Why ‘The Bear Trap’ is one of golf’s most treacherous stretches
This week’s Honda Classic is known first and foremost for a singular stretch of holes at PGA National. It’s called, simply, The Bear Trap.
The fate of those who visit the Bear Trap is as ominous as it sounds. It’s one of the most treacherous stretches of holes all season long. Nicknamed for Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, who redesigned the Championship Course at PGA National, the Bear Trap is inclusive of the 15th, 16th and 17th holes, a pair of par-3s sandwiching a tough par-4. They each rank as some of the hardest holes on the course, with 15 and 17th playing as the second- and third-toughest holes during the Honda Classic.
“It’s not about length,” Nicklaus said about the holes years ago. “It’s about precision. It’s about guts.”
It starts with the 15th, which plays about 180 yards from the tee, requiring a full carry over a water hazard to the green. On Sunday, the pin is tucked back and to the right, directly between a greenside bunker and the hazard. When Nicklaus says precision, this is what he means.
The hole had already claimed seven victims with double bogeys or worse Sunday a full hour before the leaders would reach it. One of those was Lee Hodges, who pulled his approach into that back bunker, played a putter from the sand over the green and into the hazard. He’d splash out and two-putt for a crippling double. As he learned quickly, the hole doesn’t get any easier.
The 16th is the easiest part of the Bear Trap but it still weighs on players as it plays over par on average. Measuring around 430 yards, players play into the fairway and are left with a similar distance into the green as 15. And with a similar carry over the hazard. As the tournament winds down, very few birdie opportunities introduce themselves. Players can try and force the issue on 16. That’s what Nicklaus means by guts.
Players would be inclined to make moves on 16 if they can, while they can. No. 17 looms with plenty of difficulty as well. It plays shorter than the others, about 140-145 yards, so it’s nothing more than a pitching wedge or 9-iron for the pros. But with where the pin is located on Sundays, getting close is just plain risky. The Sunday pin on 17 is just on the other side of the carry. Coming up short of that is a splash ball. Going long of it, a draw will bound into a tricky bunker shot. A fade hit without conviction can balloon in the wind.
On paper, there’s simplicity to the Bear Trap. Essentially, players find themselves with three consecutive iron shots, and they theoretically get easier as you move throughout the course. But that’s on paper. Or in a vacuum. Without conditions, without nerves, without the stakes of the moment setting in. Without fans breathing down your neck! One of the best modern aspects of the Bear Trap is that Honda Classic organizers have built the entire stretch into a gladiatorial type setting, with grandstands surrounding the entirety of each hole. Add in some beers, which flow rather well in the Florida heat and humidity, and it’s the kind of place that makes you think … about everything.
Adam Scott — who saw a 3-shot lead crumble away during with multiple water balls at the Bear Trap in 2016 — captured the difficulty of the stretch rather well a year ago.
“I think it gets the name for a reason; you know, none of it’s easy out here,” Scott said. “Fifteen and 17 for sure require commitment and precision to the shot. That’s it. You’ve got the green to hit, and that’s all you’ve got. There’s no real bail-out. And 16 becomes very demanding if you miss the fairway. That’s all about the tee shot. There’s plenty of green up there, but once you get in the rough or you get in a fairway bunker, the variables change and a long shot across water, we haven’t seen any horror shows, but a quick trip to the water and a double is very possible. It’s really a matter of survival, and I think it’s probably more so than even last week at TPC [Sawgrass].
“You know, here I can put my hand up and say I’ve made a quad on 15 and I reckon if you went back and had a look, I might have made a quad on 17 in the past as well. It can get away from you pretty quick.”