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Beaten up by the Bear

By Paul Knowles (first published on

Golf Digest says The PGA National Resort's Champion course "provided the toughest tournament test of golf during the 2013 PGA Tour season." USA Today called holes 15-17 ¬– more commonly called "The Bear Trap" – "one of the toughest stretches in golf." So, of course, when the opportunity arose, we had to play it. This is the thinking of all devoted golfers, everywhere: "This course will kill me, it will beat me up, I have no chance... so let's go play!"


Such is the game – and the fools that pursue it. In truth, the Champion course is a bit deceptive. My playing partner – a pretty good golfer, much better than I – parred the first hole, and even after about 13, was saying "This course isn't as tough as I expected." Then came 14-18, and his attitude and conclusions changed, dramatically. Turns out, USA Today is right.

The Champion is one of five fine courses at the PGA National Resort. Last year, I had the chance to play the Palmer and the Fazio, and I enjoyed both of them, very much. I couldn't play the Champion, because it was occupied by golfers like Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Russell Henley and most of the best golfers in the world, competing in the Honda Classic. When we played the Champion, we were surrounded by workers constructing the stands and services that catered to the estimated 200,000 guests at the 2015 tournament.

 It wasn't just the stands and tents that were being prepared for the tourney; the golf course was being prepped, too. This was most evident in the rough – I lost at least four balls that landed no more than two yards off the fairway. We knew where they were – we simply could not find them in the dense, lush, long rough. It gave us a new appreciation for the skill needed if one of the tournament players misses the fairway.

Should you play the course? Absolutely! Any time you get the chance to walk in the footsteps of the great golfers – and to get some insight into their experiences – the answer should always be yes. And this course is beautiful, and brilliantly designed, originally by Tom and George Fazio, and redesigned only last year by Jack Nicklaus. You don't have to kill yourself with length – there are six sets of tees, ranging from 7047 yards to 5145. None make it all that easy, though!

Best known holes are the Bear Trap and the finishing 18th, but even the first hold, a Par 4, holds a significant experience, as you stand on the tee, seeing the same first view that the tournament players see. The course has challenging bunkers, but the real issue is often water – and there is lots of water. It's often a "course management" challenge – which always makes for great golf. The Bear Trap seems like water, water everywhere. There is water on three sides of this Par 3 15th; a bunker on the fourth side. I figure the water gets deeper by the week, because of the mass of golf balls at the bottom.

More water on the 16th; the shortest approach, according to a resident pro, "involves negotiating the bunker and the water." I reached the fringe by skipping my thin approach on the water, not a repeatable strategy, I suspect. The 17th is another water-guarded Par 3. Who would have thought that the toughest three-hole stretch in golf would include two Par 3's?

And you finish at the famous 18th, a Par 5 dogleg left with a green semi-surrounded with water. This was the site, in 2014, of a four-man playoff that saw Russell Henley defeat Rory, Russell Knox and Ryan Palmer. In 2015, a two-man playoff ended at the 17th, as Padraig Harrington triumphed.

The tournament, Sunday pin placement on 18 is very close to the water; for amateur play, like ours, it sits closer to the centre. Thank goodness. This course beats you up, and then gives you a lovely selection of restaurants and bars where you can enjoy a beverage, and remember the good shots, no matter how few and far between they may be.

By the way, the PGA National Resort is also a great place to stay, and to dine – and while my buddy and I played the course, our wives enjoyed the exquisite spa. They seemed to feel more positive about their day than we did, but a beverage or two restored our equilibrium.