BY MID-APRIL, emails started filling the inbox of Brian Rashley, general manager at Bear Trap Dunes in Delaware, where 27 holes of golf have remained open during the ongoing pandemic. The notes of thanks came in from members, many of who live in surrounding states where courses had been temporarily closed.
“People were genuinely thankful that they had a place to come for four or five hours, get outside even at a distance from others, and just play golf,” said Rashley. “So many have emailed to say they appreciated all the work we have been doing to keep things safe here. Many even said they didn’t know what they would be doing if they didn’t have golf these days.”
That welcoming atmosphere has long been the hallmark of Bear Trap Dunes, which is owned by Carl M. Freeman Golf, a division of Carl M. Freeman Companies. Located in Ocean View, Delaware, the facility is approximately 2.5 hours from Philadelphia and Washington D.C., and just three miles west of Bethany Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. The club’s highly regarded golf course debuted in 1999 with an 18-hole layout featuring the Grizzly and Kodiak nines. A third nine, called Black Bear, followed in 2001. Architect Rick Jacobson, a former Jack Nicklaus design associate (hence the “Bear”-related names), designed all of them.
While sand dunes are found throughout, each nine has a singular character. According to Rashley, “Grizzly might be the hardest because there it has a plenty of water and trouble. Kodiak gives you the best overall variety of holes in terms of doglegs, plus it has both short and long par 4s and par 3s. Black Bear is the most relaxing of the nine holes, but it does play a little longer than its counterparts. A full time member can play fives times a week and have an enjoyable experience every time without feeling like he or she is playing the same course.”
In 2017 Bear Trap Dunes hosted the Delaware State Open, and in 2019 the APA/PAO Independence Cup, which pitted teams of assistant professionals from the Philadelphia and the Mid-Atlantic PGA sections against each other. “Those events have very good competitors who played from the back tees at around 6,800 yards, yet they were still challenged,” said Rashley. “But for people coming down to this area for a vacation at the nearby beaches, the nines are very playable and enjoyable. Fairways are wide (and in great shape thanks to superintendent Mike Moyer and his team) and very few holes have a forced carry.”
Current social distancing protocols have resulted in some innovative efforts at Bear Trap Dunes. Like a virtual shopping experience in the golf shop, where a staff member works with customers during a 15-minute appointment via Skype or FaceTime to show new and existing products. Purchases are then picked up curbside. Or the virtual lessons from the club’s PGA professionals, who have been providing at-home drills and tips online. “The response to both of those efforts has been really positive,” said Rashley. “We’re getting really good engagement on social media and reaching many more people than usual.”
The club’s food and beverage team, led by Craig Krick and Executive Chef Gerry Patt, even created a drive-through cookout where members stopped at different stations set up in the circle fronting the clubhouse to pick up food and drink curbside. And there’s more to come.
“We provide a great golf experience and the food is really good, but how do we provide a bigger experience off the course for members?” Rashley asked. “People come in after playing golf or return from a day at the beach and they want to eat and drink.”
Future plans call for a bigger focus on monthly experience dinners for 20-30 members that showcase different themes. There are also plans for a drive-in night on the practice range enabling members to show off their decorated golf carts while enjoying a movie on a giant portable screen. A remodeled Dunes Room, capable of accommodating up to 150 people for weddings, has recently been augmented by a new 2,000-square-foot outdoor patio space.
Memberships at Bear Trap Dunes are available in three categories: residential (for those living in a Carl M. Freeman development); invitational (for those not living in a Carl M. Freeman development); and young executive (for ages 35 and under). Members also have access at Bayside Resort Club and its Jack Nicklaus Signature Course in nearby Selbyville.
“I’ve been in this industry for 15 years now and I’ve never seen such a loyal membership at a club,” said Rashley. “All of the feedback we get comes from such a loving and caring mindset. They genuinely just want what is best for Bear Trap Dunes.”