Jack Nicklaus and The Bear’s Club

It’s 10am on a February Tuesday in Jupiter, Fla. I’m en route to The Bear’s Club to talk to the private golf club’s founder and inspiration, Jack Nicklaus, about the updates completed in late 2023 on his original 1999 design in his South Florida backyard. It’s not every day you get to have a private conversation with golf’s most decorated player at his home course. (Nerves? Of course not…)

Upon arrival, I explore the 64,000-square-foot Tuscan-style clubhouse full of tone-setting touches—candid portraits from a hall-of-fame career; replica trophies, framed clubs, and scorecards marking signature moments; even a statue of Jack portraying his iconic putter raise, a pose that has also been repurposed as the club’s logo. I stop to marvel at a taxidermy polar bear protruding from a quaint sitting room, with a plaque detailing the unique significance of something otherwise completely out of place.

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A plaque explaining the significance of the taxidermy polar bear inside the clubhouse at The Bear’s Club (photo by Al Lunsford)

Understanding I’m meant to tee off around 11:30am and meet Jack at an unspecified location and time after making the turn, I’m led to the gentlemen’s locker room to get dressed, where out pops the 84-year-old legend.

“Hello Al, nice to see you again,” says Jack. “We’re supposed to chat later, right?”

“Yes sir, Mr. Nicklaus,” I reply, baffled he remembers my name. “I’m looking forward it.”

“Well, you’re here—why don’t we just do it now?”

(Sure, I wasn’t planning to use the next 2–3 hours to get my head straight, anyway!)

Jack leads me to the men’s grill room, shaking hands and saying hello to each member he passes along the way. I had met him a couple of times, most recently about a month earlier in Palm Beach Gardens at the grand opening of Panther National, a new course he co-designed alongside Justin Thomas. It was strictly business that day, with loads of media and new members in attendance, and Jack was cordial, but perhaps a bit reserved. Today, he is as warm as the roaring fire next to his favorite table where we settle for our brief chat. Muirfield Village in Ohio may be known as “Jack’s Place,” but it’s clear The Bear’s Club is Jack’s home.

“For years, I wanted a place down south where I could hang my hat,” says Nicklaus. “I come here every day. This is my place—I love it.”

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(photo courtesy The Bear’s Club)

I’d negotiated approximately 10 minutes of Mr. Nicklaus’s time with his team ahead of the visit, yet Jack happily spends the next half hour with me, sipping iced tea and covering a range of topics. We chat about his golf game, which doesn’t go much beyond ceremonial tee shots these days—playing somewhere like Augusta and hitting hybrid into every par four is “no fun for me anymore,” he says. But he has recently begun getting back out on the course again at The Bear’s Club, where a week prior he’d ventured out to play nine holes and was proud to report he’d broken 40 after a yearlong hiatus.

“I was afraid to start hurting myself; normally what happens is I play, and I’m hurt for a week,” Nicklaus says. “I came out here about a week ago and said I’m going to try it, and I really didn’t hurt too much. I shot 39, which I don’t hit it 200 yards anymore. It was kind of fun, so maybe I’ll take up golf again.”

Most of our conversation is geared toward the renovation of the golf course. Jack made tweaks to all 18 holes without changing the routing that has remained the same since the day the course opened, on New Year’s Eve in 1999, with a round alongside his four sons and even an opening tee shot by his wife, Barbara. When Jack devised The Bear’s Club, he had a vision of it being the finest conceivable private club and a reflection of his passion for golf. Though it was meant to be challenging, the course was never intended to present a stout championship test. And while Nicklaus says that members have loved playing it, the penal fairway surrounds, steep Royal Melbourne-inspired bunkers, and repelling greens proved particularly troublesome for the average golfer.

Coupled with world-class practice facilities that include a 400-plus-yard driving range, the design (and its secluded Jupiter locale) has attracted 30-or-so touring professionals to join—including the likes of Thomas, Patrick Cantlay, Shane Lowry, and Rory McIlroy. “But I didn’t do the golf course for them,” says Nicklaus. “At the same time, I didn’t want to ruin it for them.”

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The bag room at The Bear’s Club, where each touring professional has a bag with their preferred tournament golf balls for practice use. (photo courtesy The Bear’s Club)

The ensuing question was one that the game’s great designers all face: How could Jack make the golf course easier for the higher handicapper, and remain challenging for the better player? (What Gil Hanse calls the “secret sauce” of golf course architecture.)

“I have watched people play this golf course for 23 years,” Nicklaus said in a 2023 memo to the membership about the course updates. “I saw the places they hit the ball, where they lost their ball, the places where they had trouble, and I tried wherever possible to try to correct those situations.”

Nicklaus achieved this in three primary ways. First, he addressed the spaces around the course where chances of recovery were slim to none.

“It felt like I had so many areas on the golf course where there were nonrecoverable hazards—wetlands, lakes, heavy bushes where your ball’s gone,” Nicklaus says. “So, I tried to open that stuff up as much as I could. I think wetlands are very pretty—why can’t people see them?”

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(photo courtesy The Bear’s Club)

Additionally, Jack added in lines of defense, advancing the total number of bunkers from around 70­–80 to nearly 340, using some for aesthetics and placing many in spots that would stop balls from running into danger. The height of bunkers was also significantly reduced, down to 18 inches at most, so that even average golfers who mishit their sand shot would find their way out. While it’s up for debate whether the added bunkering has made the course any easier, it is certainly helping members keep from losing strokes from lost balls.

“Keeping the ball in play is a big emphasis—and the golf ball sales in the pro shop have gone down,” Nicklaus states with a grin.

Nicklaus’s second principal change focused on landing areas off the tee: “The fairways all went out and crowned at the turning point, which meant the shorter hitters hit it into the face of a hill and the longer hitters got a downslope and down-break. That was something that we used to do and honestly, I think it was wrong. So, I changed it and tried to make sure that the fairways really didn’t get an extra kick by hitting it long or the golfer get killed by hitting it short.”

The third big update came on the putting surfaces, where Nicklaus says there were “18 holes that repelled the golf ball.” By either relocating or reshaping many of the green sites and surrounds, Nicklaus surmises there are now nine holes that are semi-repelling and nine that collect and retain the golf ball.

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(photo courtesy The Bear’s Club)

“But you can still find a tough pin placement on every hole,” he says.

The shot demands at The Bear’s Club are engaging throughout the 7,328-yard layout, beginning at the first tee attached to the back of the practice putting green. Bunkers guard both sides of the opening fairway to keep balls out of the wetlands, and though a pot bunker in front of the green was removed, the green site was moved back into a hillside, stretching the opening hole more than 400 yards for most players.

There are plenty of places where it’s evident that Jack had the average player in mind in his course refresh. At the par-five 4th, Nicklaus eliminated an elevated green and built a subtler putting surface 25 yards farther behind a set of bunkers, adding extra fairway for those laying up. On the par-four 9th, Nicklaus moved the green forward off the wetlands to give room behind it and added a kicker slope short-right of the green, where a creative shot that lands short and runs will offer the thrill of seeing the ball disappear and reappear on the green. And at the reachable par-five 10th, although water runs from the tee through the green on the right, players can now drive to a wider landing area on the left before reaching fairway bunkers, a friendlier return to the course for anyone who just ate lunch on the back patio at the cozy halfway house.

The 10th kicks off a diverse back nine that includes the stellar short par-four 12th at only 342 yards from the championship tee; the par-four 15th where intruding wetlands at 100 yards short were filled in and a new hillside on the right feeds approach shots to a “potato chip” shaped green; and an escalating 3–4–5 three-hole finish. The picturesque par-five 18th is particularly memorable, and though the approach into a green that juts out into a lake in front of the clubhouse remains heart-racing, it is a little more benign after Nicklaus lowered the front of the green by two feet, helping hold the golf ball on the surface.

The Bear’s Club, 18th hole (photo by Al Lunsford)

While I did hear one Bear’s Club member grumble at the turn that he, “preferred the course before the changes,” most of the sentiment from others I surveyed echoed that of member John Jacob: “People ask me, ‘What’s the difference between the changes here and all the other golf courses I play?’ I say this is a player’s course. Some of the other courses are fun, and some are also challenging. But I have to think about all my shots here. There aren’t many where I can just blast it 220 out in the fairway. I’ve got to decide what I want to do.”

So, is Jack satisfied? From the sounds of it, he may not be ready to hang his hat on the updates just yet.

“I’ve got a couple of things I’ll probably change on the golf course after this summer,” he says. “The goal always should be to accommodate everybody.”

Have you ever visited The Bear’s Club? Tell us about your experience in the comment section.