SAUCIER, Miss. -- Biloxi is a bonafide "bang for your buck" golf destination, and Grand Bear Golf Course in nearby Saucier is a big reason why. Golfers are greeted with a Jack Nicklaus signature design at a fraction of most Golden Bear clubs.
Spending the day at Grand Bear makes you wonder just exactly what they're skimping on to offer the low rates. But there's really no catch. Expansive and modern clubhouse facilities will make a lot of country club members feel their club is inferior, and there was no shortage of land to work with for the golf course. Grand Bear is set on about 1,700 acres along the Desoto National Forest.
When Nicklaus came to plot the course, course officials gave him an open slate to route it however he wanted. The result is two separate looping nines resembling that of a figure-eight, with no holes playing parallel.
This kind of massive acreage might warn "Future Housing Development!" to the golfer used to their favorite tracks getting built up with housing around it, given the recent real estate boom of the last decade. Houses tend to make more money than golf courses these days. But fear not, course officials say no real estate is planned here. What you see now is what you get, and it's a solid combination of playability and hole variety.
"When designing a golf course there are two things we try to do," said Nicklaus on his design site. "Make it aesthetically pleasing and incorporate 18 holes of great golf. In Grand Bear, we've achieved the best of both worlds."
The winding Biloxi River helps build Grand Bear to a dramatic finish.
The par-3 14th hole plays through a chute of woods to a green guarded by the river below that runs along diagonally, punishing hooked shots left short.
After another par-3 on the 16th that plays with the river to the left, the 17th once again plays over the river on the drive, then parallel to the hole. It's a tempting drive, letting you cut off as much as you can, but falling short means you're reloading from the tee.
The 18th hole plays long and uphill back towards the clubhouse. Course officials say Nicklaus had a hands-on design here down to the last bunker. On the 18th, the bunker to the right side of the fairway had already been built before Nicklaus saw it and demanded it be moved 30 yards.
Unlike some Nicklaus courses that have earned a reputation for being among the world's most difficult, mid- and high-handicappers stand a fighting chance at Grand Bear. Nicklaus offers wide fairways before the sprawling woods take over on either side, most bunkers aren't horribly steep, and greens generally have room in front to run a shot up.
"The serenity and design throughout offer a relaxing experience as well as a pleasant challenge for every level," said Tommy Snell of SunCoast Golf and a regular to Grand Bear. "The golfer will not be wringing wet and mentally exhausted in the 19th hole."
Grand Bear Golf Course: The verdict
Since its grand opening in 1999, Grand Bear has been surpassed by a couple of newer, bolder golf courses in Biloxi, like Fallen Oak and The Preserve. But the course is still among the better plays along the gulf coast and is a tremendous value.
Golfers will love the wide fairways and Nicklaus design set in scenic and natural forest playing along the Biloxi River. Though Nicklaus has a reputation for designing difficult courses, Grand Bear isn't in that mold. It's player-friendly for mid and high-handicappers.
What makes the club an even better value is its superb clubhouse facilities. There are private clubs likely salivating at the lodge-like architecture, featuring high ceilings in the dining room overlooking the course, and impressive locker room facilities.
The big magazines seem to love Grand Bear too. Golfweek named it the Best Public Course in Mississippi and Golf Digest awarded the facilities with 4.5 stars.