June 5, 2013
An oddly shaped tree stands at the elbow of the dogleg, par-4 fifth hole at Great Bear Golf Club in East Stroudsburg.
It was there more than 15 years ago when golf legend Jack Nicklaus walked the unfinished product.
His instructions to course superintendent Keith Snyder and others responsible for making Great Bear a signature Nicklaus design were simple: Keep the tree or get fired.
The quirky tree has survived three owners and some brutal winters deep in the heart of the Poconos.
And, now, the same can be said for Great Bear GC, which first opened in 1997 as a private club, the region's only Nicklaus course.
A shrinking membership came nearly a decade later, followed by a takeover by First National Community Bank.
There was a failed attempt by a group of about 110 members to keep it open, then a failed sale to another buyer in 2011.
And there was a course closing in 2012 before Charlie Kirkwood, who owns neighboring Shawnee Country Club, and others stepped up during an auction last fall.
Great Bear opened in April, with that tree standing out on the fifth hole and Snyder fussing over all the course maintenance details.
"I'm the luckiest guy and happiest guy around," Snyder said Monday.
With new ownership, old blood and the Nicklaus name, Great Bear has a new vision moving forward.
Those in charge of the now semi-private club want to make it a tourist stop and a possible venue for professional golf tournaments.
Nothing is set in stone regarding either goal, but Kirkwood and Co. are doing everything they can to make Great Bear a grand success.
"We want to raise the level of golf in the area and use tourism to do it," Kirkwood said.
It all started nearly 20 years ago, according to a story Snyder has heard repeated time and again.
Local developer Peter Ahnert met Nicklaus at a pro-am in Texas. After the two exchanged pleasantries later that day, they began drawing up rough plans on dinner napkins. Nicklaus did a flyover and a few walk-throughs and Great Bear was born.
Snyder was working at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del., a former host site for the LPGA's McDonald's Championship. His father called to tell him about a Nicklaus design coming to his hometown.
"I said, 'Dad, what are you drinking?,'" Snyder said.
Snyder eventually was hired to help turn Great Bear into a signature Nicklaus design, complete with nature's oddities and a layout that boasts fair driving areas, undulating slopes, less-than-flat fairways and greens that demand proper course management.
If you've seen or played other Nicklaus designs or layouts he became famous for conquering, several Great Bear holes will be familiar.
The par-3 seventh hole looks a lot like the 12th at Augusta, complete with a slightly elevated tee looking at a wide green with little depth and is guarded in front by bunkers.
The par-5 15th looks like one at Muirfield Village, which last week hosted the Memorial. It has two small creeks going across different parts of the fairway.
No matter what your skill level or which of the five tee boxes you play from, you will dirty every club in your bag.
The 455-yard, par-4 third hole is the No. 1 handicap hole, thanks mainly to its length and blind tee shot.
However, I found the 405-yard, par-4 12th to be a signature hole. It is a sharp, dogleg right with the fairway tilted hard to the right where trees await.
Those trees are eerily close to the right side of the green. Several bunkers guard the left side of the narrow, deep green.
A slightly left-of-center pin placement means there is no getting up and down from those bunkers and right is dead.
Hit a ball to the proper part of the fairway and green and you've conquered the 12th.
Great Bear demands you do that on every hole.
Snyder said Great Bear is not where he wants it to be, stating there are "leftover scar areas" from the dormant 2012 season when First National allowed him and his staff to keep the course looking just good enough for a potential buyer.
From what I saw Monday, it right now is worth the trip for regional residents as well as tourists and professionals alike.
Twitter: Follow @TomHousenick
ABOUT GREAT BEAR GOLF CLUB
Location: Just off Route 209, East Stroudsburg
First opened: In 1997 as Great Bear Golf & Country Club, a private course
Designer: Jack Nicklaus
Closed to play: 2012
Re-purchased: At auction by Charlie Kirkwood and others in fall 2012
Reopened: April 2013
Course stats: 7,025 yards, par 71; 73.4 rating/139 slope from black tees; Bent grass
Course info: New carts, driveway, maintenance shed and equipment, and refurbished bunkers since new ownership took over last fall
Of note: Great Bear is not like many other courses in the Poconos. It doesn't have holes that climb up or down mountains. But it is not a walkable course, thanks to several long treks from one green to the next tee. There are no parallel holes in the 18-hole design.
Golf pro: Matt McKeon
Superintendent: Keith Snyder
General manager: Rob Howell
FIVE DAYS TO MERION
The U.S. Open returns to Merion Golf Club next week, continuing the club's rich history of USGA championships. As the countdown to Merion continues, we take a look back at some of the great moments.
1981 U.S. OPEN
Merion's last U.S. Open belonged to David Graham, who became the first Australian to win the championship. Graham won at 7-under par on the 6,544-yard course, the shortest to host a U.S. Open since 1947.
With rain softening Merion, players took advantage: A total of 93 shot even-par or better. Graham shot a 3-under 67 in the final round, missing just one fairway. Ben Crenshaw shot the week's low round of 64, still tied for the course record.
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