Bear's Best Las Vegas: Nicklaus' tribute a fine display in Sin City

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

LAS VEGAS -- Jack Nicklaus has an uncanny ability to recall golf shots he's made on courses throughout his 40-plus year playing career. Whether it's the 1986 Masters or the 1965 Pensacola Open, the Golden Bear can usually nail it right down the club, shot and result.

Turns out, Nicklaus isn't too bad at recalling some of the great golf holes he's designed, either.

Bear's Best Golf Club in Las Vegas's golf-rich westside is Jack's tribute to, well, Jack. The course features 18 replica holes from Nicklaus' finest Western designs, both public and private. And while it may not transport you to such exotic places as Los Cabos, Mexico or deposit you inside the gates of exclusive country clubs like Scottsdale's Desert Mountain, Bear's Best is an admirable attempt to bring golfers closer to one of the game's greatest architectural minds.

"Nicklaus is the type of designer who has developed a following over the years," says Adam Owen, club director at Bear's Best. "With over 200 designs it is hard to get to them all."

Bear's Best leans heavily on Arizona, Palm Springs and Mexico for its inspiration (appropriate given its location in the bone dry Mohave desert). The 7,200-yard layout is book-ended by meaty par-4s from Nicklaus' private and resort courses at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif.

Sprinkled in between are well crafted replicas from La Paloma in Tucson, Ariz., Punta Mita in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Cabo del Sol and Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico and a smattering of holes from the Geronimo and Chiricahua courses at Desert Mountain.

"Jack has had a tremendous impact on the way courses are designed in the desert Southwest," Owen says. "He's done a lot of work back east and around the world, but I think he has a real affinity for the desert."

But it's not all palm trees and cactus, here. Bear's Best steps out of character from its sunny Southwest persona to offer respectable renditions of holes from the Old Works Golf Club in Anaconda, Mont., Castle Pines Golf Club in Castle Pines, Colo. and Las Campanas outside of Santa Fe, N.M. While these holes don't fit as well thematically or aesthetically, they do highlight three of Nicklaus' better high altitude designs.

"The (par-5) 14th at Castle Pines is more downhill than ours (the No. 8 hole at Bear's Best) and it is actually 640 yards," Owen says. "Still, it is more true to the shot values that way. Our hole actually allows for our lower altitude and gives players similar distances on their shots in relation to the length of the hole."

Replica or "inspired by" courses typically hit golfers in one of two ways: they either blow them away with their authenticity or insult them with a lack of it. Two years after opening, Bear's Best is still blowing them away.

For each hole, Nicklaus Design used the original blueprints and field modifications Nicklaus made during site visits. Once the holes were redesigned, so to speak, Global Positioning System measurements and photographs provided dead-eye accurate placements for bunkers, green complexes and mounding.

"Jack said this was a lot more complicated than doing an original project," Owen says. "It took a year and a half just to plan and design the course."

To think every golfer arrives at Bear's Best to pay homage to Nicklaus' design legacy would be naïve. As such, it was necessary the course stand on its own as a solid, logically flowing layout that would appeal to locals and traveling golfers searching for a quality upscale, daily fee course.

Bear's Best accomplishes this via strategic hole selection on the front and back nines. The ride out lacks the scenic drama of the back, but includes a sampling of Nicklaus-designed holes with a good bit of shaping and earth moving.

The first four holes on the back nine climb into the stunning Red Rock Box Canyon portion of the Spring Mountains. Beginning with No. 14 -- the opening hole at Las Campanas -- the course turns back toward "The Strip" and provides chamber-of-commerce views of the city.

"When we first started, the only hook we had beside being a nice golf course in Las Vegas was that we had 18 signature holes from Jack Nicklaus," Owen says. "That was our selling point two years ago. But we have a certain percentage of golfers who play here because they've heard it is a great round of golf with great services and conditions."

Owen even admits that Club Corp was essentially conceding repeat business in the beginning. After all, who would want to play a "greatest hits" compilation twice, unless it's from the Stones or Beatles, right?

"You would think, but golfers come back two, three and even four times," Owen says. "We have some twosomes and foursomes who come back as larger group outings. It has really been a pleasant surprise."

If the integrity of the replica holes, service and conditioning is a pleasant surprise, the price tag at Bear's Best is often the reality check -- all this good stuff comes at a premium. The rate includes cart and range balls, but not the tip for the information-laden, yardage viewer-toting forecaddie.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of from 1997 to 2003.

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