Here’s a feel-good story from the Volunteer State, which nearly 20 years ago invested over $20 million to build a series of golf courses within a few of its state parks.
First, a little background. The man entrusted with the job of designing the layouts was Jack Nicklaus, who once confided that while he was very proud of his design career, he regretted not having built more courses the average person had access to and could afford to play. When the opportunity arose, Jack jumped at the chance to build a chain of low-cost, public-access venues within the Tennessee State Park system.
The trail’s name, The Bear Trace, was formed by combining Jack’s nickname, the Golden Bear, with the Natchez Trace, a historic byway that originates in Tennessee and was used by pioneers in the late 1700’s. With a handful of courses opened between 1998 – 2001, The Bear Trace has boosted the state’s appeal as a golf destination, though it has not had the impact of Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
One of my favorite venues on Tennessee’s golf trail, which I fully explored by driving from Knoxville to Memphis in 1999, is The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay.
Located on the outskirts of Chattanooga, the course is routed along the shores of Chickamauga Reservoir, a body of water developed by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s. A haven for campers, boaters and fishermen, the site was characterized as the state’s “best natural piece of land for a golf course” by the Nicklaus design team before ground was broken. Seven of the 18 holes on this brawny 7,111-yard course skirt the shoreline of the lake, the holes unfolding on gently rolling terrain. A second-growth forest of pines and oaks defines the perimeter of each hole. And while water touches 12 of the fairways, there is no sense of claustrophobia at Harrison Bay. In typical Nicklaus fashion, there is ample room to hit safely off the tee.
There was only one fly in the ointment at a facility where the weekday green fee for walkers tops out at $32. Dating back to 2003, the layout’s large, subtly contoured bentgrass greens suffered one agronomic setback after another
Enter Paul L. Carter, who recently received the 2011 TurfNet Superintendent of the Year Award. Carter, who’s been on the job at Harrison Bay for 10 years, had watched with dismay while the bentgrass greens went belly up in the Chattanooga heat every summer. He has successfully rebuilt the greens and regrassed them with Champion ultradwarf Bermudagrass, a suitable varietal for the climate. The changeover also reduced the facility’s chemical use and significantly lowered the maintenance budget.
In a clear indication that a proactive superintendent can spell the difference, especially at a public facility within a state park, Carter rebuilt bunkers, improved drainage and converted 40 acres of out-of-play areas to native grasses, which reduced water use while providing more wildlife habitat. Under Carter’s watch, Harrison Bay has installed 45 nesting houses, introduced 218 plants native to Tennessee and renovated the chemical storage facility. Carter also led the effort to obtain sanctuary status for Harrison Bay, which has been recognized for environmental stewardship by Audubon International.
The course starts mildly, its first two fairways wide, beckoning and unmarked by bunkers. The routing comes alive at the fourth, a gorgeous 184-yard par 3 that plays to a green perched 10 feet above the red clay shores of the lake, its right side defended by two deep bunkers. The rest of the front nine plays nip-and-tuck with the lakeshore, cozying up to coves where fisherman sit offshore in their boats, casting for bass.
The slightly shorter back nine at Harrison Bay seems benign at first, but the in-your-face par-3 14th throws down the gauntlet. Only a high-flying shot will carry a corner of the lake that sits between tee and green, although there is a generous bail-out area to the right of the green. The layout boasts a strong trio of holes at the finish, a pair of sturdy par 4’s wrapped around a double-dogleg par 5ive at the 17th. The home hole is a dandy: the target off the tee is a hogback fairway that tumbles downhill to the prettiest setting on the course, the reservoir shimmering to the left and behind the green. Slotted into a hill above the green is the log cabin clubhouse duplicated at all The Bear Trace facilities. With a healthy stand of grass on the greens, the view from the clubhouse porch is quite a bit more pleasant these days.
After the round, be sure to explore the city’s Bluff View Art District. Tucked neatly atop tall stone cliffs high above the Tennessee River, the district is a blend of al fresco trattorias, sculpture gardens and art galleries. There’s even a bocce court and terrace clinging to the bluff.