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It feels like you're putting on top of the world on Bear Mountain Golf & Country Club's 19th.
It feels like you're putting on top of the world on Bear Mountain Golf & Country Club's 19th. (Courtesy of Golf Vancouver Island)

Vancouver Island's Bear Mountain: No need for signature Nicklaus holes when they're all memorable

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,

VICTORIA, B.C. - In many ways, signature holes are a pox on the game, necessitating that golf courses depend on one memorable hole - and too many times, there is just one even slightly memorable hole on the whole course - around which to build a marketing campaign.

Well, Bear Mountain Golf & Country Club, in the hills outside of Victoria, Vancouver Island's largest and hippest city, has found a way to render the signature hole obsession satisfyingly mute. When almost all the holes are showy and distinct, when no two golfers can seem to agree on which hole is the best, you get a day of wows rather than one carefully scripted marketing moment.

Many golf courses are like those movie trailers - great for four minutes, blah once you see the feature in full length. Bear Mountain's original Bear Course is the rare track that comes out looking even better in its entirety.

How much does Bear Mountain dismiss signature holes?

Arguably its most scenic and showy hole - the par-3 19th - often is completely closed off and taken out of the rotation. "We found that it does significantly slows down play," Bear Mountain Head Professional Steve MacPherson said. "And people were getting annoyed by that."

So, on most days, golfers drive right by the tee and the green that seems to float right over the entire island, with trees, water and cities stretching into the horizon past the flag. MacPherson drove the golf writer right by himself, too, on a moderately crowded Saturday.

Now, that's confidence in your golf course.

"I'd love to find a way to work it into the regular 18," MacPherson said. "Because it's so spectacular."

MacPherson gave one last glance back and stepped on the gas.

You're not going to lament not playing Bear Mountain's extra hole too long, though (if you really want to experience it, Mondays and Tuesdays, when the course is often less crowded, offer a good chance of having 19 open). Bear Mountain's regular 18 is more than enough.

And then some.

This design from Jack Nicklaus and his son Steve comes in with an insane 152 slope rating from the back, back Golden tees. Bear Mountain can be one of the most difficult courses in all of North America, and the idea of average golfers playing from back there is so ridiculous that the Bear Mountain staff often does its best to hide those tees.

Don't worry, the slope rating from the next set of tees, the Grizzly tees, is still 147. If you want a beating, Bear Mountain will deliver it with the relentless ruthlessness of a Ben Kingsley monster mobster. You can run through sleeves of golf balls at Bear Mountain like marathoners drain those little plastic water cups.

There's thick bunches of tall Douglas Firs, little ponds, big lakes, tall climbs, tiny crevices, monster rocks and thick, fescue-like grass ... a virtual encyclopedia of places where your high-priced balls can be lost forever.

"This course will take a little piece of you," second-time Bear Mountain player Patrick Ross said, shaking his head like a captain who's seen a sea creature.

You forgive the carnage because of the creativity in which it's inflicted.

On No. 10, you shoot straight uphill to a green with a centuries old rock wall behind it. This isn't close to the most memorable hole on the back nine either.

Not with No. 11 - a 135-yard par 3 with a big, near island green out in the middle of clear marsh coming up next. There's a multi-tiered waterfall up on a hill behind No. 11, but the green itself is so exciting - nearly bobbing out there in the water like one of the house boats in Victoria's downtown harbor - that you barely even notice the waterfall.

Yes, Bear Mountain's a course where a waterfall can get obscured.

The No. 12 through 14 stretch can make you forget about pretty niceties faster than Roger Clemens misremembers ex-flames, too. This is the toughest stretch on a wicked course, with a huge water clear right off the tee on 12, a monster par 4 (488 yards) that hugs a lake like spandex snuggles a fat girl's behind in No. 13 and an uphill par 5 where it seems like the green will never come in 14.

That's five straight holes that would all be the "signature hole" on many golf courses. You'll never be happier that the marketing mavens were left fiddling with their PowerPoint presentations.

The Verdict on Bear Mountain Golf & Country Club

Bear Mountain's original Bear Course is the rare golf course where a 4 1/2 round truly flies by. In fact, you'll likely think it went too fast. There's just so much to see, so many shots to analyze, so much misery and wonder to dissect.

A woman in our foursome hit a scorching recovery shot from one of the ominous Nicklaus bunkers that landed within three feet of the pin - a moment that she'll be talking about for the rest of her golfing lifetime.

That's the thing about Bear Mountain - as much misery as it can inflict, it also gives you plenty of chances to pull off your ultimate golf hero moment.

On the day of this play in early May, the greens at Bear rolled pretty slow. At times, exceedingly slow, if you're used to the lightning quick come backers in spots like Scottsdale and Las Vegas. But there's good reason for this: If Bear's greens started approaching 11 on the stimpmeter, the breaks would be deadly.

Sometimes it's best to be saved from a never-ending run of four-putt city.

Gentleness doesn't last long as a virtue at Bear, though. You'll get your pummeling elsewhere. Bear Mountain may not be your favorite course on a Vancouver Island golf trip. But it will be one you never forget, one that leaves you with happy golf war stories for years to come.

Hotels at Bear Mountain, in Victoria

Bear Mountain has a full Westin resort right on site that puts the Bear courses (a new Valley Course is set to open in late 2008) a mere elevator ride away. Westin Bear Mountain Resort is one of the nicest Westins you will find anywhere. The standard rooms are mammoth with big balconies to look out on all that mountain scenery and big bathrooms with huge Jacuzzi tubs to soak away any course beatings.

The spa offers a great golfer's foot treatment in which you drink a tall beer and stare at the mountains as your feet get soaked and massaged by a therapist (in many cases, a good-looking therapist). The food at Bear Mountain's better than the usual hotel offerings, too.

Fast Facts

Bear Mountain boasts views of not one, not two, not three, but five different mountain ranges.

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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