The city of Kelowna, British Columbia is a hot spot for tourism, and specifically, golf trips. The most famous golf courses here like Predator Ridge, Tower Ranch and Gallagher’s Canyon, are all popular choices for a buddies trips, but there’s lots of really good options that seem to fly under the radar.
Okanagan Golf Club’s Bear course is certainly one of those.
Designed by Steve Nicklaus for Nicklaus Design in tandem with Bill O’Leary in 1999, the golf course is a charming little routing, with the front mostly playing in the tall pines and the back opening up a bit more.
Starting out, the Bear lets the golfer get their feet under them with a short 367-yard par 4. It’s a straight hole with a single bunker on the right in the tee shot.
Subtle undulations can complicate the approach shot, but for the most part, it’s a fairly gracious opening hole. One bunker on the left separates the 8th green from the 1st.
The 2nd is a strong golf hole. At 432 yards, this slight dogleg puts a premium on getting it in the fairway.
A bunker cut on the hillside on the right adds a bit of visual deception to the green as it is not in play, while the bunker left is. The actual contours of the green fall away, working from the front edge to the back. A concept not often seen that’s so simple yet effective and fun.
Many would label the 3rd as the ‘signature hole’ at Bear, likely because of the elevated tee. It’s a stunning view, but unfortunately, it’s sort of a weird spot in the routing to get up the hill, especially for an otherwise very pleasant walk. At 420 yards, the hole plays quite a bit shorter. A bunker left and a couple awkward trees pinch the right side.
The approach shot is a good one with a green site cut at the bottom of a hill with a bunker on the right. A front tongue is the hardest pin to get close to. The green widens in the back.
The 4th is the first one-shot hole on the golf course at 165 yards. In sort of a “do or die” style, the green has bunkers front and right and is cut atop a knoll of sorts that falls off everywhere but long left.
The 5th is a blind tee shot. The hole itself is only 358 yards, and less than driver for most. The play is hit it to the 100-yard marker at most, but the further back you go the bigger chance your approach shot will also be semi-blind.
In similar fashion to the 3rd green, the front tongue is the hardest spot to get to while the back opens up. Tucked at the bottom of the hill, if you aren’t aggressive from the tee you’ll have an awkward approach.
The 6th starts a very enticing stretch of golf. At 151 yards and slightly uphill, the main defense is the shallow green, which is very wide, but not very deep.
As you can see below, being short isn’t an option.
The green is also quite narrow and almost acts as two major sections (one left, one right).
After climbing out of the valley the 7th is at the top. At 541 yards, it’s a get-able par 5.
Some nice, gentle rolling land awaits and protects this hole. With no bunkers, it relies on the contours of the ground to provide interest—which it does.
The green is cut behind a dip in the fairway and above the fairway, providing a bit of defense. Of the greens yet, this likely has the most interesting internal contour.
The 8th is a bit of an awkward little 315-yard par 4. It’s drivable with a big tee ball, but I’ve always felt like the layup area isn’t safe enough to get players to play there. It actually opens up and becomes wider with driver, which is almost the polar opposite of what you’d like.
One bunker on the left side about 40 yards from the green is well-placed and would catch a mis-hit with the driver. A bunker on the right also guards the green.
The 9th is a very good par 5 and another reachable hole at 524 yards from the back deck. For big drives, they’ll get to the upslope.
The second shot up the hill is partially blind with two bunkers providing an idea of where to go. Most of the time you can see at least the top of the flag.
As you rise above the hill, you’ll see the green is bunker-less. This sort of restraint is very much welcomed and demonstrates the Bear’s best strength: it lets the land talk.
Starting the back nine off is the longest par 4 on the golf course at 450 yards. It also brings us to the flats, which plays a bit more open than the front nine.
Conceptually, the hole is textbook. Bunker on the left for the tee shot and bunker short right to make the angle from the left better. I wish they would’ve accentuated the features to really force golfers to the left off the tee, but it’s still a nice hole.
From an elevated tee, the 187-yard par 3 11th features a wonderful view heading north towards Lake Country. The green complex is guarded by a bunker short right and features some pretty intense movement.
The 12th is a short 377-yard par 4 with a sneaky good fairway, severely canted to the road on the right.
The approach shot is sporty, with a low grade green complex awaiting. Two bunkers on the right look to be the main defense, but a short grass mound on the left hides the collection area behind.
The 13th starts a bit of a weaker three hole stretch on the other side of a road. At 531 yards, there’s quite a bit of room from this tee, with only a single bunker right. If you’re a big hitter, the hazard on the left could potentially pinch the landing area, but it is a quite a way’s down.
On the layup, the main defense is the previously mentioned hazard on the left. With lots of room right, the golfer is encouraged to layup down the right, especially if the pin is on the left.
The approach has a singular bunker short left, and the green is accommodating coming in.
The 14th is the longest par 3 on the golf course playing over a hazard that defines this three hole loop. At 211 yards, it’s a beast!
The 388-yard par 4, 15th plays through some faux mounding. A bunker left and right frame this tee shot.
The green is quite long and narrow, cut between a bunker left and a collection area right.
There’s some good movement here as well. Among the better greens here.
Back across the road, the 441-yard par 4, 16th is a healthy par 4 with a blind tee shot rising over a hill. A single bunker on the right isn’t in play; rather, it helps the golfer understand where to go.
The approach shot is a stunner, playing downhill to a green cut in a natural amphitheater. A bunker short left comes into play.
Like the 2nd, the 16th’s green slopes away from the golfer.
The 17th is another tee shot over a ridge, mostly blind, and measures 447 yards.
After gently turning to the right, we play to a pretty narrow green complex, cut at the base of a hill, guarded by a bunker on the left.
The finishing hole is a 547-yard par 5 that gives the golfer a chance to finish strong. With a single bunker on the left, this is a good chance to hit a good finishing drive.
For those who elect to layup, it’s a pretty standard shot without any trouble in play. If you’re trying to get home in two, however, it’s much more protected.
From the layup area, the approach shot plays slightly uphill, with two bunkers short and one bunker left.
Okanagan Bear is a wonderful, walkable golf course and one of my favourites in the Okanagan Valley.
Sure, it’s not as flashy as some others, and it’s not marketed as hard as the golf courses in the hills, but for anyone coming into town this is one I’d include on the rotation.
As an added bonus, it’s 5 minutes from Kelowna’s airport and on the way out of town to the north for those heading West.
Well worth the effort to play this hidden gem.