King & Bear: A great golf course, but not quite as great as its designers

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - There are quite a few golf clubs that market their courses as collaborations between legendary designers. But often they are collaborators only in the loosest sense of the word. One may design the front nine, the other the back. Often they stay well apart from each other, sharing only a common employer.

King & Bear golf course
The King & Bear is a true collaboration between Nicklaus and Palmer.
King & Bear golf courseJacksonville - King & BearKing & Bear golf course
If you go

By all accounts, The King & Bear at World Golf Village near St. Augustine was a true collaboration between two of the most revered names in golf, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. They actually walked the layout together, consulted one another, even played the course together. Unusual, since they are almost as competitive as course architects as they were as players.

In fact, when they did play, Nicklaus is said to have joked to Palmer: "See, I told you we should have put that bunker over there."

"Let's see: Nicklaus hit it left, Palmer hit it right. So all the holes should be straight, right?" quipped Rich Sudol, a mid-handicapper from Connecticut who now makes his home in Jupiter, Fla.

Not quite. Draws and fades are both required here. So, what should you expect from this meeting of titans? About what we got: an excellent course, one of the better ones along the First Coast. That said, the King and the Bear isn't likely to make any top-100 lists. Make no mistake: The names are the big draw here.

"I like it," Sudol said, "but I don't think it's worth the premium they charge."

Indeed, it may be the heightened expectations that come with the Hall of Fame collaboration, but there is nothing overwhelmingly dramatic about the course, nothing to amaze or delight or send you into paroxysms of golf ecstasy. Some critics call it overrated.

Still, hype aside, this is a top-notch track. Palmer's design team did the original routing out in the western sticks of St. John's County, then Nicklaus came in and worked on the strategic aspects.

Course officials say Palmer's influence is the most obvious - witness the beach bunkers. There are a fair share of holes Palmer would have loved, but also some that Nicklaus, with his power fade, would have enjoyed. There are also the Nicklaus-trademark open fairways, with many holes giving you multiple, alternative routes to the green. The Bear's paw can also be seen in the subtly contoured greens.

"It's a traditional layout, but with a few more forced carries," Assistant Professional John Townsend said. "The fairways are wide, and there are a lot of bail-out areas. There's a little elevation change and some deep bunkers. The greens have subtle breaks, there isn't a whole lot of undulation."

There are a number of standout holes, starting with No. 1, rated the toughest hole on the course, a 426-yard par 4 with water left and a lot of Palmer's bunkers. No. 5 is a nice, risk/reward par 5 with a prodigious carry off the tee; you can play it safe to the left, go over the bunkers to reach the fairway or gamble even more by trying to carry as much of the water as you can, leaving you within easy reach of the green.

No. 9 is a beautifully-crafted par 4 with the fairway tilting toward the water that runs the length of the hole to the right, and No. 14 is another picturesque hole, a relatively short par 4 with the bouldered green just to the left of water.

The Verdict

The King & Bear is an upscale daily-fee course that commands green fees up to $200 depending on the season. If you want to spend that kind of money to play a course with such vaunted names attached to it, so be it.

"It is a nice layout," Sudol said. "It's got a nice mix of holes, long and short par 4s. I'd give it an A-minus or a B-plus."

It can also clean your clock, at 7,279 yards from the back tees with a high slope rating of 143. The course has five sets of tees.

"It's user-friendly if you play from the right tees," said Head Professional Gina Hall. "But it can also be a bear."

Stay and Play

In spread-out Jacksonville, location is the key in lodging; it can be difficult getting around to the courses on the First Coast. There are a couple of good places to stay near Interstate 95, which will take you north or south, and Butler Boulevard, which heads east to the beaches. The Best Western is at the intersection of I-95 and Butler, eight miles from downtown and about 15 miles from the beaches. The six-story motel has in-room, high-speed Internet access, free continental breakfast, pool, fitness center and sauna. It also has meeting space that can handle 150 of you business types. The Hilton Garden Inn is another good, centrally located place. It offers free in-room Internet, a business center, whirlpool and a fitness center. The rooms have microwaves and small refrigerators. There are any number of other accommodations in the area.

Dining Out

The Hilton has the Great American Grill restaurant, which serves breakfast, and there are a bunch of restaurants within walking distance. One of them, the Seven Bridges Brewery, provides room service to the hotel (try the flame-grilled meat loaf). Also nearby: Don Pablo's, Tony Roma's, Jacksonville Ale House, Jason's Deli, Copeland's and the Gallery Bistro.

Harbourside is an excellent golf course, especially May through Dec. 14 when green fees are $78 and $58 after 12:30 p.m.

Fast Fact

The course is right down the road from World Golf Village and the Golf Hall of Fame.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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