Where: Arcadia, Michigan
Years opened: Bluffs course 1999, South course 2018
Designer: Warren Henderson for the Bluffs, Dana Fry for the South
Golfweek’s Best: The Bluffs is No. 1 among public-access layouts in Michigan and No. 53 among all Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses in the U.S.; the South is No. 6 among Michigan’s public-access layouts
Forget the actual golf for a minute. Standing on the patio behind the Bluffs clubhouse, I was treated to one of the superb views in all of American golf. White Adirondack chairs are perched above the 18th green, and golf holes tumble in all directions down to the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Go there late in the day just to watch sky run through its entire spectrum of colors as the sun descends into water.
That visual theme continues throughout a round at the Bluffs course, with jaw-dropping vantages of the lake to the west. The clubhouse sits well away from and above the bluffs, leaving the best land for the golf. The course features four holes directly on the 200-plus-foot bluffs, and the hilly terrain provides lake views from nearly every hole.
The fast and firm landscape is anything but flat, with wide holes bending into and alongside dramatic slopes. The Bluffs is a tough course to walk but a dream to observe, especially on those holes that play westward. The dunes creates plenty of awkward shots to challenge any player, and the rugged design features plenty of sand with fescue and native scrub. Designer Warren Henderson – working with Rick Smith – produced a tumbling bedsheet of terrain with the holes laid atop the best spots, playing alongside and across sometimes intense mounding.
The Bluffs layout isn’t perfectly designed for walking, with players doubling back uphill some 300 yards from green to tee at one point and crossing big chunks of ground from green to tee at others. But to focus only on that would largely miss the point of the place – the architects sought out the most dramatic sites for holes, and surely they knew most players would be in carts. If the 18 holes aren’t always perfectly connected, they certainly are memorable for the shots they require.
It certainly didn’t all come together easily. The hilly terrain of the Bluffs course presented environmental challenges during construction as storms washed tons of sand down a ravine and into Lake Michigan. Steps were taken to rectify those challenges, with the ravine stabilized and a complex drainage system put into place, leaving golfers to enjoy an unforgettable playground high above the lake.
The resort’s newer South course, by comparison, presents an entirely different set of challenges than the Bluffs course. Not directly on the lake, the course sits two miles southeast of the Bluffs on less-dramatic land where an orchard once grew and where Dana Fry created a throw-back course that has captivated fans of old-school architecture.
The greens are a tribute to the Golden Era style of architects C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor. The South features plenty of geometric shapes, especially squared-off edges of greens. Fry has credited Chicago Golf Club, designed by Macdonald in 1896 and renovated by Raynor in 1923, as inspiration for the South.
Combined with the extremely tight and bouncy turf, the geometric shapes present exacting greenside challenges that must be considered before a player tees off on any given par 4 or 5. It’s a strategist’s dream, with a ball on one side of the fairway presenting a reasonable approach while a ball on the opposite side of the fairway leaves the player a problematic shot.
The firm greens sit well above surrounding bunkers, and balls flying in at the wrong angles tend to shoot off the putting surfaces. The greens are then segmented by swales, ridges and bumps, further complicating matters – great fun in a beautiful parkland setting on a course that was built to be walked and savored.
Combined, the two courses present very different and enjoyable experiences, making for a perfect and quick trip. The resort offers a range of lodge rooms and cottages with quick and easy quick access to the excellent dining and golf. The centerpiece of the property is the view from the back of the main lodge, across those chairs and the 18th green and down to the lake – come for the golf, stay for the view.
Golfweek’s Best rater comments
- Bluffs course: “Hard to imagine a modern ‘coastal’ course ranking much above this spectacular layout. The bluffs above Lake Michigan seemed to be created by the divine power specifically for this course to be designed. Epic views. Astonishing use of rolling hills, subtle elevation changes, ridges, valleys and chasms. Intimidating hazards and bunkering frame virtually every hole.”
- South course: “A modern Seth Raynor tribute that could not have been more expertly executed. Extremely impressive how they were able to replicate the template-style green complexes that Raynor famously employed in his classic designs. They implemented quadrants as well as any course I can recall outside of genuine Raynor courses that I have played.”