Bear Dance: A mile-high success story

Colorado public-access course becomes a potent partner for the state’s PGA Section

Despite its name, Colorado’s The Golf Club at Bear Dance — located halfway between Denver and Colorado Springs in the piney foothill suburb of Larkspur — has nothing to do with Jack Nicklaus.

That Bear did design Castle Pines, the famed private club not far up I-25, and a handful of other courses throughout the state. In 2006 he also reworked the Broadmoor’s private Mountain Course, which closed in 2016 due to, of all things, a landslide.

But Bear Dance is its own breed, though in look and feel it merits comparison with many of Nicklaus' mountain tracks.

Designed by four PGA of America members, including Brian Whitcomb, who was president of the PGA of America from 2007 to 2008 and has several other western layouts to his design credit, it’s the home course for the PGA’s Colorado Section and has picked up a slew of local accolades since opening in 2002.

"From a business standpoint, [the section] gave us four or five hundred advocates of Bear Dance through their membership, from different clubs in Colorado," Whitcomb says. "Their lease agreement had ended in Denver, they needed a place to go, we had a place, saw the mutual benefits, and the partnership was born on that. We love having them there. It was a good start. It gave us instant credibility, and also benefited the section. That’s how deals are supposed to be."

The Club at Bear Dance — Hole 16
The Club at Bear Dance's original property owner, Gene Taylor, had a vision for the routing of the picturesque and elevated 16th hole.

It’s easy to see why Bear Dance caught section members’ fancy from the start and remains a must-play two decades down the road. It’s dramatic and sometimes quirky, especially in its green complexes. It mixes get-your-attention challenge with flairs of design whimsy, with the drivable par-4 sixth hole’s paw-shaped bunker leading the way. It’s got the kind of big, beautiful practice area that is expected from a place brought to life by golf pros.

And though it’s just off the main interstate, it’s secluded.

"When we got the opportunity to do Bear Dance, I said to the other guys, ‘You know, we’re not supposed to get this kind of land. Jack Nicklaus or somebody like that is supposed to get it,'" Whitcomb says. "It’s that nice, and while it is just a couple hundred yards from the interstate, you are a world away. It’s pretty cool."

For this reason alone, Bear Dance stands out as the true daily-fee must-play in a golf-rich stretch of the Rocky Mountain Front Range, which also boasts popular layouts by Pete Dye (Plum Creek in Castle Rock), J. Press Maxwell (The Country Club at Woodmoor in Monument) and Arthur Hills (Heritage Eagle Bend in Aurora). The land underneath it is exceptional — and, unlike many modern courses, the property’s owner, Gene Taylor, didn’t want housing to dictate Bear Dance’s routing or character.

Taylor pitched the project to Whitcomb after playing Club West, one of Whitcomb’s courses in the Phoenix area.

"He had a vision: 'I own this magnificent piece of property, and I want people to see it, and the way to do it is to put a golf course on it.' It was an interesting perspective."

Whitcomb had recently sold another Arizona property, giving him the capital to bring three of his employees — Stuart Bruening, Corey Aurand and Dennis Hogan — into a design partnership. "We all moved up there, designed it, built it, and did all the work. These guys liked blue jeans as much as golf slacks."

He says bringing Bear Dance to life was truly a collaborative effort.

The Club at Bear Dance — Hole 14
The daily-fee The Club at Bear Dance also serves as the home course for the PGA's Colorado Section.

"I would hesitate to say that any of us drove the bus on any particular thing," Whitcomb says. "We had late afternoon conversations about where, for instance, the [irrigation] lake should go, since there’s so much elevation change. We had it on the ninth hole and ended up moving it to the 10th. Stuff like that ... what a green should be from a shot value standpoint, for instance. We were just a band of guys around the campfire, so to speak, asking, ‘OK, what are we gonna do here? Should the first fairway be lowered, or should there be more of a slope?’ It was that type of conversation.

"Stuart was our most visible onsite guy. We let him call the shots in the end. He did a great job."

Taylor had his say, too, particularly when it came to Bear Dance’s dramatic and picturesque 16th, with its tees perched a hundred feet above the fairway, opening up views of the distant Rockies and nearby buttes and hills.

"Gene said, 'I want to show you something,'" Whitcomb says. "We said, ‘That’s great, but how do we get a cart path up there? Or a tee box?’ You’re at 7,000 feet [elevation], and all of a sudden, with a little pond [guarding the green], distance became a real issue. But he showed us the possibility. He didn’t know how to do it, and I’m sure the first day, we didn’t either."

More great sites emerged from the landscape. Hole 17 is a jewel box of a par 3, playing over a pond and creek and to a green nestled into a wooded hillside. Holes two through four comprise a perfect portrait of woods-meets-meadow Colorado golf. The first part of the back nine skirts a broad valley before heading back into the forest.

Whitcomb calls it all a rare gift.

"My architecture philosophy is, nature already has a design, my job is to go out there and find it," he says. "That couldn’t be more true than at Bear Dance. All we had to do was eliminate some other possibilities, and there’s your design. We could have designed a hundred holes out there. It was handed to us."

After finalizing the PGA Colorado Section partnership, Whitcomb sold his stake and headed back to Oregon. He stays in touch with Bruening, who remains Bear Dance’s principal owner-operator.

"It’s been a lot of fun, a point of pride on how the guys carried the ball so beautifully," he says. "Building a golf course is personal. It’s art on a big canvas. You’re protective of it, and possessive of it. So it’s fun watching guys take care of things the way it should have been. I’m grateful."