Tucked within the beautiful tree-laden Indigo Run residential community on the north end of Hilton Head Island, S.C., Golden Bear Golf Club is away from the maddening crowds.
To get there, you turn off Highway 278 and drive a few minutes on a shady road rimmed with tall pines and moss-draped oaks. The short drive sets the tone for a pleasurable round of golf in a tranquil, park-like setting.
Golfers aren't the only ones enamored with the natural surroundings. On a typical round amid the white pines, palmetto and Spanish moss-draped oak trees you'll typically encounter a wide variety of birds, an alligator or two taking a sun bath next to a lake and a bald eagle that lives in a tree next to the 10th green.
While large, stylish homes line some of the fairways, they're set back sufficiently and buffered by dense tree growth so you hardly notice them.
Golden Bear Golf Club: A kind and friendly design
Opened for play in 1993, this daily-fee course managed by ClubCorp USA is a local favorite because of its affordability and top-flight design.
Set on fairly flat terrain, the Nicklaus Design Group uses ponds, forest, marsh and strategic bunkering to provide challenge. Water comes into play on several holes and doglegs are prevalent.
You don't have to be a low-handicapper to enjoy this course because the design is appealing to all skill levels. If you play the correct set of tees, you'll have an enjoyable day on this layout. If you play from the longer tees with limited skills and a rusty game, you're in for a frustrating day and a diminished ball inventory.
Course strategy a key to success at Golden Bear Golf Club
You don't need to bust it off the tee like Nicklaus in his prime to be successful at Golden Bear.
At 7,014 yards from the back tees (6,643 Blue, 6,184 Gold, 5259 White and 4,974 Red), Golden Bear is not about brute strength. Instead, a solid course strategy, thoughtful club selection and finesse shots are the key to low scores.
"Nicklaus designed it so the farther back you play off the tee, the tighter the landing areas," said Michael Passaretti, assistant golf professional at Golden Bear Golf Club. "It's a fair and challenging test for all skill levels."
One of the more adventurous holes is the photogenic fifth, a short par 4 that measures only 327 yards from the Gold tees. A dogleg left with water on the left side, the fifth hole demands accuracy off the tee or you're scrambling for bogey. Once you reach the green, the lake and fountain view to your left will help ease the pain a bit if it has taken you a while to get there.
Don't make the mistake of celebrating a good round before you play the finishing hole, a brutish, dogleg-left, 537-yard par 5 from the back tees that seems to exist for double bogeys.
"The local joke is that it's 'a bear of hole,'" Passaretti said. "It has destroyed many a great round here."
Golden Bear Golf Club: Clubhouse appeal
The clubhouse restaurant, Jack's Grill, is a quasi Nicklaus mini-museum with lots of photos, a large framed picture, a signed Masters pin flag and other memorabilia dominating the decor.
Dining is a special treat after a round with an eclectic menu that includes items like The Big Bear, a shaved roast beef sandwich with grilled pepper, onion and pepper jack cheese on a toasted hoagie roll, and the Chicken Cordon Bleu, a fire-grilled chicken breast with shaved ham, Swiss cheese and honey mustard on a toasted Kaiser bun.
Golden Bear Golf Club at Indigo Run: Final thoughts
If you want to play a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course on Hilton Head Island, Golden Bear Golf Club at Indigo Run is the only one with public access. It's a finesse layout that's friendly for women, juniors and seniors with six sets of tees and an innovative short course set up that measures 2,949 yards.
Low-handicappers will like it because Nicklaus raised the challenge quotient significantly from the back tees.
For the casual vacation golfer who wants to play a Nicklaus course, Golden Bear is a great choice because you're typically hitting off flat lies and the variety of tee settings allows you to control the degree of difficulty you desire.