tee shot, you're left with a medium to long-iron to a fairly small target. With sand left, you can bail out to the right, but a back-left flag will provide plenty of heartache if you attack. Play to the center of the green and trust your putter.

Number 5 features a unique aspect to the hole, an S-shaped tree on the left side of the fairway. The tale behind its existence has certainly grown in stature and folklore.

"The story goes that when Nicklaus first walked the property and saw the big corkscrew-like tree," Howell said, "he wanted to preserve it as a design feature for his proposed golf hole. It has a unique look and is certainly an eye-catching accent standing on the inside corner of that dogleg hole. He marked it with orange surveyor's tape, surrounded it with fencing for protection and supposedly told his crew that if anything happened to that tree, heads would roll. We're not sure if that's exactly what he said to his people, but the story is true."

At 436 yards, the sixth is fairly long, but not very difficult, as it plays straightaway from the tee and slightly downhill. Trees guard both sides of the landing area, but the fairway is quite generous. The key here is club selection with your approach, as the putting surface is quite long with a second shelf in the rear. Sand front and right should be avoided, as they will make for a difficult sand save.

One of the several signature holes at Great Bear, the seventh is a beautiful, downhill par-3 that reaches 175 yards in length. A large gaping bunker protects the front of the putting surface, while additional sand guards the left and rear of the green. The surface is very wide, but quite shallow, so club selection here is critical, not to mention a clean strike of the ball, as any mis-hit will be trouble.

The second par-5 on the course, the eighth, is also the longest hole at Great Bear, 578 yards. This massive hole doglegs left and requires precise shot making. Bunkers down the right will capture a wayward play, while the left side features thick rough and trees. The fairway cants to the right, so you must play toward the left side of the landing area to have any shot at staying in the short grass. The second shot should be a layup toward the left-center of the generous fairway, thus leaving a simple wedge to a small, well- protected green. Although it's long, this hole will give up plenty of birdies.

Number 9 is also a birdie hole, at just 373 yards. Bending to the left, the key here is keeping the driver in the bag, as placing your tee ball in the fairway is a must. A draw off the tee is the play because you avoid the fairway bunkers down the right. Now it's just a short iron to a very accessible green, which runs from back to front. Stay below the hole for your best shot at three.

The back nine opens with a very difficult par-4. Not only is it rated the second-hardest on the course, but it plays over a forced carry of wetlands to a blind fairway. Trees line both sides of the fairway, but the left is more favorable. Even with a successful tee ball, the player will have a mid- to long iron remaining to a relatively small green that features encroaching trees which narrow the playing field. There is no shame in making bogey here.

From the back tee, the 11th hole plays almost like a dogleg. In most cases, that would be fine, but this is a par-3! At 222 yards, a fade is required from the tee, as trees tower over this difficult one-shotter. The green is fairly long and slopes from left to right. Favor the left side, as the mounding will move your ball back toward the hole and, who knows, maybe a rare two.

Not the longest of holes, but No. 12 is a fan favorite. It's a beautifully designed, dogleg right par-4 that plays slightly uphill off the tee, before swinging hard to the right. Trees engage the entire right side, so your tee ball must favor the left to leave the best angle to the hole. The putting surface if relatively flat, with a pair of bunkers on the left. The trees and wetlands guard the right side of the green, so pinpoint accuracy with your approach is a must.

Another signature par-3, the 13th is a wonderful 199-yarder that favors a draw from the tee. A fairly large putting surface is guarded by three large bunkers, two short and left, and one long with an additional smaller trap to the right. The green slopes from right to left and with its length, club selection is key, as it's the second longest of the five par-3s.

The dogleg right 14th is a long par-4, which stretches 451 yards from the back buttons. A successful tee shot will leave a slightly downhill approach to a very wide, but shallow putting surface. The slope of the green will dictate whether you'll make birdie or bogey. Pick the right club for your second, as a shot to a back-right flag that comes up short will fall down a steep bank and your scorecard will suffer.

At first blush, the par-5 15th seems to be nondescript. I mean, it's just 523 yards, plays straightaway and with barely an ounce of slope. Not so fast. Yes, the fairway is quite generous, but that's where the fun begins. A stream angles across the fairway around the 300-yard mark, so three-metal for the big hitters should suffice. Now comes the tricky part. An additional stream dissects around 90 yards away, so a decision occurs, whether to go for the green in two or to lay back, which will leave a wedge to the putting surface. That's the prudent play, especially if your short game is up to par. One of the few birdie holes remaining on the course, so take advantage if you can.

The final par-3 on the course, plays downhill from the tee and stretches to 191 yards. Bunkers right, left and deep protect a fairly benign putting surface. Rated the easiest on the course, the 16th is a rock-solid hole that can play real difficult with a back-right flag.

The closing two holes at Great Bear are two of the most difficult on the course. At 441 yards, the par-4 17th plays from right to left and requires a draw off the tee, favoring the right side. This will set up the best angle to attack the long and narrow putting surface. Any tee ball down the left will be blocked by trees, hampering your approach. The greens runs from back to front, so stay below the hole for success.

Number 18 is a sweeping downhill, dogleg left par-5 which can play as long as 575 yards. What makes this hole really difficult, is that the fairway also rolls from right to left, so tee shot placement is critical. Going for the green in two is risky, as a creek fronts the putting surface. With sand on the right guarding the layup zone, favor the left side, as this will set up a straight shot to the flag. A deep bunker right is a no-no, but missing long is worse, as the creek runs behind the green. When all is said and done, it's a wonderful finish to a wonderful course.

OVERALL: When I played the course shortly after it opened, I thought the layout was extremely challenging, a terrific venue with many outstanding holes.

Little has changed in my estimation of Great Bear Golf Club (except the name) since it reopened.

It's still a wonderful golf course. Fun, entertaining and a real challenge for all skill levels. The beauty behind it ... it features five different sets of tees, ranging from 4,949 yards to over 7,000.

"For the experienced player," according to, "the course offers interesting challenges and pro tees that will bring out your strongest game. Yet it's also designed to be a course with the ultimate in playability, ensuring enjoyable round after round, revealing its intricacies and craftsmanship the more you play it. Great Bear is destined to be one of the Golden Bear's great ones."

Surprisingly, the course is not your typical Nicklaus-designed layout because many of the holes actually bend from right to left, as opposed to the fade variety of left to right.

"It is very peaceful and serene," Snyder said. "There are no parallel holes. When you are on a golf hole, you are out there all by yourself with just your foursome. It's a very nice and relaxing atmosphere when you play here. Any long-time or new member would speak strongly that this is a special place for them."

In addition, the numbers don't lie if you're thinking of making the trip to play Great Bear.

Stay and play packages are now available for just $166 per person. Spend the night at historic Shawnee Inn, play golf at both courses, breakfast, range balls and all taxes and resort fees are included. If it's just a day trip, the daily rates are incredibly low at just $40 after 3 p.m. with a high of just $75. Now that's a deal.

As everyone knows, location is a key to success and Great Bear hits the mark. From New York City, Great Bear is a shade under two hours, and from Philadelphia, it's a shade over.

Is it worth it? You bet. Make the trek, enjoy the Pocono Mountains and discover a Nicklaus course that won't take a bite out of your wallet ... just your scorecard.

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