Unveiled in 2001, the Bear’s Best Las Vegas course features eighteen of the very best replica holes that Jack Nicklaus has built around the world.
I probably don’t need to explain this part, so skip to the next paragraph if you know who he is. But, for those few not familiar, “Bear” is the nickname of retired golf legend Jack Nicklaus. To this day he holds the record for most Major tournament wins at 18. After retiring, he has since become one of the most prolific architects in Golf Course Design, a career that continues strong to this day.
As the name “Bear’s Best” implies, the course is thus a compilation of 18 holes taken from other Jack Nicklaus Designs. This seems like a really interesting and appealing concept, as it suggests the golf equivalent of a Greatest Hits album, which taken to its logical conclusion could make for one of the greatest courses on the planet considering his pedigree. And true to the concept, each hole has its original listed on the scorecard with a detailed location description of the original listed on each hole’s specific rock. As Vegas is a place famous for replicating faraway places, this idea sounds as “Vegas” as it gets outside of gambling. How well does it live up to this promise?
As the theme of the course is a showcase of some of the Jack Nicklaus’ favorite holes, this obviously isn’t going to result in distinct 9s. The concept should build an expectation of wildly different holes, and the course is at its best when it lives up to this promise with holes that really do feel like they were ripped straight from another course. However, this is where the course will most likely disappoint some golfers. Fact is, unlike a musician who can easily put all their best songs in one album, an architect doesn’t have this luxury. Nicklaus thus is forced to focus on recreating holes feasible to the location. This ensures many holes from other desert locations such as PGA West, Cabo Del Sol, and others. Fortunately, the course still does manage a decent variety with some clearly not belonging in the Vegas Desert. Also, while far from his hardest, this is still a Nicklaus course that will test your skills, particularly with its heavily bunker-guarded greens.
1 (PGA West Private 6, Palm Springs, CA): A great opening hole in that it delivers on the premise’s promise right out of the gate: A hole distinctly taken from elsewhere and is a blast to play. Just don’t mishit your drive or hook it badly.
4 (Old Works 7, Anaconda, MT): An obvious standout for its distinctive Black slag Bunkers. Long and Downhill, it is a demanding but exciting hole.
8 (Castle Pines 14, Castle Pines, CO): One of the best examples of a hole clearly taken from elsewhere, it’s a long but downhill par 5 with trees placed similar to its original. Beware of the ravine, trees, and greenside bunkers.
10 (PGA West Private 10): An excellent design with two parallel fairways and a massive bunker to clear to reach the right one.
11 (Old Works 2): Jack Nicklaus must really love this hole as he also recreated it at Bear’s Best Atlanta (or he thinks its black slag bunkers are cool, in which case he’s absolutely right). It’s a short par 4 that the daring long-hitter can attempt reaching in one.
12 (Bear Creek 14, Murrieta, CA): A short par 5 with unusual grass depressions to the left. A great risk-reward par 5.
18 (PGA West Nicklaus Tournament 18, La Quinta, CA): An appropriate finish hole ending similar to how the course began but much longer, ensuring a stern final challenge.
If you were looking to play all Nicklaus’ best holes in one round as the name implies, you’ll likely be disappointed. As a demonstration of the breadth of his Architectural career though, this course delivers. The holes are consistently good, and its best will provide a memorable glimpse at how varied his hole designs can be. While it can be ludicrously expensive during the peak season, it can still be played at more reasonable rates through Twilight rates and pre-paying any time of year (or even cheaper if you find the right time to reserve a hot deal through the Golf Now App).
As hinted at earlier: this course was but the first of a series of courses designed to highlight some of Nicklaus’s favorite holes. The others being “Bear’s Best Atlanta” and “Bear’s Best CheongNa (South Korea)”. Those courses feature different holes that their locations can better support though you will see some of the same courses represented across several. If the variety at this one is disappointing, consider checking those out if you get the chance.
Bear's Best is quite fun to play when you're not going through narrow corridors with housing. The opening par-4 is more on the eye-candy scene with water down the left side. Then you have to spend a bit of time meandering to the next couple of holes. The stretch of holes 3 thru 6 is done well. Nicklaus usually overdoses on the difficulty side but at Bear's Best you do have optional lines of attack which given the public access aspect of the course is most welcomed.
Holes 7 and 8 are mainly forgettable.
Fortunately, the ending long par-4 9th resumes the strategic calculus calling upon a quality tee shot and approach to well-protected green.
The inward half is where Bear's Best gets interesting. You climb uphill for the first few holes. The center-placed bunker is done well at the mid-length two shot 10th. As mentioned, you then climb uphill at the short 11th and par-5 12. The par-3 13th could have been more engaging given the terrain but is a bit on the lackluster side. One has to wonder how many superlative short par-3 holes Nicklaus has ever created?
When you reach the long par-4 14th you head back downhill and in the nearby distance is the Vegas skyline. The long parr-3 at the 15th is 230 yards and mandates a fine approach given the angle of the green. When you reach the par-4 16th, Nicklaus included a center-placed bunker but it's more decorative than strategic. Such an inclusion should have been done at other holes where its involvement would have been more central on the strategic side of things.
Interestingly, the final two holes are uniquely different than the rest of the ones played. The par-5 17th turns left in the drive zone and features a tapered landing area. Birdies are doable but hardly given away. The closing long par-4 18th is the most rigorous hole at Bear's Best. If one is a right-handed golfer, it pays to fade the ball off the tee. A long narrow strip of sand runs down the right side with a larger sized pond awaiting for those who overplay their hand off the tee. The putting surface is brilliantly placed at an angle behind the same aforementioned water penalty area. Those walking off the green in no more than four strokes will clearly reap the bounty of the 19th hole.
Bear's Best was created as a homage to earlier holes Jack created. The sum total, however, is a hodge-podge of moments. At times you encounter low level holes failing to elicit much in terms of enjoyment. You also encounter holes where the shotmaking challenge rises noticeably. In Vegas terms the golf is worth a look given the lack of high caliber accessible options but for those seeking something more on the architectural front the overall experience will be a bit disappointing. Fortunately, the 18th saves the day for the caliber of shots it mandates.
M. James Ward
One of the holes might be the best hole in America. Downhill toward the imitation space needle on the strip. Fairways lined with evergreen trees. It is a copy of Castlerock (I think). The black sand traps from Montana are also awesome. I have also played Bear's Best Atlanta. Too bad it did not make the GA top courses.
Very impressive set up as I suppose you would expect from Jack. Surpsingly un-Jack-like after a trademark first hole with water.
Some very good holes and great holiday golf with several views of the Strip in the distance, stunning mountain views and numerous superb looking luxury homes overlooking the course.
To me they missed a trick with the whole idea of the replica holes ...albeit having gone through the course on the website before flying out and not having really heard of many of the courses that holes had been copied from ,,,,,in fact had I not been through it on the website you wouldn't know that they were replicas.
Nonetheless a good playable course with many challenges and would like to play again - although with so many others to try I doubt I will ever get to visit Vegas often enough for it to come round again for me !?