EDMONTON, ALBERTA - In his fascinating career, Jack Nicklaus won tournaments all around the world. He won in Australia, Europe, South America, Asia, and many others. Nicklaus has an enormous amount of respect for "National" Championships. He conquered the US Open four times, the British Open three times, and the Australian Open six times. Amazingly, one place Nicklaus never won, and one "Open" trophy without Nicklaus' name on it, is the "Canadian Open." Now, with three pristine "Signature" designs in Canada - the newest a stellar layout called 'Northern Bear' in Edmonton - Jack Nicklaus is most certainly a winner in Canada as well.
Northern Bear, which joins Nicklaus North (Whistler) and Glen Abbey (Toronto) as the only other Nicklaus 'Signature' courses in Canada, opened in June of 2002 to great reviews. The 7,310 yard course weaves through low-lying aspen glades and typifies Nicklaus' design philosophy to a tee, which is to enhance the existing environment and provide a product that is playable for all skill levels.
"We're getting outstanding feedback from our guests and members," says Head Professional Brad Anderson. "Thanks to Mother Nature finally sending along some much needed moisture, the course is greening up and filling in nicely." With record drought plaguing much of Canada's west, the course has had some difficult times keeping things on schedule. "Considering that we had less than a quarter inch of rain between July of 2001 and July of 2002, it's a miracle that we're even open," cites Anderson.
Recently, the club played host to the annual "Wayne Gretzky & Friends" charity golf tournament. The high-profile tournament, which included star athletes such as Jarome Iginla (Calgary Flames), Brett Hull (Detroit Red Wings), Mike Weir (PGA Tour), and Wayne Gretzky (it's always good to show up for your own tournament), raised an impressive $500,000 for Ronald McDonald Children's Charities.
Unfortunately, the tournament didn't happen without a little controversy. Local farmers, who are struggling through the drought, raised concerns over the course's use of nearby water. The tournament, and Gretzky himself, was under scrutiny from the agricultural industry and, not surprisingly, the media quickly caught onto the controversy. "Fortunately, with compromises made on both sides, the tournament proceeded and things went very well," finishes Anderson.
While portions of the rough are still somewhat sparse, the fairways, greens and tees, which were sodded last fall, are excellent. And the layout, well, it's nothing short of outstanding. Of course, you only need to know that Jack Nicklaus put his stamp on every hole to know that this course will certainly be considered one of the best layouts in Alberta, if not all of Canada.
Like all of Nicklaus' work, the routing is seamless and the fairways are receptive and generous. Nicklaus has always liked to keep the driver in your hands and Northern Bear is no exception. Players who are good drivers of the ball will be licking their chops here.
In addition, those who can work the ball with a soft fade (ideal on some holes) and turn it over with a subtle draw (the perfect shot on others) will love the added reward of being able to shape shots here.
For the better player, Northern Bear is a glorious opportunity to showcase shot making expertise. But Nicklaus, in his true sporting nature, did a terrific job ensuring that players of lesser ability won't feel like they're up against a monster either. For example, sand traps are used sparingly - in spots where they should be - and there are five sets of tees to choose from (the course plays a manageable 6,652 yards from the regular men's tees). Also, most greens allow for a run-up shot and they are easy to putt on.
The first hole at Northern Bear sets the stage for the round beautifully. A wide, gently bending fairway framed by white poplars is the initial target. The large, minimally contoured green is protected by a solitary white-silica bunker, which protects "tournament" pin placements on the right portion of the surface. The green, like many here, slopes softly to closely mown chipping areas, which are relatively easy to play from. Golfers can expect more of this relatively simple, but extremely effective design philosophy throughout their round.
While the setting at Northern Bear is beautiful and elegant in its own way, it is not a piece of land that will take your breath away. There is minimal elevation change and the environment does not waver. Best described as parkland with an abundance of aspen, the property at Northern Bear is typical of this 'northern' region. Not surprisingly though, and to Nicklaus' credit (and your benefit as you experience the course), nothing was forced here. Holes that needed a "target" bunker got that bunker and green sites that needed no bunkers weren't given any. In addition, and what ultimately will set Northern Bear apart, is Nicklaus' exquisite use of the area's natural water features.
All total, 11 out of 18 holes incorporate water features that will intensify your experience at Northern Bear. The closing holes on each side, both rock-solid par-4's, curl toward the massive timber-frame clubhouse and are protected by a large lake. "The setting at the last, with the lake and the outdoor deck overlooking both greens, is something golfers will remember for a long time," says club GM Wilf Wienkauf.
Hole #10 is perhaps the best example of Nicklaus' terrific use of water and one of the best strategic par-5's you'll ever play. The fairway, which slopes gently from right to left, is protected by water down the left side. For big hitters, however, smashing one down the left side will shorten the hole, add extra roll, and afford a chance at hitting the slender green in two. The small slice of green, protected by water in front and two devilish traps in back, is reminiscent of the 12th at Augusta. It truly is candy for the eyes.
When Jack Nicklaus puts his personal stamp on a course, you can be assured that he'll provide a beautiful, strategic, and fair test of golf. At Northern Bear, Nicklaus blended his architectural ideals with the existing environment like the true ambassador and champion that he is. A champion in Canada? Absolutely.
Northern Bear Golf Club
51055 Range Road 222
Sherwood Park, Alberta
Phone: Tee Times (toll free): 1-866-922-BEAR
Fees: $94.50 plus tax
Northern Bear is located approximately 20 minutes from Edmonton International Airport. There are a number of hotels near the airport. Try the Holiday Inn Express (877-955-1500) or The Nisku Inn & Conference Center (800-661-6966) for clean, spacious rooms. If you like Italian food, you won't go wrong trying Allegro Italian Kitchen, which is located in downtown Edmonton. If you like sushi, the Yokozuna restaurant, which is located in Edmonton's south side (closer to the golf course), serves it up with the best of them.
Edmonton and area is home to a number of great courses. The Coloniale, which is only 10 minutes from Northern Bear, is a terrific test of golf that is regarded as one of Edmonton's best courses. Also, Wolf Creek, which is located 45 minutes south of Edmonton, offers 27 exceptional holes of links-like golf. Other good courses closer to Edmonton include Cougar Creek, Goose Hummock, and Lewis Estates.
Edmonton's most famous landmark is West Edmonton Mall. The mall, which is more like a city itself, features a water park, a casino, an amusement park (great roller coaster), a hotel, and hundreds of stores.
September 13, 2002
Andrew Penner is a longtime member of the Canadian PGA. Author of "One Flew Over the Caddyshack," he also writes for a number of magazines throughout Canada and the U.S.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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