Brings some sizzle to Poconos golf scene

Golfing in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania is a retro experience, maybe too much so.

While the area has a bounty of modestly priced, finely manicured, scenic courses, there is sameness to the traditional layouts, bare-bones clubhouses and flashbacks to Jackie Gleason and Jimmy Demaret.

Individually, the courses of the Poconos are stellar. Collectively, there is something lacking.

Helping fill the void is Great Bear Golf Club. With a thoroughly modern design by Jack Nicklaus, a sprawling clubhouse and an ambitious mission, Great Bear adds sizzle to the Poconos' homogenous golf scene.

Now for the first time since it debuted in 1997, anyone can play the course. After a period of dormancy, Great Bear is open to the public as it attempts to regain members and eventually make another go as a private club under new ownership.

Mounting financial pressures in a down economy forced its closure in 2010. At an auction last fall, Charlie Kirkwood, owner of nearby Shawnee Country Club, combined with a local group to purchase Great Bear. Because the course was well-maintained during its closure, Great Bear was able to reopen in April, showing no ill effects from its hibernation.

With its muscular, modern layout, Great Bear has a different feel than its local old-school competition, where the premium is often on precise shot-making. Nicklaus' player-friendly design has plenty of blind tee shots and forced carries. But the fairways are wide, the greens are spacious and the tall trees, which beautifully frame the holes, are offset and often out of play.

Make no mistake, at 7,025 yards from the back tees and with a par of 71, a course rating of 73.4 and a slope of 139, there's plenty of course to challenge the best players. But Great Bear is also enjoyable for high-handicapers and flexible enough to make the nation's top 100 list of women-friendly courses (Golf for Women).

Great Bear stretches out over a magnificent parcel of rugged land, integrating lakes, streams and wetlands. Each hole is an entity to itself. The highlights include a pair of dramatic par-5s -- No. 8 (578 yards) and No. 18 (575 yards), which play toward the clubhouse -- and No. 7, a 175-yard, downhill par-3 to a narrow green.

Great Bear's best stretch is at the start of the back nine, which opens with an intimidating tee shot over water to a blind fairway. It follows with some typical Nicklaus deception at No. 11, a 222-yard par-three that looks tight and tough from the tee but plays to a generous green. No. 12 is a big, wide, bending par-4 and a blessed relief after the tee-shot stress of the previous two holes.

After a trip around Great Bear, there's little mystery why Kirkwood, a Harvard-educated lawyer, has purchased the property. His golden touch is apparent at Shawnee, a distinctive, 27-hole masterpiece, set on an island in the Delaware River.

By adding of an inviting brew pub, The Gem at Keystone, a lighted, six-hole, pitch and putt course designed by Tom Doak, and renovating the classic A.W. Tillinghast course, Kirkwood has updated and restored the greatness of Shawnee. Count on him doing the same at Great Bear.