Palm Beach course, famous for its Bear Trap, has cornered golfers for years

The PGA Tour held its new Cognizant Classic event, previously the Honda Classic, at the PGA National Resort in West Palm Beach earlier this month. And with that course back on the national spotlight, so, too, did a famous three-hole stretch that has gotten the best of many golfers through the years.

PGA National’s Champion Course was designed by Tom and George Fazio in 1981 and redesigned by Jack Nicklaus, golf’s Golden Bear in 1990. Nicklaus was a genius, arguably the best player of all time, and so he clearly knows how to challenge an elite golfer.

This redesign led to the iconic Bear Trap, three holes — Nos. 15, 16, and 17 — known for trapping golfers in water hazards and bunkers to ruin what would’ve been an impressive scorecard at the end of the round.

On the walk from the 14th green to the 15th tee box, you pass a giant bear statue with a sign that says: You are now entering “the Bear Trap.” It should be won or lost right here.

It most often is.

On March 2, in fact, the media was buzzing with videos of Rory McIlroy, only a few shots off the lead in the third round, making a triple bogey on No. 16. One specific post by the official Golf Channel Account was captioned, “Rory McIlroy, one of us.” The video showed his ball about halfway submerged in water at the edge of the hazard. He took a swing at it, pushed it just a few feet out, and then he watched helplessly as it rolled back into the water.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this at PGA National. In the 2023 Honda Classic, Adam Long took two swings at a water ball, then dropped with a penalty, and finished the seventeenth hole with a quadruple bogey. On that tee box, Long was tied for 53rd, and by the time he made his putt, he had dropped 68 spots on the leaderboard, leaving him at 121st to miss the cut.

Rickie Fowler walks on the 17th green during the Pro-Am of the Honda Classic golf tournament, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. PGA National’s signature test is a three-hole span on the back called “The Bear Trap,” named for Jack Nicklaus and touted as one of the most demanding stretches in all of golf. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

That result was part of the 81 balls in the Bear Trap water hazards that week, leading to 64 double bogeys or worse.

And the fate isn’t just for professional golfers. College players often get trapped, as well. In fact, Conference USA has held its Women’s Golf Conference Championship at PGA National for several years. In 2023, the leader was coming down the stretch on the final day.

No. 15 is a 170-yard par 3 with a semi-island green, blocked by water all along the right and a bunker guarding the left side. On this day, there was a 35 mph wind blowing right to left, which isn’t unusual. But this means that you must aim to the right of the green, about ten yards into the water, and hope it blows the ball back on the green. Upon approaching the tee box, she was leading by five.

Everyone watched in shock as she hit two balls straight into the water, and then a third into

the bunker. She got up and down to card an 8 on the hole, giving away the conference title entirely.

Joe Vogel, coach of Florida International University’s women’s golf team, then told his players a story about his son, TJ Vogel. Joe said that he and his wife stood in awe as they watched TJ lose his PGA Tour card on that very same hole years ago.

To this day, there are mixed feelings about The Bear Trap. Few love it and have fond memories of winning, while many resent the course and their memories of past struggles there.

The popular social media golf group, “Good Good” made a video while playing at the site. Garrett Clark said that when the wind blows, The PGA National Champion Course is “the hardest course on the PGA Tour.” A PGA Tour professional once said that he recommends

“making peace with The Bear,” so often you will see folks giving the notorious statue a high five or a hug on their daunting walk to the tee box while they prepare for the challenge.

Karissa Kilby is a psychology and sports journalism student at Florida International University. She is on the women's golf team and is planning to pursue a professional career after graduation. She hopes that when her time as an athlete comes to an close, she can be a sports broadcaster/journalist.