Course Review: Northern Bear (Sherwood Park near Edmonton, Alberta)
Designer: Jack Nicklaus
The Scorecard: For years I’ve heard discussion of Northern Bear, a Jack Nicklaus signature (which means the owners paid more money to have Jack actually design the course as opposed to one of his associates) outside of Edmonton. The talk wasn’t positive; the course lacked water for irrigation from the start and was reportedly in lousy shape. Many thought it shouldn’t have a spot on SCOREGolf’s Top 100 in Canada – but that was based largely on conditioning rather than the actual design. However, my understanding is the conditioning made it exceptionally difficult to look past the burned-out grass and see what Nicklaus accomplished.
The water issue was solved about two years ago. Now the turf is solid (if unspectacular), but one can see there are some interesting design flourishes that make Northern Bear a solid course that has several nuances that set it apart from many modern designs.
- • There were several design elements I didn’t expect from a Nicklaus design, including the 14th, where the approach is hit over a ridge that propels the ball forward to a slightly bowled green. The concept is repeated on the terrific 17th, where the bunker is placed well short of the green, making the correct approach one club less than you might anticipate.
- • Similarly, Nicklaus tried some interesting things with a couple of his greens at Northern Bear, but the best is the 7th. A mid-length par four, the green sets up well for an approach from the right. Golfers can use the slope on the green, which runs away from the approaching shot, to run balls into the back right corner. In fact a running shot is probably the only way to get a ball close to a back pin. It is a smart design facet, and one that makes you want to try the hole to see if you can hit the shot the designer is expecting. In this case I don’t think it is asking too much – and for players who don’t fly the ball very high it might actually be easier.
- • Shaping. Unlike earlier designs, there are no separation mounds at Northern Bear. Instead holes are often separated by expansive fields of grasses, a decidedly natural look that shows even in his senior years, Nicklaus can have a deft touch with his shapers.
- • From the start to the end of the course there’s little sense of place to Nicklaus’ design. It may well be in a northern part of the world, but there are places where you’d be forgiven for thinking the course is in the middle of Florida (#3, #6, #9, #18, for example). These holes often utilize water as a design feature – especially around the greens, but the holding ponds don’t look natural, just as most of the ponds in Florida are used to raise up other areas of the design.
- • The 9th and 18th have a great finish in front of the clubhouse, but are really just mirrors of one another. Both feature tee shots where you have to hit the ball around the water, and both have solid, if unremarkable greens. I get the notion of a tough finishing hole around water, and yes one hole expects a draw and the other a fade, but it was like déjà vu when I closed my round.
The Final Tally: Northern Bear might be one of the more underrated courses in Canada. That said, I had no expectations when I went to see it. I’ve played enough Nicklaus courses I didn’t like that I thought that factor, coupled with poor conditions, would make for a disastrous morning. Instead I found a sophisticated course, and while it didn’t exactly represent the landscape of the Edmonton area, it was clever enough and with enough variations that made it worthy of a recommendation.