Black Bear Golf Club: One of the Strongest Deals in Central Florida

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

EUSTIS, Fla. - Black Bear Golf Club occupies its own precious space in the greater Orlando golf scene both geographically and categorically. The golf course is located approximately 35 miles north of Orlando in sleepy agriculture land near the small towns of Mt. Dora and Eustis. Few other golf courses are near, so for serious golfers in this part of the state, it's the only high quality game in town.

Black Bear Golf Club
Black Bear Golf Club, a P.B. Dye design, opened for play in November of 1995.
Black Bear Golf ClubBlack Bear Golf Club
If you go

A good game it is. The course fills a stylistic niche, playing like a seaside course from the northeastern part of the country, or possibly the Caribbean. Not too many landlocked countryside courses can match it on that level. The effect is achieved primarily by the creation of high sandy dunes that three-fourths of the layout is routed between and around.

The absence of development on the course, which unfortunately will not last for long, and fairways that play below the level of the dunes, adds to the assumption that there must be a sea somewhere near. The Atlantic is the closest thing, 50 miles away.

This is a quiet part of Florida, a humble nook nestled safely away from the big draws of Orlando, which include Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. Odds are the traveler will not just happen by Black Bear unless a day or two in Silver Springs Recreation Area and Ocala National Forest, located just north, are in the itinerary. Is it worth the visit as a destination course?

David Ford, Director of Golf at Black Bear, says that golfers from all parts of the state make regular treks to the course. "There's nothing like it in Central Florida," he says. "To get the type of golf we have here, you'd pretty much have to leave the state." There is no denying the uniqueness of the design concept. It's fun to play if for no other reason than it offers things that almost all other courses in the region cannot.

No Dye trickery at Black Bear Golf Club

Black Bear opened for play in November of 1995 and was designed by P.B. Dye, one of the sons of legendary architect Pete Dye, who has become respected in the field for his own accomplishments. Posting the name Dye on a course anywhere in the world garners it immediate recognition as well as the predictable puns and monikers such as "it's a do-or-Dye course" or, as is the case here, a warning to expect the "usual-unusual".

For some this will be enough to pique their interest, but in reality these are simply catchy phrases, sound bytes that can be generically attached to any Dye-family designed course. In fact, there is nothing particularly tricky or diabolical about Black Bear. The course offers six different tee boxes from 7,002 yards to 5,044 yards, so golfers can choose their own difficulty.

From the tee it's wide open with very few hazards other than bunkers and large sandy waste areas. The routing of the course takes the path of least resistance, tumbling primarily though the low ground and snaking around the built-up dunes in a very natural progression.

This "valley" mode serves several effective purposes. From the golf standpoint, it frames the hole as well as cradles miss hit shots, much like bumpers on a pool table.

On the design side, it isolates one hole from the next and creates barriers between tightly packed holes, so a championship length course can be laid out on a relatively small piece of property. Of course, all this adds up to the aforementioned feel of seaside golf, if one could ignore the surrounding farmland.

To label it a "links" course, however, is mistaken. The greens are prototypically modern, slightly elevated and undulating, with hidden bunkers and disguised chipping areas surrounding them.

"The approach shots are target-oriented," Ford tells. "The emphasis out here is really on approach shots and the short game. If you're on the wrong side of the hole you'll have a difficult up-and-down." This is an understatement. Scoring at Black Bear will typically be all about chipping, pitching and putting.

While it's not a typically scintillating Dye-design replete with railroad ties and risk-reward carry shots over water, Black Bear is strong on its own merits. Therefore it's not the Dye name, but rather the open, unique and well-composed design that is, and should be, the attraction. Here is a memorable blend of lowland "links" routing with target golf second shots.

Dozens of courses in this part of the state offer the newest version of sleek, modern golf course design, but few can match the anomaly of this Black Bear combination. "This reminds me of a lot of courses along the Front Range in Colorado," says Keith McLaughlin of Denver. "I have to keep reminding myself I'm in Florida." Again, give the course credit for being like nothing else nearby.

This style of course may not amaze those who visit from other, more dramatically contoured parts of the country, but it is certainly intriguing for Florida. Compared to the fine, but flattish courses golfers here are accustomed to, Black Bear is downright mountainous.

In a region where every course claims to "out-terrain" the next, this course actually plays hilly: uphill, downhill, sidehill. This, and the fact that there are virtually no level lies to be found anywhere on the course, makes for fascinating, and sometimes frustrating, golf. "I'm not sure the ball was ever level with my feet," McLaughlin said. "I've never had to swing from some of those positions before."

Black Bear achieves its notoriety for its open, rolling design, but perhaps the most memorable holes are the five that close out the front side. This part of the course plays through a meadow whereas the other 13 are nestled over barren land. The proximity of so many trees and greenery adds an unexpected touch of sanctuary to the otherwise bald and bumpy course.

The character of these holes reflects the more gentile nature of the land. They are seemingly more tame, traditional, and pretty. It's a pleasure to complete the front side on the eighth and ninth holes, tree-lined parallel par fours of 462 and 398 yards from the back tees, playing down and uphill respectively.

They are strong, beautiful holes, just the right touch of solitude before embarking on the exposed, prairie-like back nine. As a group these five holes are a welcome change of pace.

There are no shortages of entertainment in the Orlando area-it is the most active and "attractive" city in Florida. For those visiting the north side of town, Black Bear is one of the featured golfing attractions.

Ocala and Daytona Beach area visitors will also want to try this course as it's more interesting than most of the golf experiences in those towns, LPGA International excluded. It's not a difficult drive. "The other great thing about our course is that it is 45 minutes from everywhere," Ford says.

The course is popular not just for vacationers. Black Bear has hosted various tournaments including a U.S. Amateur Qualifier and a stop on the Teardrop Tour circuit.

More than 20 pros from tours such as the Nike Tour, the Hooter's Tour, and the European Tour practice regularly at Black Bear's facilities, which include a double ended driving range and a mammoth chipping and putting green. Inside the clubhouse, Vic's Embers serves great lunch and snacks.

Green fees vary by time and day. Monday through Thursday the cost is $35 before noon, $25 from noon to two, and $20 after two. Weekend rates are $45 before noon, $30 from noon to two, and $25 after two.

These rates are more than competitive considering the area and the conditioning of the course. For those willing to tee off after two p.m. it's one of the strongest deals in Central Florida.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.


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