April 2008

Golden Bear: HHI's Home Course

Author: Paul deVere

Golden Bear’s general manager and head professional, Neil Ryan, described his course succinctly: “It’s a test of all levels.” It is also one of the most popular “tests” for golfers on Hilton Head Island, whether they are residents or visitors. Because of its location, its staff and the quality of the venue, it has become the island’s unofficial “home course.”

Golden Bear doesn’t offer any sweeping water views (unless you count the water hazard that guards the front of #18 green) or dramatic panoramas, though it is quietly beautiful. What it does offer is reward for well-placed shots and a chance (sometimes slim) to scramble for par when the ball ends up on the left when it should have ended up on the right.

To make the game more user-friendly, each cart is equipped with the ProTrac GPS Electronic Caddy System. It automatically displays a full-color overview of a hole when the golfer reaches the tee, gives tips about the hole and highlights hidden hazards. During tournaments, there is even live scoring.

Created by the Nicklaus design team, Golden Bear opened for play in 1992 and has been a frequent host to local charity tournaments from the very first day. “I’m very big on that,” Ryan said. With good reason. Unlike the off island competition, where public and semi-private courses are “front row center” on U.S. 278, Golden Bear’s 18 holes are woven into a private, residential community—Indigo Run—at the end of a long and winding road. Charity events not only show that the Golden Bear is a good neighbor; they remind local golfers what a great course they can come play just about any time theywant to. Travel + Leisure magazine ranked it in the top 100 courses in America you can play for under $100.

“We might be one of the last public access courses on the island that’s not affiliated with a resort or hotel,” Ryan explained. Which means there is no captive golfing audience. Which means it must stand on its own.

Golden Bear relies heavily on what the golfer takes away from the course. “We go out of our way to treat our customers well. We get comments all the time of how great the staff is, from the bag drop guy to people in food and beverage. It’s also, year-round, one of the best conditioned courses on the island,” Ryan explained. “What matters is the whole experience.”

Ryan said that “experience” is why Golden Bear enjoys so much repeat business. He said that a number of vacationing golfers have been coming to the club since the year it opened. And golfers tend to share that experience. “Word of mouth on this island is unbelievable. We’ll ask, ‘How did you hear about us?’ And they’ll say, ‘Well, we were sitting down in Murphy’s Pub’ or wherever. Word of mouth is huge for us,” Ryan said.

What is also huge for Golden Bear is ClubCorp, the highly respected management company that operates the club. Now owned by KSL Capital Partners, ClubCorp, manages more than 170 private business and sports clubs, country clubs, golf courses, and golf resorts around the world. Think Pinehurst. Think Greenbriar and The Homestead. Think La Costa. While Golden Bear is a public access course, Indigo Run property owners can become members of the club, which includes reduced golf fees, tennis at Indigo Run (see sidebar) and a plethora of benefits at other ClubCorp properties when members travel.

One ClubCorp initiative found at Golden Bear is the “Family-Friendly Short Course” layout. “It’s something we’ve just rolled out and it’s been a huge hit with members,” Ryan said. “We’re really concentrating, as a company, on the family, getting families back together.” The teeing areas are placed approximately 100 yards in front of the forward tees on Par-4 and par-5 holes and have a special scorecard matching the new yardage. “We’re going to be using it more in the summer,” Ryan said. “Courses keep getting longer and harder than the one before. This format is great for kids, mothers and older golfers.”

Another great idea didn’t come from ClubCorp or Ryan, but from one of his assistants, Wes Matheny. Golden Bear doesn’t have an established junior golf program, so Matheny just started one. “He’s been doing it over a year. On Friday afternoon a busload of kids comes over from the Boys and Girls Club, and he spends about two hours with them. He does it all on his own,” Ryan said.

On an island that is world-renowned for its top notch resort courses and private clubs, it’s good to know there’s one that offers the same quality that is available for anyone to play. And it’s right in the neighborhood. Golden Bear. Hilton Head Island’s “home course.”

Golden Bear Tennis
It might come as a surprise, but quite a few members of the Golden Bear Golf Club also play tennis. Actually, the private tennis club at Indigo Run’s Sunningdale Park is part of the membership package. “We have a very active tennis program,” said Mike O’Regan, Director of Tennis. He said the combined membership between Golden Bear and The Golf Club numbers 120.

The tennis complex includes six clay courts. “We have a number of teams playing out of here. I run clinics for the teams on a daily and weekly basis,” O’Regan said. Golden Bear members compete locally against teams from other communities in USTA sanctioned events and some go on to play regionally. “Our men’s 3.5 senior team and super seniors won the state tournament. We’ve had some success with our 4.5 senior women’s team. They got off to a pretty good start,” he added.

O’Regan has been at the club for two years. Shortly after he came to Golden Bear, Tennis Magazine published an article titled “Six Great Places to Retire.” One of those places was Hilton Head Island, which the writer described as the “350-court gorilla of resort destinations.” O’Regan said, “Somehow I got contacted by the magazine and, of all the clubs on Hilton Head, they featured ours.”

Rather impressive when you consider that per capita, Hilton Head Island has more tennis courts than any place else in the world.

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