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At 10th anniversary, Bear's Best adapts to changing golf industry

Jeff Pieper and Richard Chancy finish up at hole 6 at the Bear's Best Atlanta golf course in Suwanee on Wednesday. This unique course designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus is approaching its 10 year anniversary.

Jeff Pieper and Richard Chancy finish up at hole 6 at the Bear's Best Atlanta golf course in Suwanee on Wednesday. This unique course designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus is approaching its 10 year anniversary.

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Nicklaus participates in a ribbon cutting ceremony with club officials at Bear’s Best in September 2002.

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Director of Instruction Tim Foster demonstrates a proper golf swing during a junior golf camp at the Bear's Best Atlanta golf course in Suwanee on Wednesday.

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Golf Instructors Tim Foster and Jacob Schoeman assist several youth golfers during the junior golf camp at the Bear's Best Atlanta golf course in Suwanee on Wednesday.

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Sam Eanes, center, gears up in preparation for a round of golf with his friends at the Bear's Best Atlanta golf course in Suwanee on Wednesday.

SUWANEE -- When Bear's Best Atlanta opened 10 years ago, it was billed as a unique course that featured duplicate holes from well-known courses around the world.

The business philosophy for the course designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus was to cater to corporate events, and its availability to the public -- with forecaddies on staff -- was seen as a rarity among high-end courses.

Much of that has remained the same, general manager Craig Riddle said last week, but the club has also been forced to handle economic headwinds that hit the golf industry ahead of the rest of the economy.

"I'm proud of where we are, because not just golf, it's tough out there, and I think we've weathered the storm. We're in great shape," Riddle said. "I feel fortunate we've not had to cut back on the experience, the overall experience, course conditions, overall quality of our product has not suffered."

The joint venture between Nicklaus Companies and ClubCorp began in 1998, and the partnership opened Bear's Best Atlanta, which is in the gated development of Edinburgh in Suwanee, and a Bear's Best Las Vegas in 2002. The original plan was to build several more courses, but Riddle said the economic downturn cancelled plans for more courses.

ClubCorp also owns five other golf courses around the state, according to its website, including Laurel Springs Golf Club in Suwanee and the Country Club of Gwinnett in Snellville.

Riddle has worked in the golfing industry since he was in middle school picking up range balls. He previously worked on Hilton Head Island, S.C., and has been the GM at Bear's Best for about seven years.

The club has 65 employees, and Riddle said it has experienced low turnover of yearround employees since it opened. He's the second GM, and the club has had two superintendents.

Its layout is the main calling card for the course, featuring holes from Nicklaus-designed tracks in England, Scotland and Ireland, and well-known courses from around the United States.

Most of the club's business still comes from corporate events, Riddle said, and it's proud that the 200-person banquet room, practice range and starting area cater to that kind of customer. In 2010, it hosted nearly 200 such events for groups that included The Chipper Jones Foundation, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the Kiwanis Club of Suwanee.

Recently, the club has given more attention to the daily golfer, with products like an annual pass for $329 per month. There are about 150 people in the annual membership program, which gives them unlimited golf and use of the practice facility, and reduces guests rates to $69 on weekdays and $79 on weekends.

Regular summer rates range from $49 to $114 depending on the day and time.

"For courses to survive in this day and age, they have to be able to adapt," said Greg Elam, who played a round with his daughter on Wednesday, but first played the course about seven years ago.

This is the first year Bear's Best doesn't have forecaddies on staff -- which at its peak counted about 40 -- because of high overhead.

Nearly two years ago, the club hired Tim Foster as its director of instruction to help grow the game among juniors and women. Foster puts on about six junior clinics throughout the summer.

Foster taught golf at The Hooch Club in Duluth for about 15 years before he came to Bear's Best, which he said has a positive reputation in the golf community around the metro area.

"It stacks up with any of the best clubs around," Foster said. "Our practice facility, if it's not the best, it's among the top."

The duplicate hole philosophy is appealing to golfers, Foster said, because they often want to measure themselves on holes that they might see on television, or never have a chance to play otherwise, like holes from courses in other countries.

Foster's hiring signaled a new direction for the club, Riddle said, in that it focused on more aspects of golf that catered to a family, than simply a corporation's event planner.

"Bear's has been an outing course," Foster said. "We want people to know it's more than an outing course. I want to build a strong junior program, and we have a lot of good juniors that play out of here."

One of them is Christopher Guglielmo, an accomplished junior golfer who will be a senior at South Forsyth High School this fall. The Cumming resident plans to play college golf at Kennesaw State University.

Guglielmo finished fifth in the Georgia Junior Championship, and will soon compete in the Georgia-South Carolina Junior team matches, and U.S. Amateur qualifying.

Guglielmo spends several days per week on the practice range at Bear's Best, and chose the club after he noticed crowds at Windermere Golf Course in Cumming and Olde Atlanta.

"Right now, it's empty," he said on Wednesday morning. "I like the practice area because they rotate (the range), and you can chip all the way up the hill over there. No other course around has this (kind of) practice facility."

Steve Stonecypher, the club's director of sales, who began working there as a caddie nine years ago, remembers days of golfers that ranged from high skill level players, to businessmen looking to entertain a client.

"It helped me when I was a caddie, to learn the golf course, know the conditions of the course," Stonecypher said.

While the club has added other iniatives, Riddle said corporate events remain its "bread and butter."

And they are Stonecypher's main focus when he markets the club to clients.

"My niche is I can sell a golf tournament seven days a week," he said. "The majority of clubs won't do that. I think we're a high-end club, public facility, (and that) you can sell an event to somebody in the time frame that they want it is pretty huge."