Bear Creek GC

6,966 yards, 142 slope (from the Golds)

Course:  I went on a week long golf trip out west this Summer, which started in Denver and then went into the sand hills of Nebraska.  Other than a trip I took a few years ago which was also out west to Jackson Hole, Idaho and Seattle, I can’t recall getting to play a series of outstanding courses one day after the next.  On this trip, it all started at Bear Creek GC in Denver.  Bear Creek is a private club designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, which opened in 1985.  The opening date is interesting to me because the mid 1980’s marks the turning point of when course architecture began to break away from the general design concepts that dominated the decades before it, which held that a course should mainly be measured by its length while other factors that are valued today, like variety and course management, were peripheral considerations.

Bear Creek is a course that was clearly trail blazing in terms of breaking away from those general design concepts back then, as the course offers a bevy of variety and emphasizes precision more than length.  While the yardages are longer than you’d typically see, the altitude of Denver makes these distances a lot more manageable.  The course is set on the foothills southwest of Denver proper just in front of the Rocky Mountain range and takes you among the hills, which includes over and between them, negotiating ravines, creeks and lakes.  It’s a visually stunning course, especially for the likes of me from the east coast, who doesn’t get to see so much horizon all that much.

More than anything, Bear Creek is a challenging course.  A good score is earned while there really is no way for poor play to hide from a bad score.  With forced carries, blind shots, complex greens, significant elevation changes and very little tolerance for wayward shots, the course calls on every facet of the game to score well.  Moreover, there are several different lines to take to each green, so course management is valued here as well.

Where the course really shined to me was that despite the challenge, the course was receptive to good play.  At no point during the rounds I played (all of which my score looked like I was bowling) did I feel the course was unfair, tricked up or was manufacturing difficulty.  If anything, I wanted to keep playing because I was certain I could score better.  And to me, that’s the mark of a challenging course done well.  You’re able to enjoy yourself regardless of score (here, the scenery helps immensely) and you accept the difficulty, realizing it exposed the weaknesses in your game.  In turn, that makes you a better player.

Based on the three rounds I played, I would say Bear Creek is one of if not the best course I have played that was designed by Arnold Palmer.  And again, I say that without having one good scoring round here (even though my swing was still in Philadelphia when I played).

So the first day of my trip started with 36 holes at Bear Creek with some old friends, including our gracious host, and new ones as well.  After warming up, apologizing in advance for the terrible play they were about to witness and doing my best to mentally intimidate my opponent, the massacre began.

The First is a 564 yard par 5 (from the Golds).  A moderately-sized fairway set off to the left of the tees awaits the opening shot and based on where the fairway ends, driver will likely be too much club for most everyone.  Getting on the fairway and having a clear look at the green is critical, as the second shot is a forced carry with plenty of distance to the green.  On the other side of the carry, the fairway is set on a hillside that runs from right to left, so the second shot sets up the third, which should be in a position to approach the green from below the hole.  The green runs like the fairway and is well protected by bunkers, so a precise approach is necessary to keep par in play.  Admire the land beyond the green, which looks east below the foothills.

The First

On the other side of the forced carry, with the green straight ahead

The Second is a 437 yard par 4.  The fairway peeks out of the trees below, yielding a piece of fairway you hit to.  Repeat play is rewarded here to figure out the best line to take off the tee.  The fairway itself banks from left to right and it’s very likely the ball will below your feet (if you’re a righty).  The green is below you, on the other side of a creek, and the slope towards the right is even greater, so approaching on the left side is almost a must.  If that’s not all, the green is multi-tiered and pin positions towards the front of the hole are very challenging.  By the way, this is the second hole.  The challenge starts from the tee shot and doesn’t let up.

The Second

Approach shot territory

The Third is a 201 yard par 3.  The green is a forced carry from the tee, with really no relief off the green, except for a little on the left.  Even the drop zone is a tough shot from the back right side of the green, which is well below the elevated green from that area.  So really, you need to nail the green, then deal with the undulations and ripples to score well.  I never scored better than double here.

The Third (taken from the Blue tees)

The Fourth is a 438 yard par 4.  The fairway is a forced carry from the tee and is set perpendicular to it, running right to left at about a 10:00 angle.  The more left you end up, the closer your approach shot will be, which is over water to a terraced green.  It’s a scenic hole and demands the best of your game.

The Fourth

Approach shot territory

The Fifth is a 409 yard par 4.  I would say this is the first hole that lets up a little and gives you some breathing room.  The fairway is below the tee and runs pretty well from left to right.  In fact, too long and off to the right is a cave-like formation where if your ball ends up, you’re likely hitting out backwards.  But the fairway is wide and aiming up the left side is ideal.  The green is above the fairway and is likewise on the larger side.  One of the few holes I had a look for birdie and parred.

The Fifth

Approach shot territory from the right side

The Sixth is a 445 yard par 4.  The fairway runs downhill from the tee and driver might be too long for some, as the fairway ends into native grass and bushes, with the green on the other side.  In order to prevent getting blocked out from the trees, left to left center off the tee is the preferred line.  The approach shot os to a green that runs from right to left and there is lots of room to miss short.  Again, two very good shots are needed for par.

The Sixth

The Seventh is a 114 yard par 3.  Another reprieve, the elevated tee shot is to a wide yet shallow green with a ridge running through it, separating the left and right side.  A creek rests below the green, just to keep your shot honest.  The back tee is further back, higher and to the right of the below photo and when you’re up there, you’ll find a plaque that explains how Palmer really wanted the tee in place and ended up paying for it himself when club funds could not.  I love seeing that kind of passion in designing the course and I think it shows how invested Arnie was here.

The Seventh (from the Blues)

The Eighth is a 394 yard par 4.  Another forced carry from an elevated tee to a green that dog legs left and climbs up to an elevated green.  Bunkers at the dog leg are very much in play off the tee and just like the Fourth, the further left your tee shot, the closer your approach shot will be.  The green undulates a good deal and finding the right area of the green on your approach is important here, especially considering how far your ball will roll if it goes off the front side.

The Eighth

Approach shot territory

The Ninth is a 544 yard par 5.  One of the flatter holes on the course, this par 5 dog legs right to a mildly elevated green.  The contours, mounds and rough provide the challenge while greenside bunkers and significant undulations on the green defend par fairly well.  It’s another hole that is a notch lower in difficulty than some of the others, so take advantage.

The Ninth

Moving up the fairway

The front nine takes you over and through the hills and valleys, generally hits you in the face with difficulty he first few holes, but mixing in a couple holes to catch your breath, before leveling out and allowing you to settle in a little on the Ninth.  It’s a dynamic series of terrain changes, offering great scenery and requiring a lot of focus.  I’d rank them 4, 2, 8, 7, 5, 9, 6, 3, 1.

The back nine starts with the 374 yard par 4 Tenth.  A gentler start than the First, the fairway is wide and ascends to the green, with a couple fairway bunkers on the left side that come into play off the tee.  The Tenth is more receptive to mis-hits than other holes, but plays longer than the stated yardage and the green certainly is as complex as the others.  Enjoy the breather while it’s there.

The Tenth

Approach shot territory

The Eleventh is a 407 yard par 4.  Another fairly level hole, but there is a break in the fairway that makes the approach a forced carry which you cannot see from the tee or pretty much until you get up there.  The green is wide yet shallow, making a longer approach shot tough to stick the green.  There is a bunker long of the green, just waiting for the shots that don’t hold, and as the green runs from back to front, makes for a tough recovery shot.  The view of the valley below form the green is terrific and is nice before starting to venture into the valleys below for the rest of the back nine.

The Eleventh

Approach shot territory

The Twelfth is a 551 yard par 5.  The back nine is a bear from here on out.  The tee shot is out to a fairway that bends left, on a hill side that runs from right to left.  The longest tee shot possible is absolutely necessary to avoid having to lay up to get in a position to carry the ravine, as it’s a substantial carry indeed.  On the other side, the green is set above the fairway is deep and some what narrow, running from left to right I believe.  It’s a beastly par 5.

The Twelfth

Second shot territory, with the green above in the background

The Thirteenth is a 157 yard par 3.  While it’s a drop shot par 3 on the shorter side, the green is very shallow and a safe landing area is pretty limited.  Distance control is vital, as anything short of the green ends up in water while anything long is in the rough on the hillside, thereafter requiring a downhill pitch shot to a green that runs away from you.  The right side of the green is probably much safer to hit to, so long as it’s not too far right.  A great par 3.

The Thirteenth

The Fourteenth is a 522 yard par 5.  A tighter tee shot along a ridge awaits to a fairway that runs from right to left, going off a hillside on the left.  A well struck tee shot may have you consider whether to go for the green in two, or otherwise set up your third shot before the fairway ends.  The approach shot is a forced carry to a green set on a hill side, with anything short either caught up in rough or running into a creek while long makes for a tricky chip shot to the green below.  A tough hole I wanted no part of the first I played it, but subsequent plays made me realize it’s a hole that can be scored on if played properly and according to the particular player’s strengths.

The Fourteenth

Moving down the fairway

The Fifteenth is a 396 yard par 4.  The fairway is a little wider than it appears from the tee, with the fairway running from right to left.  Fairway bunkers are on the right and come into play off the tee.  The green is set below the fairway and is partially hidden if you approach from the right side of the green.  Using the side boards of the slopes on the right side of the green is an option for a number of shots, to slow the roll of the ball once it lands.  While there is bail out room off to the right, you’ll face a tough recovery shot from there, being above the green.  The challenge here is a little more subtle than other holes, but par is still a good number.

The Fifteenth

Approach shot territory

The Sixteenth is a 421 yard par 4.  This was my favorite hole on the course.  The tee shot is through a narrow opening of trees and is of course a forced carry over native grass.  The fairway is blind from the tee and you need a good strike to get in good position for the approach shot.  Once you come down to the fairway, you see how open it is, but also how tough of an approach you face.  The approach is a forced carry over water to a wide and shallow green.  A tough approach shot, so as you’re on the fairway with your tee shot, you must decide whether to go for the green or perhaps lay up to an area where the approach shot will be easier.  And regardless of that decision, the approach shot must be fairly precise.  The beauty of the hole and its challenge typifies the theme that runs throughout the course and watching your ball soar over the tranquil water and land safely near the pin is one of the more rewarding shots on the course.

The bridge you take across the creek to the tee

Approach shot territory

The Seventeenth is a 201 yard par 3.  The forced carry this time is all over water to a large green sided with bunkers.  The green has a good amount of complexity, so simply reaching it is only half the battle for a good score.  Yet another scenic hole fraught with challenge.

The Seventeenth

The Eighteenth is a 414 yard par 4.  The tee shot is to an elevated fairway that climbs from right to left to an uphill green.  The further left your tee shot, the closer your approach shot, but really reaching the fairway is of utmost importance.  As with other tee shots, there’s risk reward in how much you decide to take off the approach shot from the tee.  The approach plays longer because it’s uphill and you’re not really going to get a lot of roll, but the green is receptive to a lot of shots and there’s plenty of room to miss.  Once at the green, the view to the left is stunning and regardless of how your score turned out, is quite the reward in taking in the grandiose panorama.

The Eighteenth

Approach shot territory

I’m a big fan of this photo

The back nine is more scenic, has stronger par 3’s and features some very good par 4’s and 5’s after the first two holes, which are very much a prelude for what’s to come.  I’d rank them, 16, 18, 14, 12, 17, 13, 15, 11, 10.

Generally, Bear Creek is a fatal beauty; it’s gorgeous scenery should not detract your full attention on each shot.  The course demands precision and missed shots are generally not forgiven lightly if at all. It’s a course that needs to be managed and will bring out the weaknesses in your game, as well as raise the complete gamut of emotions during the round.  Creating challenge without over relying on length and making sure the forced carries don’t limit creativity is a herculean task, but Arnie and Seay pulled it off here.  The mark of a challenging course is if you want to step back in the ring instead of wring your hands of the ordeal, walking away for good.  Here, Bear Creek makes you want to keep coming back for more.  The challenge, combined with the use of the terrain, and marvelous surroundings make for a memorable round and for its members, I imagine makes for a course that remains fresh and thrilling.

Gripes:  The first round, a number of my shots ended up in the native grass areas.  I would go in to look of my ball and find several basically new Pro V1’s and other premium balls.  The next two rounds, I didn’t find as many premium balls.  That’s basically it.

Bar/Grill:  I believe there are a couple.  I was using the grill adjacent to the locker room, which had an awesome burger and great beer selection.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop:  Great facilities and the pro shop is on the larger side.  Great course logo, so had to snag a hat and divot tool.

Practice area:  A nice grass range with separate short game practice area and large putting green.  Definitely one of those could spend a whole day there situations.

Nearby:  Golden, CO, which is one of the most underrated food cities in the country.  There’s a Goldsmith there too, where I picked up another dozen balls after the first round.

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