The course runs along the ridges overlooking the Middle and South Bosque rivers on terrain more often found in the Hill Country than in Central Texas. Limestone-filled streams cut between century-old oak trees and skirt the edges of some of the back holes, several of which feature elevation changes of up to 50 feet. On a cool spring day, with the heady scent of bluebonnets filling the air, even a duffer might think he'd died and gone to heaven.
Not quite, but close. The new Bear Ridge Golf Course, which had a soft opening in late 2001 and now is in full swing, would challenge Mark Twain's assertion that the game "is a good walk spoiled." In these scenic surroundings, even a string of triple bogeys couldn't ruin the walk.
The 205-acre golf course is the new home for the Baylor men's and women's golf teams and the centerpiece of the planned Villages at Twin Rivers, a 255-acre residential development of Bosque River Chase Ltd., which deeded the land for the golf course to the University.
Baylor golf coaches Tim Hobby and Sylvia Ferdon are still having a hard time believing their good fortune. "Kids who wouldn't even talk with us are now interested in Baylor golf," Ferdon says. "All they have to do is come here and see this, and they're hooked. It was something Tim and I needed if we were going to be competitive in the next three to five years."
The dream of Houston developer Dennis Nelson and a group of Waco real estate developers, the property is on Highway 84, about 20 minutes southwest of the Baylor campus. The 18-hole, par-72 public facility, designed by PGA Tour star Peter Jacobsen and architect/teacher Jim Hardy, is managed by Kemper Sports Group and includes an 8,000-square-foot, two-story clubhouse available to rent for charity tournaments and group events.
Located only a couple hundred yards from the new clubhouse is the Bill and Roberta Bailey Baylor Golf Center, a 5,500-square-foot indoor/outdoor team practice facility. It includes a spacious den with big-screen TV, personalized wood lockers, space for team meetings and offices for the coaches. It also features indoor putting, a short game area and practice range, with three driving bays and a computerized video teaching system.
"They can practice anytime, day or night," Jacobsen says. "Players will be able to practice in three covered, lighted, heated driving stalls equipped with video so they'll have not only their own facility, but they can really improve their game if they want to go on to the PGA or LPGA."
The Bailey center is located directly behind the seventh green, allowing Baylor golfers to play the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth holes all within sight of their practice facility.
Bear Ridge has won the praise of pro golfer Jerry Smith, who graduated from Baylor in 1986 and is the University's only full-time representative on the PGA tour.
"I've played Bear Ridge two times, and I'm very impressed with the entire setup and operation," Smith says. "The best thing is the practice facility for the players and the way the course wraps around the building. We didn't have anything close to this when I was there."
Bear Ridge is a giant step forward for Baylor's golf programs, which have improved steadily in recent years. Since the programs began -- 1950 for the men and 1988 for the women -- the teams have played on borrowed courses. Their primary "home" course was Ridgewood Country Club.
The women's program went from ranking in the top 130 programs in the nation nine years ago when Ferdon took over to being ranked in the top 30 with numerous tournament victories to its credit. The men's program also has improved under Hobby, a former Baylor golfer. Last year, the team captured its first Big 12 golf conference title over traditional powers such as Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas. This year, the men qualified for the NCAA championship tournament for the first time.
"I remember when we used to have to hold our team meetings at a local country club and ladies would always be wandering in and out to their lockers or to a bridge game," Ferdon says. "This is so nice, it's just amazing. One of my girls said all we need is a couple of cots and we could stay here all the time."
The payoff for Hobby, now in his sixth year as head coach, has been immediate in recruiting. "This can only help us. The next logical step is hosting an NCAA regional and getting more kids to want to play golf at Baylor," he says.
Tour pro Jacobsen agrees. "College golf is a big business now, and Bear Ridge will boost the Baylor programs into the top level for the next 20 years."
Bear Ridge will be the site of a Baylor men's college tournament in fall 2003 and also will host future Baylor and alumni events, possibly in connection with fall football weekends, Hobby says.
To build their dream course, developer Nelson and the Baylor administration turned to a pair of designers with plenty of experience in producing top courses. Jacobsen built his reputation as a solid player with six tour wins and two appearances on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He and Hardy designed the highly regarded Oregon Golf Club near Portland in 1990 and formed the Jacobsen-Hardy Golf Course Design firm in 1995. Since then, they have combined to design more than a dozen courses across the country, including Blackhorse Golf Club in Houston. After walking the rolling, wooded acreage of the Bear Ridge property, the two designers knew they could create something special for Baylor.
"We were provided with a beautiful piece of land," Hardy says. "This will become one of the top courses in Texas and will be reminiscent of many of the scenic, rolling courses you see in Austin."
Jacobsen, who works out of Portland, still plays some tour events and hosts his own two-day event each year. He's made dozens of trips to Waco in the past two years to help shape the Bear Ridge design and meet with course officials.
"Nothing would make me happier than to see a couple of star players come from this program because they had a great place to play and practice," he says.
Nelson also is pleased. "I feel like a new father at birth watching everything come together," he said while touring the nearly finished facilities in late spring. "I'm proud to see it like this."
Baylor golfers have wasted no time in exploring their new home. Jon Antunes, a junior from Killeen, had played the course close to 50 times by mid-summer.
"It makes you hit every club in your bag and I like a challenging course like that. You have to hit the ball low and high and have to be a good ball striker to have success out there," he says.
Melanie Hagewood, a senior from Clarkesville, Tenn., is Baylor's first woman golfer to win Academic All-American. She likes the variety in the course. "It almost seems like two different nines. The front nine is more open, almost like a links course, while the back nine is more wooded and has more character," she says.
At 7,478 yards from the back tees, Bear Ridge is the longest course in Texas. The 10th hole is a blind par-5 tee shot with a small creek cutting right in front of the green. The par-3 14th hole has an elevated tee shot stretching 216 yards from the back marks. A huge oak tree blocks part of the green and fairway, and the Bosque River runs to the right behind the green. The par-4 15th is a tight driving hole with water and thick brush crowding in on both sides. An extremely accurate drive is needed before golfers can think about approaching the undulant green. "I think the last five holes are as good as you'll see anywhere," Smith says.
Ferdon sums up the course: "Visually, it looks great, it's fun to play, and I think it gets better and better the more times you play it."
Stricklin, BA '83, received his degree in journalism and political science. He is a Dallas-based freelance writer.