I don’t know if there are hard and fast rules on how many favorites one can have, but my list of favorite golf courses expands from the top each year. My trip to play Arcadia Bluffs resulted in its eighteen holes instantly earning a reverence that few golf experiences may ever match. It instantly became a course that I will be perpetually looking for a way to return and play again as often as practicable.
Set on the bluffs 180 feet above Lake Michigan, Arcadia Bluffs is a triumph of creativity and strategic architecture from designers Rick Smith and Warren Henderson. Turning 20 years old in 2019, the course offers visual overload with breathtaking views of the lake set beyond the wispy, fescue covered dunes that frame the golf course and instantly imprint images in the player’s mind.
From the Championship tees the course can stretch out to 7,300 yards and plays to a rating and slope of 75.7/146, respectively, which seems a bit low, frankly. Our group played from the much friendlier and manageable White tees at 6,244 yards, which provided plenty of challenge on a breezy day, but allowed us to get around in just over four hours.
That Arcadia Bluffs is as distinctive in the way in plays as it is in the way it looks is, in part, what makes the course so special. The land the course is built upon, as it currently sits, was entirely created by the architects’ visions and desires, bending the land to their will. The result is a golf playground, a living postcard that hosts the game.
The views from and of the course can stop a player in their tracks at first blush. The rolling dunescape eventually gives way to Lake Michigan and a horizon so large you would think you are on the edge of the sea.
In his article in Golf Course Architecture describing the contrast between the original Arcadia Bluffs course and the resort’s new South Course across the street, author Adam Lawrence summarized the architectural feel and theme of Arcadia Bluffs perfectly.
(Arcadia Bluffs) fronts onto Lake Michigan at the top of the bluffs for which the place is named, and the earth moving has created enormous faux dunes and deep sided valleys through which the holes run. It is hugely popular, exciting and entertaining, but if what Bill Coore and Tom Doak do is minimalism, then this is maximalism writ large.
The dunes and valleys that Lawrence referenced shape and define the playing corridors; they are the frames and mats that accentuate the individual holes and tie the entire property together. The views of the course and the lake are so incredible and rich that you might swear those dunes have been there for hundreds of years.
Covered in wispy fescue grasses, these great mounds aren’t only part of the scenery, but are also very much in play can be played from. During our round, most of the balls hit into the tall, thin patches of grass were not only found but able to be advanced toward the hole or fairway. Whether you actually wanted to find the ball, and the ensuing shot from a brutal side hill lie was another question entirely.
The bluffs upon which the course is built border Lake Michigan for slightly more than 1,000 feet of lake frontage roughly 180 feet above the lake surface. 225 feet difference between the highest and lowest points on the course, and elevation change factors into almost every shot on every hole.
A majority of holes play from east to west, or vice versa, west-to-east, meaning the course routing takes a player towards or away from the lake on most holes. This also means that each hole plays significantly uphill or downhill, never really level with the target.
This routing maximizes not only the playability effects of the elevation changes maximize, but also the effects of the prevailing wind coming in off of Lake Michigan.
It also means that, even in the fairways, there are almost no flat, level lies from which to hit a shot from anywhere other than a tee box. The Wolf at Paiute is only course I remember with such consistent, comparable microcontours throughout the fairways.
One criticism I had for the routing of the course is that the first hole moves away from the rest of the course, away from the lake, away from the clubhouse, to an isolated corner of the property.
The first hole, a mostly nondescript par five, feels like Arcadia Bluffs-lite. It lacks strategic boldness and draws golfers away from Lake Michigan and the rest of the course.The first hole was a clearing of the throat before a magnificent song is started. If the designers were looking for a slow, gentle beginning from which to build a crescendo, they nailed it.
The highlight of the first green, for me, was discovering that the flag sticks are extra heavy, wood-coated octagons that were at least a foot shorter than any other flag sticks I had ever seen, which says something about the wind at the course on a “normal” day, I suppose.
Otherwise, the Arcadia Bluffs journey is interesting, and I suppose that players would not experience the “wow” moment on the 3rd tee if the first two holes were tucked up in their corner locations.
As a final interesting note on the routing, the front nine contains three par three holes, three par four holes, and three par five holes.
The giant greens are magnificently diverse in shape, size, and green surround complex designs. Their surfaces, while all owning similar aesthetics, contain a distinct feature unique to that hole: a ridge, tiers, a bowl, false fronts, etc.
The curvature and contouring of the greens’ surfaces create putts that tend to have a more pronounced, obvious break rather than a tougher to read subtle break, which should not be surprising given the resort course origin of the course.
Sand is everywhere at Arcadia Bluffs. Under the fescue dunes, under the fairways, under the greens, and even in the bunkers! On several holes there are so many bunkers grouped together that, collectively, they look like the sandy waste areas you would expect to find at Tobacco Road or Pine Needles in North Carolina.
The diversity of bunker sizes, shapes, depths, and strategic importance is impressive. I started the day in the green side bunker on the par three second hole. I had options at my disposal, which made for entertaining shot-making choices.
I could aim directly at the flag with a good lie and confident, spinning strike, or I could play away from the hole and allow the contours of the green to feed the ball towards the hole.
Contrast that with the enormous sod walled bunker built beneath the side of the third hole. One of our players went for the hero shot to carry the green and ended up against the front wall of this monster sand pit. Bumfuzzled by the difficulty of even taking a stance, he essentially got “stuck,” stubbornly trying to put his ball on the green instead of taking any medicine and playing out sideways or backwards away from the green.
He eventually took a “Circle 8” and we all moved on, but he did have options before reaching that end. The option to take on the risk and attempt the hero shot, but also to have more sensible options, is perhaps the common thread brilliantly woven throughout Arcadia Bluffs, thematically tying the course together.
The sandy areas and bunkers are an important part of that fabric,defining many holes’ decision points. Placement, shape, depth, type, all very important to each hole either visually, for visual intimidation purposes, or strategically.
The par three holes are interesting tests, asking varied questions of the golfer. The combinations of bunkers, elevation change, and green shapes make each one-shotter a unique challenge that require a different club and shot.
Of the five par three holes, the sixth hole stands out for the interesting math problem it presents: it plays slightly uphill, but decidedly downwind to a multi shelf green. The decision of where to land the ball, whether to go directly at the flag or use transition between tiers as a backboard if the pin isn’t in on the back shelf presents options for attack.
Similarly, the ninth hole has a green that presents options and terrors. The bunker between the tees and the greens isn’t really a green side bunker and only comes into play if a shot is mis-struck or under-clubbed, but it dominates the mind’s eye.
The green has both a massive false front, which will capture any shot short or left of the target, and a huge bowl that will collect shots bounding of the surrounding mounds. It is another example of a hole that offers options to both the savvy player and the novice: aim directly for the hole or use the terrain to get a ball close to the pin.
Finally, the 13th hole is Arcadia Bluffs’ version of an old school, carry over the ravine hole perched on the edge of the bluffs at the lake’s edge. There are bunkers protecting the front of the green with a bail out area further short and right, and a catch bunker left of the green to deter shots headed towards Lake Michigan.
Judging the carry distance and elevation difference between tee and green based on the pin position are the determinate strategic elements of the hole. But one would almost be missing the point if they didn’t stop, take a few deep breaths, and soak in the picturesque beauty of this hole that could easily have been found into one of George C. Thomas’s black and white photos in Golf Architecture in America.
For a golf course as big and rugged as Arcadia Bluffs, the par five holes should garner the brightest spotlight as stars of the show. Setting aside the aforementioned first hole, the rest of the par five roster merits top billing.
The third hole is where the golfer is introduced to Lake Michigan vista. The elevated tee also introduces the golfer to the day’s prevailing wind in earnest blowing straight from green to tee with no protection.
The third fairway is widest at the landing area for the tee shot, and that is where the strategy gets interesting. Go for the green and come up short, there is that giant sod-walled bunker waiting to doom the shot, though there is a generous bail out area right of the green.
Electing to lay up creates its own decision hazards, because while one can essentially roll the ball up the left side of the fairway, missing the two fairway cross bunkers, then that giant bunker must be carried to land the ball on the green from a shallow angle.
On the other hand, choosing to challenge those cross bunkers on the second shot leaves a great angle to the green for the third shot. Thus, the third hole forces the decision of not if but when they want to take on the risks posed by the hole.
A little further down the hill toward the lake, the fifth hole leaves a lasting impression, combining unfettered views of the water and horizon with a classic strategy concept. Simply put, the the massive dunes or its two dozen bunkers, the easier the next shot becomes by getting shorter or improving the angle of the shot.
For me, it is the course’s signature hole. It begs a player to attempt the heroic shot. If drive on the right side of fairway, have to lay up, plenty of room to lay up and will have a great angle to attack green. If down left side of hole, the angles beg for the heroic attempt to reach green in two shots.
If you’re in the long stuff, you just want to advance it far so you can reach the green with a third. Of note is the forced carry of about 75 yards between the end of the fairway and the green complex surround by sand.
The 11th hole is all about the tee shot, trying to catch the speed slot down the fairway ski slope contouring of the fairway. A solid drive down the slot and there’s a real chance to reach the green comfortable. If forced to lay up, the landing areas on and near the green are uncomfortable, with dunes and bunkers potentially making the approach semi-blind.
In contrast to the unabashed fun of the other par five holes, the 15th hole is a brutal test. From an elevated tee, a forced carry is required to find a generous landing area, and the uphill journey to a crazy green begins. The contouring and back-to-front tilting of the putting surface is borderline radical.
It’s almost an impossible challenge to get an approach shot close to the pin if the flag in the front of the green. From above the hole, we had players putt off of the front of the green. It was a severe test of nerve, but also a little comical to the point that it made me chuckle.
The par four holes at Arcadia Bluffs aren’t exactly designed as ballast, either. Many of them I remember as vividly as if I were playing there last week.
The fourth hole is a definite scoring opportunity, a short par four where the best play may require less than driver from the tee to set up fade second shot into massive, tilted bowl green.
On the tenth hole, the preferred landing area is blind from the tee, as the massive dunes jut into and out of the direct line to the fairway. One small directional marker on the hill is all there is to aim for if one desires a good angle and clear line of sight to the green for the approach shot. It certainly is not for the meek.
Finally, the twelfth hole is the signature hole of the back nine, playing from south to north on the edge of bluffs with an unfettered view of Lake Michigan from directly below all the way to the distant horizon. It’s a solid risk-reward diagonal tee shot over a massive bunker, with the option to completely bail out up the hill to the right.
It should be noted that the tee box is close enough to the edge of the cliff that our best player, who happens to have an issue with heights, suffered a quick bout of vertigo while looking over the edge.
He quickly developed an irrational fear that he would lose his grip on his brand new driver and fling it over the edge to the lake below induced purely from the setting. And he made the only ugly swing I’ve seen him make is fifteen or more years of golf and friendship.
A great thing about Arcadia Bluffs is that each hole asked a unique questions, or set of questions, of the golfer. The aesthetics and styling of the bunkers and greens tie the course together, but nothing felt repetitive or forced.
The course requires hitting variety of shot shapes and requires forethought about the angle of the green, about the forced carry over sand or rough, and the constant calculus of elevation change and wind speeds.
II have a novice’s knowledge of golf architecture, but I did not recognize any obvious template holes while playing or reviewing the course. While there are forced carries on the routing, those challenges ask to carry mounds or sand or long grass only, as there are no water hazards in play.
The dunes’ mounding and wriggling is extreme, and it’s hard to imagine that there are inland areas where the land is wrinkled like Arcadia Bluffs. However, the dunescape is so consistent across the entire property that it looks natural (especially as compared to other manufactured links-esque landscapes, like, say, the Senator Course at Capitol Hill in Alabama).
Perhaps the only flaw in the Arcadia Bluffs experience is that it was designed and created to be a golf cart course. This is no surprise given the resort course qualities of Arcadia Bluffs, but it would be a difficult but extremely fun walk with a little tweaking of the green to next tee distances. Take note, however, that they do have an active caddie program available to the public.
Our group assembled for lunch on the back patio before our round, and neither the food nor the ambiance disappointed. If you visit Arcadia Bluffs, leave enough time to enjoy a cold (or warm) drink on the green grass amphitheater set up behind the 18th green, where you can watch groups finish up their rounds if you can draw your eyes away from that magnificent horizon.
A criticism I have read and heard about Arcadia Bluffs is that the incredible setting on the edge of Lake allows people to romanticize the golf course through rose-colored glasses and think more highly of it than the golf course deserves. I heartily disagree.
The strategic decisions, and level of execution on those decisions, are what make Arcadia Bluffs a great golf course. There are so many opportunities to accept the heroic challenge or to play it safe, both requiring full attention and careful effort.
When risks are taken on and the shot is pulled off, there is usually a proportional reward rather than just a ridiculous penalty for failure. There’s balance in the course architecture, which helps make it a special golf experience and a Top 100 Public Golf Course by several measures.
Arcadia Bluffs remains one of my favorite courses, my favorite golf experience, and favorite places anywhere any where on Earth. It is expensive, and modern, and bold, and I can barely wait to get back there at the next opportunity to make a special trip to the west coast of Michigan.