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  • Writer's pictureMatt Colville

Grand Bear Golf Course – Rapiscan Systems Classic

Photos by Golf Digest and Matt Colville, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.43

Grand Bear Golf Course

12040 Grand Way Blvd

Saucier, MS 39574

Year Opened: 1999


Golfing at the Grand Bear

The Mississippi Gulf Coast is filled with tons of entertainment options to please everyone of all ages. From high rise casinos and top name shows, to world class fishing and water options, the Mississippi Gulf Coast has it all.

With plenty to do, and millions of tourists visiting the Coast each year, it’s no surprise that the area also features plenty of golfing options. Thirteen professional designed 18-hole golf courses are spread out throughout the three coastal counties.

With such beautiful golf courses, and warm year-round weather, it’s no surprise that the Gulf Coast has attracted the eyes of the PGA Tour. Since 2010 the area has played host to the Rapiscan Systems Classic of the PGA Champions Tour (Rapiscan Systems is a company that specializes in X-ray machines and airport screening devices, with a manufacturing plant in nearby Ocean Springs, MS).

Formerly the PGA Senior Tour, this tournament brings in the top golfers in the world over the age of 50. For the first 10 years the tournament was held at the nearby Fallen Oak Golf Club, but beginning in 2022 the tournament is held at Grand Bear Golf Club, located off Highway 49 just north of Gulfport. Opened in 1999, the Jack Nicklaus designed course has been ranked by Golf Digest as one of the Top 5 of Best Golf Courses in the state multiple years since opening.

Food & Beverage 4

When you arrive at the Grand Bear you are dropped off at the main club house. Around here is where all the food tents and grandstands are located. The clubhouse restaurant, the Grand Bear Grill & Bar, is open to the public, although it was packed out at any given time. The menu is kind of expensive but includes a breakfast and lunch menu. The breakfast menu consists of a loaded omelet ($9) or breakfast sandwich or burrito ($8), or if you are really hungry you can try the Tee Time Plate, which includes two eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, hashbrowns, and toast for $10. The lunch menu consists of shrimp po’ boys ($15), loaded nachos ($14), Philly cheesesteak ($14), Grand Bear Club sandwiches ($14), wings ($12), or grilled chicken wraps, club house salads, chicken quesadillas, and chicken tenders ($11 for any of the last four).

Depending on what ticket package you purchase determines the score for the Food and Beverage section. The most expensive package is the $275 a day Marina Cantina Club, a temporary structure with a boating theme located on the 18th green. This air-conditioned upscale hospitality tent features great views of the final hole, while you also get a free seafood spread and plenty of cold drinks. Next to the Cantina Club is the smaller Corona Premiere Patio, another temporary structure constructed on the 9th green with excellent views. The Corona Patio has a full service menu and bar, and you are welcomed with one free beer upon entry. The Corona Patio tickets are $40 a day, which isn’t bad considering the views and food options you get. Also, as the Gulf Coast has a strong military presence, they have the Patriot’s Pavilion right next to the Corona Patio; the former is free to military members and a cool little spot for military personnel to hang out.

For patrons who purchase general admission tickets there are two tents set up called the Bear’s Den near all the scaffolds and temporary structures. The options are limited here with Wagyu burgers ($12), sausage dogs ($10), and egg salad sandwiches ($6). There are also four temporary stands set up on the course, two on the front nine at Holes 2 and 7, and two on the back nine near holes 11 and 16.

The concessions stands on the course itself sell southwest salads ($12), chicken salad sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, veggie wraps ($10 each for the last three), hot dogs ($6), or PB&J sandwiches ($4). Some of the stands have long lines of people getting drinks, as it is usually a hot and humid day. Drinks are kind of expensive as well, with 24 oz bottles of Coke products, Powerade and Dasani bottled water selling for $5 each. Lots of people were drinking beer though, as for only a dollar more ($6) more you can get a 12 oz canned beer (Miller Lite, Corona, or Modelo), and Crown Royal in a can for $10.

Atmosphere 4

The Grand Bear is located inside DeSoto National Forest, a 518,000-acre protected forest and the largest section of completely undeveloped land in South Mississippi. There isn’t much around the course – there are no fancy communities or neighborhoods surrounding it. Instead, you are one with nature as the course is designed to take golfers through Mississippi’s most natural and elusive habitats. As you travel in on the winding two lane road, you almost feel like you are headed out to a hunting camp rather than attending a PGA event.

The main gathering area is around the clubhouse set up between the 10th tee pad and the 18th green. This is where you will find all the food and vendor tents. Many sponsors have tents set up giving out samples and such. The Cantina Club and Corona Premier Patio are located here as well, with skybox suites and elevated platforms with great views of the 18th green. The clubhouse is also open, so you are free to walk around the pro shop, which usually has a nice 40% sale going on. One cool thing about the clubhouse that ties into the area is it looks like a hunting lodge or ski resort from the outside.

Once inside the Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear logo is on everything, from the interior and wooden floors to the walls made out of replica oak trees – if you are familiar with golf it won’t take long to tell who designed this golf course. Also the course is designed to look like a giant bear paw from above, so if flying into Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport you can see the giant bear paw carved out of the forests below you. Outside the clubhouse is the driving range on the north side and a practice putting green on the south side. Many of the golfers can be seen getting a few practice shots in before their tee times, and some of them were even talking to the patrons.

As you walk the cart path it is basically one long nature trail. There are wooden bridges over creeks, lookout points, and side trails you can take to view all of south Mississippi’s natural wildlife. At any given time you can catch a glimpse of the many bald eagles, ospreys, sandhill cranes, and other large birds that live on the course, while deer, alligators, black bears, and foxes have all been spotted roaming on or near the course from time to time.

The views of the golf course are absolutely stunning as well. The back 9 cut through the woods, with longer holes and wide-open fairways that split between 100-year-old oak trees and 100-foot-tall pine trees. The Biloxi River winds through the front 9 with a lot of shorter holes; the winding river has wide elevated banks and sandbars that come into play on a few holes. There are even a few times when golfers have to tee off over the sandbars on the river – holes 6, 7, 8 and 9 run directly parallel to the water, while a creek runs through the back 9, including a pretty cool hanging bridge between holes 13 and 14. As the Tournament takes place every year in early April, expect great weather and really nice temperatures as well.

Neighborhood 2

The Grand Bear Golf Club is located in the middle of nowhere; in fact the nearest signs of civilization are an Exxon gas station and a Mexican restaurant on Highway 49 over 15 miles away. Because of this there is no neighborhood whatsoever, just miles and miles of woods and natural forests. The nearest town to the Grand Bear is the town of Saucier, just north of the golf course – this small community of 1,300 is most famous for being the setting for the 2004 Tom Hanks movie “The Ladykillers”, but there is not much here.

However, you are about a 40-minute drive from the beautiful Mississippi Gulf Coast, and you should be able to find plenty to do there for all ages. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is an extremely popular gaming destination, often called the Vegas of the South. The coast features 14 high rise casinos offering plenty of options for entertainment, restaurants, or lodging. The Rapiscan Systems Classic’s main headquarters for the week are located at the Island View Casino/Hotel in Gulfport, so that hotel has group rates and discounts for people attending the tournament. The Island View also hosts many off-course events during the week, such as a dinner for the golfers and media personnel.

While on the coast no trip would be complete without trying out the local seafood – from 5-star restaurants at the casinos, to local hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the Gulf Coast has plenty of places to have you covered if you are hungry.

Fans 4

A PGA stop usually attracts a mix of all kinds of people. The best way to describe it is a perfect social gathering without the ability to get out of hand. Many of the patrons are relaxed and everyone gets along. In the Cantina Marina Club you’ll find sponsor company CEOs and corporate executives mingling with a group of people who received free Club tickets because they worked for the sponsor. Also, while walking the course at any given time you’ll find a mix of older retired men walking among a group of college students, as an event like this attracts everyone.

Like most golf tournaments, patrons are free to walk the course and follow the golfers. The first tee time is at 7:50 am on Holes 1 and 10, and every ten minutes a new threesome of golfers will tee off. Obviously bigger name golfers are going to have more people following them than others; I would say for the biggest names expect about 50-70 people following the group, with John Daly having the largest following of about 100 people. The afternoon tee times tend to have more people following them as well, as that is when the leading groups typically tee off.

Return on Investment 4

Only 500 general admission tickets are sold per day, with a ticket (for each day) costing $20, or you can purchase a 3-day general admission ticket for $40. GA tickets get you access anywhere on the grounds, or into the public viewing bleachers set up on the 18th green. The Corona Premiere Patio on the 9th green costs $40 a day to get in, and only 150 tickets are sold there per day, while the Cantina Marina Club tickets cost a whopping $275 a day. However, the latter offers free parking and no charge to ride the bus over to the course, so that is a plus.

Attending a PGA Champions Tour is a lot different than a regular PGA stop. On the Champions Tour only three rounds are played over three days, compared to the PGA’s four round and four-day event, with only about 70-75 golfers registered per event. Also, everybody makes the cut, so the golfers you see on Friday will still be in contention on Sunday. I consider just being able to see some of these golfers play up close was thrilling in itself. It is pretty cool to be able to stand 15 feet away from John Daly as he hits a 300-yard tee shot, or being able to shoot the breeze with Davis Love III as we walk the cart path. It is something cool that you wouldn’t get to experience at a regular PGA stop.

Access 3

The hard part about getting to the Grand Bear is getting to the course itself. As mentioned, the course is located in seclusion in the middle of nowhere off Highway 49, the main highway from the Coast to Hattiesburg. As you cannot physically drive to the Grand Bear on Tournament week, you have to park on Highway 49 and take a bus over to the Golf Course. The main and only parking for patrons is located in a huge field behind Keith’s A/C and Heating, literally right off the highway.

The great news is that despite the limitations of getting to the course, the process of getting there actually runs really smoothly. Parking is basically a huge field, so there are plenty of spots to park and cars are well directed. They have a tent sent up here as well, where they scan tickets and check bags. Tickets are also only sold online to speed up the process.

The buses used to shuttle patrons over are buses from nearby Harrison Central High School, and despite the fact that they are yellow school buses they were actually very clean, not dirty like you would expect. I was there when the gates opened at 7:30, and got on second bus out of there (as I was leaving I counted well over 20 buses in a line ready to go). They also run round trips every ten minutes, so they are constantly coming and going. The whole process from when you park, get your tickets checked, and arrive at the Golf Course is about 20-25 minutes.

Extras 3

One extra for the laid-back atmosphere at the PGA Champions Tour that you won’t find at a regular PGA Tour stop. Many of the players are playing this tournament just for fun, and you can tell. With the Masters occurring the week after this tournament, a few of the golfers use this as tune up before they head to Augusta. A lot of them ride carts from hole to hole, something you don’t see at most professional golf tournaments. In between holes you will find many of the golfers mingling with patrons, and at the tee pads you are right up there with them, probably 10-15 feet away from each golfer as they tee off. Unlike at some tournaments, phones are also a common site here, as you will find many people taking pictures – you are just advised to keep phones on silent.

Another extra just for some of the big name golfers the Rapiscan System Classic attracts – in 2022 the 76 golfers who participated had a combined total of 268 regular PGA Tournament wins, with 22 total major wins and four World Golf Hall of Famers. Among some of the notable participants were John Daly, Retief Goosen, Ernie Els, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk, K.J. Choi, David Duvall, Pedraig Harrington, and two-time Master’s winner Bernhard Langer.

Another extra for the history of PGA tournaments on the Mississippi Coast. Professional golf tournaments in the area date back to 1944, when the PGA hosted the Gulfport Open at the state’s oldest golf course, the Great Southern Country Club. The 1945 tournament was most famous for Byron Nelson and Sam Sneed finishing the final day of the tournament tied and having to advance to a playoff hole, in which Snead won. That 1945 tournament would be the last official PGA Tournament to take place on the Mississippi Coast.

The LPGA also played a tournament in Biloxi in 1963, the Mary Mills Classic, and in Ocean Springs in 1964. Over the next 50 years the Coast would be home to several smaller professional tours: the Nike Tour’s Gulf Coast Classic from 1990-1997 and the Nationwide Tour’s Gulf Coast Open from 1999-2000. Jim Furyk, a 2022 participant in the Rapiscan Systems Classic, got his first professional win in the 1993 Nike Tour’s Gulf Coast Classic.

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