by Jack Berry
Think of great finishing holes in golf and there are precious few birdies -- not on the brutish 18th at Oakland Hills, the muscled-up (with water, more sand and length) 18th on Doral's Blue Monster, the tiny little green 18th at Belvedere Golf Club, longtime home of the Michigan Amateur, the treacherous 18th at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass or the uphill, slide-right long narrow slippery green that closes the Masters Tournament each year.
And as far as the Michigan Open field is concerned, add the 18th on the Bear at Grand Traverse Resort, a downhill par 4 that measures 472 yards from the back with a huge oak tree in the middle of a split fairway and then a large pond fronting the green.
Only once since the Bear became the Open's home in 1985 has anyone birdied the 18th to win. Tim Matthews did it in 1986 with a huge drive down the right side and then a three-quarter 9-iron stiff. Matthews was two shots behind veteran Lynn Janson with five holes to play, drew even after Janson bogied the 14th and 17th and then won with the birdie on 18.
"When you're on that tee, it is not in your game plan to make a 3 (birdie) there," said defending champion Steve Brady who won his third Open on the Bear last year. Now an assistant professional at Oakland Hills Country Club, Brady said the Bear's 18th "is as good as it gets as far as a finishing hole is concerned."
"There are a lot of options to mess with your mind. If you go left, you can be into the prevailing wind and have anything from a 4-iron to a 6-iron. If you go right, I've had anything from a 7-iron to a wedge and you get a right to left wind," Brady said.
There's a lot of grass, and safety, on the left side; rough, water and the siren song of a short iron from the right side.
"I think it's one of the best holes on the golf course," said five-time Open champion Randy Erskine, professional at Great Oaks Country Club and winner of the 1985 Open, the first played on the Bear. "It's the ultimate risk-reward both on the tee shot and the second shot.
"If you play to the right fairway, you'll have at least two clubs less going into the green. I've hit everything from a 9-iron on the right to a 3-wood on the left -- I didn't hit a very good drive on that one," Erskine said. "Once you get on the green, you have to be an excellent putter because there are so many humps."
The 18th is the final challenge on perhaps the most challenging course in Michigan and Nicklaus and his chief design associate then, Bob Cupp, didn't sugarcoat it. The Bear's slope rating is 149 from the back and the course rating is 76.1. For you
masochists, only Indianwood's New Course has a higher slope and course rating -- 150 and 76.7.
"I remember vividly early in the design, walking the center lines with Nicklaus, Cupp and Paul Nine (the developer)," said Doug Grove, then the golf professional at Grand Traverse. "We were walking the third hole and Jack told Paul he'd give him 'a great resort course.'
Paul said, "I've got a resort course. I want a hard, championship course.' Jack didn't say anything and we walked on. He told Paul again he'd give him a great resort course and Paul again said he had a resort course and he wanted a hard, championship course.
"Jack's eyes were burning, even more burning than they get now. I could see him make up his mind that if that was what Paul wanted, he'd give it to him. And he did. It was a marketing ploy and some people hate it but I think it's a great course, I love it. It's one of my top five," said Grove who has opened three Nicklaus courses as the head professional -- the Bear, Country Club of the South in Atlanta and Glenmoor, south of Cleveland. He also opened Tom Doak's High Pointe in northern Michigan, Robert Trent Jones Junior's Orchards in suburban Detroit and now is at the Ray Hearn-designed Twin Lakes, also in suburban Detroit.
"On the 18th Nicklaus and Cupp talked about going left of the tree or right of it with the fairway and then decided to create a double fairway and give players an option. I think it's one of the greatest finishing holes in golf," Grove said.
The left side is longer but safer and the right is shorter and tempting and Brady said the inclination is to stand on the tee, aim at the big oak and, depending on your game, draw it to the left fairway or fade it to the right.
"But from the tee, you can't really see either fairway. You know there's a lot of room left and if you go right, there's deep rough or if you hit it long, you can drive into the water.
"So you get up there relaxed, aim at the tree -- and hit it straight."
The dreaded straight ball.
Straight means the ball lands in a swale dividing the fairways and while there's a fore caddie to mark where the ball falls, it's rough, literally, to get it out.
That's the drive.
The second shot is to the biggest green on the course, one that is divided, as Nicklaus likes to do, in four quadrants with a couple of large ridges. In the final round the flag is front right, just over the water.
"You can be safe and hit the green left but then you've got a 40-foot putt up over a ridge and down," Brady said. "If you're long, you've got a tough up and in.
"The first time I won (1991), I missed the green a little to the right and chipped to four feet. I had a three-stroke lead so that was a little comfortable. In 1992 I two-putted from 40 feet. Jeff Roth had a 15-footer for par_he had driven into the rough in the middle -- and missed it so we tied."
Brady won on the first playoff hole.
Brady didn't need overtime last year because Upper Peninsulan Scott Herbert bogied the 18th when a par would have put him into a playoff with Brady.
Brady blistered the Bear with four straight birdies in the middle of the final round enroute to a six-under-par 66 that capped earlier rounds of 73-70-71 for 280, eight under par, and the $14,410 first prize.
Herbert, a Ferris State University graduate, took the 54-hole lead with a 65 but could only match par in the final and tied 1994 champion Tom Gillis, minitour player from Lake Orion, for second. Gillis mounted a final round charge with a 68 but couldn't catch Brady.
Gillis and Dave Smith of Howell have come in off the minitours for Open victories but since the Open moved to the Bear in 1985, no one has played it better than Brady even though he hasn't birdied 18 in the final round.
"I birdied 18 in the final round one year," former Grand Traverse pro Grove said. "Of course, I opened with a 78 but then I shot three 72s. In the last round I hit a 3-iron as hard as I could. It stopped 12 feet from the cup and I made the putt. It's one of the most rewarding shots I've ever hit.
He could have sold it to Herbert last year. For the contenders, the 18th remains the grizzliest on the Bear.
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