Black Bear Golf Club - Trails to the Past

By: Steve Habel

The 14-month-old Black Bear Golf Club in the far northeast corner of Louisiana in Delhi continues its rise to the top of the class of courses in the Pelican State thanks to its combination of isolation, conservation and a style unlike any other in the region. The layout, which debuted in June 2006, was designed by Austin, Texas-based Roy Bechtol and Randy Russell and is patterned after many of the courses the former team utilized in the successful tracks it built in Texas, California and Nevada. After little more than a year, Black Bear is already a prominent stop on Louisiana's 13-course Audubon Golf Trail.

The 7,200-yard course spans varied topography that involves both tree-lined holes and open spaces. Because it sits atop 300 acres of Macon Ridge, it boasts elevation changes uncommon in almost all other Louisiana golf courses.

"Roy was able to keep the course natural and assure that Black Bear is not just an ordinary course," said Francis Thompson, the Louisiana state representative who championed the course and the adjoining Poverty Point. "Without the elevation changes, Black Bear would have been a 'same old, same old' course like most in Louisiana, but Roy found a way to utilize the site and was able to bring out the unique character of the course."

Black Bear has considerable variety - long par-4s and short par-4s, target golf and swing-away wide fairways, reachable par-5s and monster three-shotters - all on a course bracketed by environmentally sensitive wetlands, a strict adherence to nature and a relationship to its historic surroundings.

"We paid attention to the boundaries and edges that the track provided us," Bechtol said. "Black Bear gives golfers a chance to 'feel' the site and the wetlands that surround the course and understand that the course has only enhanced that feel, instead of interrupting it. You get out there and it is almost like you are part of the site itself."

Although technically in the Mississippi Delta region, an area characterized by flat terrain, Black Bear winds up and down and through wooded creek bottoms, providing golfers with a feeling of isolation and a kinship with nature. Administrative consultant Mike Thompson said Bechtol "saw the course in the land even before a spade of dirt had been lifted. The course that was on the site just waiting to be discovered, and Roy found it and nurtured it," Thompson said. "He understood and fostered our desire to build a course that would interfere as little with the natural surroundings as possible that would also be a unique challenge to golfers. This course is unlike any other in Louisiana, and I truly believe that Roy is the only architect and land planner who could have brought our vision to reality."

One of the reasons Bechtol enjoyed success at Black Bear is that he also designed and planned the 3,000-acre, man-made lake which is the centerpiece for Poverty Point Reservoir State Park. The reservoir and golf course offer visitors fishing, a variety of watersport activities and now golf. Also on tap is a new RV park with 54 pads and 50-amp service as well as 12 two-bedroom lodges, some situated above the water.

Poverty Point is named for the nearby Native American National Historic Landmark Area. Dubbed the Poverty Point culture, its people settled on the banks of Bayou Macon, near what is now the community of Epps, between 1,400 and 700 B.C. Park guests are only 20 minutes away from Poverty Point State Historic Site, an archaeological research area since the mid-20th Century.

The Bogzag and Cypress creeks bisect Black Bear Golf Club and create significant wetlands. The holes generally follow - and cross - the creeks and pass through heavily treed creek bottoms. The result is a layout that weaves from tree-lined holes to open expanses and features large Tif Eagle greens, lush fairways, native grasses in non-play areas, large bunkers (some shaped like bear paws), 170-plus acres of wetlands and bridges.

The course, built by Weitz Golf International, is named after the Louisiana black bear which are often sighted on or near the reservoir. Bechtol even left a tree behind the 15th green previously used by the bears to hibernate in winters.

"Roy is a class act with great, great ideas and great vision," Rep. Thompson said. "Black Bear is a course that is memorable and fun to play for all golfers because of Roy's vision and understanding of the environment. Also, we saved the black bear habitat - and the bear have stayed with us - and we saved the natural lakes and streams, and those ideas were paramount to this project."

Eric Kaspar, the director of the Audubon Golf Trail, said when a golfer is out on Black Bear, he or she is really able to enjoy being away from it all and to simply think about playing golf. "The remoteness and natural setting of the course promote this feeling," Kasper said. "The hills catch a lot of people off-guard, and the course is more challenging than they are used to."

A round at Black Bear begins and ends with stern tests, and in between features four par-4s of 461 yards or longer, two par-3s that stretch up to 225 yards, a dead tree that guards the green and challenges throughout. "The first hole is one on my favorites on the course because it gives you an indication of the test ahead of you," Kaspar said. "It looks intimidating off the tee with the large fairway bunker and lake but can be one of the easier driving holes. You can't see the landing area of the fairway so it looks narrow, but is actually fairly wide.

"If you hit it decently over the fairway bunker on the right side, you can catch the 'speed slot' at about 175 yards out and get extra yardage," Kaspar added. "The green is guarded by several large bunkers with the lead bunker 50 yards out from the hole, giving the golfer a misperception of yardage. Although a long hole at 461 yards, you will usually have a mid- to low-iron into the green, which sets up for a draw. While birdies are rare, a par is not difficult."

The experience at Black Bear ends with a chance for reward and a way to give that stoke right back. "No. 17 is a par-5 that plays at 535 yards, but for the low handicap player it should be a birdie hole," Kaspar said. "The fairway slants from left to right, and the left side landing area is guarded by a bunker, so a nice draw off the tee into the slope is optimum. The approach is guarded by two levels of fairway bunker so you'll need to make a big decision. I think I like this one because of the vision of the many bunkers - you feel like you're on a journey when looking at it."

The finishing hole, the 461-yard, uphill, par-4 18th, rises to the rustic clubhouse in the background. The fairway initially descends, crosses a creek and rises up to the green. Par is a good score here, especially if the wind is in your face.

"I am very proud of the way we have been able to create a real championship golf course at Black Bear," Bechtol said. "I really think the course offers something for everyone and - for my money - is the best track in the state. As it matures, Black Bear will only get better and harder, but the course is more fun than just about any other I have played."

Black Bear is located just six miles north of Interstate 20 in Poverty Point State Park. The course is only 30 minutes east of Vicksburg, Miss., a hotbed for riverboat gambling.

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