Sublime is the only appropriate word to describe Arcadia Bluffs golf course.
Set high on bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan, it’s a links golf fantasy. Sand, dunes, scrub and wind define this course. But there’s also something more—dramatic elevation changes that challenge your sense of distance. With 3,100 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline, every hole at Arcadia Bluffs has a view of the inland sea. The course is beautiful. Unreal.
I played Arcadia Bluffs twice in less than 24 hours: once at twilight in a calm with the sun setting over the lake, and again the next morning under cloudy skies and in a furious wind. The difference was compelling. I think you could play this course a hundred times and still not unlock it’s mysteries.
Designed by Warren Henderson and Rick Smith, the layout is tough, but fair. There are hazards aplenty, but the fairways are wide, and from the correct angles, the approaches are easy. The course rewards planning, shotmaking, and creativity. At every instance, I had to think carefully about what I planned to do, for the designers clearly left good and bad strategies for every hole. And those strategies change with the shifting of the winds.
I played well on both days, but worked as hard as I ever have on a golf course.
The par five third is a good example of the top notch design. Here, a sharply elevated tee faces the lake. On my evening round, the wind was calm, and I was able to carry a mound and waste area left, play a solid second to just below the elevated green, then use a wedge to lob it up. In the morning, that strategy clearly wasn’t going to work. In the face of a 30 mile-an-hour wind, I couldn’t carry the trouble left. There is, however, an out—a much wider and closer landing area right. I aimed there, but even with a strong swing didn’t go very far. At that point, I realized that a three wood would risk putting me into a couple of fairway bunkers positioned center right. I laid up short of those, even though it left me a long iron away from the green. Again, the wind prevented a direct approach to the green; if it fell short (as was likely) my ball would fall into a steep trap. Fortunately, Henderson and Smith left yet another out. The fairway splits at those bunkers into an upper and lower tier. The upper tier runs straight and flat into the green. So I hit a short iron up to the upper level, then pitched toward the green.
I ultimately took a seven on that hole, but very much appreciated the way the designers offered options at every point. And indeed, every hole offers a myriad of choices. There always seemed to be risky options, safe approaches and a dozen ways to play each hole. The key is assessing what you can do, and what club you’ll need depending upon the weather.
My favorite hole (and it is very hard to pick a favorite) was the par four tenth. It starts on an elevated tee, facing the lake and then threads its way down a winding ravine before rising again to an elevated green. In ideal conditions, the tee shot will carry a rise extending into the ravine and land in the wide expanse of fairway beyond. A pole on the ridge provides an aiming point. On both days, I was able to lob my tee shot over that point. If I had missed short or left, it would have cost me an extra shot. On the second shot, it all depends upon distance and angle. With an approach from the left, you face an abyss of a bunker, with a sheer greenside face that has to be twenty feet tall. From the right, the approach is easier, as the fairway leads smoothly, though steeply upward to the green.
If you’re left and long—as I was on both days—the choice is painful (as you can see from the photo on the right). I could try to make the green, but risk hitting the bunker face, or play right and take an extra shot chipping it up to the flag. I tried both. Even with no wind in the evening, I fell short and had to play the bunker shot of my life to get out of that monstrosity. On the second day, with the wind roaring up the ‘holler, I headed right, then had to pitch it up to the hole. I shot a five on both days.
Another memorable hole is the 190 yard par 3 thirteenth (third photo, left). Running parallel to, and adjacent to the lake, the tee is situated on one side of a 200 foot deep ravine, while the green sits on a narrow strip on the other side. It’s the one hole on the course that really doesn’t have an out. If you’re going to miss, it had better be slightly long, and into the backing mound. With the elevation, the chasm and a high wind, it’s just this side of terrifying.
The wind was both fun and frustrating. I hit a 370 yard drive on one hole (as measured by my gps) hitting with the wind, and a perfectly struck 120 yard drive on another into it. I swear that at one point, the ball was heading straight back in my direction.
I would love to see photos of the land before the course was built. The entire thing looks so natural that I have a hard time believing that there was much in the way of earth moving. Holes follow what appear to be entirely natural land forms, winding behind dunes, down ravines and over mounds. The elevation changes are often so dramatic that they could only be the results of natural processes. The natural look also extends to the bunkers, waste areas and rough. It all gives the impression that Arcadia Bluffs was found, rather than built.
I’d also love to be able see how the course has changed fifty or a hundred years from now. I suspect that many of those sandy dunes will have shifted with the winds, creating an entirely new look.
Course conditions on the days I played were immaculate. The staff was friendly. Pace of play was excellent. The clubhouse food was tasty.
Arcadia Bluffs also is walkable, which sets it apart from many other high-end courses. With the elevation changes, the trek is not always easy, but a reasonably fit person can—and should—give it a go.
I can’t wait to go back next year. And the next. And the next.