Bear Trail Golf Club in Jacksonville, N.C. offers a laid-back, enjoyable round near Topsail Island

By Kevin Dunleavy, Contributor

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. -- Even in the middle of the summer when it swells to as many as 60,000 vacationers, the living is easy on Topsail Island, a 26-mile strip of beach with one traffic light.

Bear Trail Golf Club - hole 1
Bear Trail Golf Club lies a short drive inland from Topsail Island.
Bear Trail Golf Club - hole 1Bear Trail Golf Club - hole 2Bear Trail Golf Club - hole 3Bear Trail Golf Club - 9thBear Trail Golf Club - 13th
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Bear Trail Golf Club

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Bear Trail Golf Club opened in 2007, making it one of Onslow County's newest courses. The championship course offers many risk-reward opportunities that will appeal to low and high handicappers alike. You'll encounter many challenges including a variety of water hazards and strategically placed bunkers but the hazards are nicely balanced by wide, gently rolling fairways, which offer a little room for error.

18 Holes | Semi-Private golf course | Par: 72 | 6848 yards | ... details »

Some 20 miles inland near Jacksonville, Bear Trail Golf Club at Southwest Plantation is similarly unrushed and stress free.

At the housing-development course -- cut from woodlands and opened in 2007 -- the rating (71.4) and slope (125) from the back tees accurately portray its gentile nature at 6,848 yards. With wide fairways, ample greens, light rough, little elevation change and few bunkers, Bear Trail has surrendered more than a few career rounds.

But this is not to suggest that the golf course is trouble free. Water is in play on 14 holes, while four have forced-carry wetlands that bisect the fairway. Most of the hazards, however, are clearly visible, and some are accompanied by generous bailout areas. At Bear Trail, there are few unpleasant surprises.

Bear Trail Golf Club: The course

In an area full of aging courses and few convenient to Topsail Island, visitors appreciate Rusty Simmons' modern design and the stellar Bermuda-grass conditions. Putts can skid across the slick, challenging greens, but the surfaces are true and consistent. Finding a bad lie in the fairway is nearly impossible. The rough is cut short, but balls can settle in the wiry Bermuda producing uncertainty on greenside chips.

One turn off Harris Creek Road, and it is clear that Southwest Plantation is juxtaposed from its countrified surroundings. To the delight of golfers, the new homes rarely encroach on the golf course. After the cramped opening hole, bordered on the right by the driving range and on the left by ramblers, there is no housing visible until no. 8.

Solitude quickly becomes the theme on the front nine where thick woods are offset from the fairways giving the tree-lined holes a rare combination of beauty and openness.

A sporty collection of risk/reward par-5 holes -- each progressively longer -- illustrates the fun at Bear Trail. At 515 yards, No. 3 presents intriguing options as players weigh the pros and cons of trying to reach the peninsula green, laying up to wedge distance or firing a bailout shot left of the green to a fairway that extends the length of the hole.

No. 10 is another water-themed, dogleg par 5. It plays shorter than its 532 yards for those willing to challenge a pond that runs up the right side all the way from the tee-shot landing area to a bunker that fronts the shallow, push-up green.

The fun ends at the last of the five par-fives, no. 15, a beautiful, 595-yard brute which requires three solid, precise shots, including a lengthy carry over water from the tee, and an accurate layup to an S-shaped, bunker-guarded fairway.

There are plenty of opportunities to score on the five attractive par-3 holes, none longer than 190 yards from the tips and none with any significant rise or fall.

Bear Trail Golf Club: The verdict

Low-handicap golfers will be drawn by the risk/reward nature of Bear Trail Club but may want to challenge themselves on a longer set of tees than usual to get the most out of the straightforward layout.

Those who struggle with control, however, should stick with their familiar yardages, as they could be haunted by the plentiful water hazards and extensive network of wetlands that not only skirt the course but cross some fairways.

For vacationers who have become familiar with the 1970s-era golf courses of the area, Bear Trail is a must-play as it offers a modern layout with superior conditioning and amenities. Even the prime-time weekend rates are a small price to pay for the pleasurable experience that can be had at Bear Trail.

Kevin DunleavyKevin Dunleavy, Contributor

Kevin Dunleavy is a longtime resident of northern Virginia, a graduate of George Mason University, an award-winning reporter covering golf, colleges, and other sports for the Washington Examiner, and a single-digit handicap still seeking his elusive first hole-in-one. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KDunleavy.

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