Designed by Warren Henderson and Rick Smith, Arcadia Bluffs was opened as a public course in 1999. It is situated some 130 miles north west of Grand Rapids on a wind-swept 245-acre site along the Michigan shoreline and is in play from April to November annually.
Arcadia Bluffs is sometimes belittled (like Whistling Straits at Sheboygan on the other side of Lake Michigan) for being an imitation or manufactured links. The hand of man built the acclaimed new links at Kingsbarns in Scotland so Arcadia has absolutely nothing to worry about.
Construction problems were encountered during storms in September 1998 when a landslide caused an estimated 7,000 tons of soil to wash into Lake Michigan. These difficulties were overcome and the rugged landscape was revealed as hardwood and pine trees were removed and rolling fairways were sculpted amongst the dunes.
Arcadia Bluffs runs along more than 3,000 feet of shoreline and the course drops more than 200 feet from its highest point down to the cliffs which themselves are 150 feet above the lake – it is as dramatic a setting for golf as you can imagine and there is not a weak hole on the card to give you any respite as you play.
Fairways are generally wide and drain superbly due to the sandy soil. Greens average 8,000 square feet so they are huge. Bunkering on the course is exceptional and golfers are advised to avoid all of the 50 riveted bunkers that are scattered round the course if they want to score well.
Holes have been renumbered from the original configuration to enable a stronger finish and allow players access to the clubhouse around the turn, in effect creating two loops of nine. Three holes define the Arcadia Bluffs course, starting at the 633-yard, par five 11th hole which swings gently left and downhill toward the lake. The 431-yard, par four 12th hole then runs along the cliff top before the feature hole for many is played - the 240-yard, par three 13th where the tee shot has to carry a canyon to find the green which is perched on the cliff edge over Lake Michigan – don’t forget to bring your camera!
Arcadia Bluffs has a range and short game practice area to sharpen up your game before playing. And after your round, there is a wonderfully appointed clubhouse with patio deck, sunset grill and dining room to relax in – it is said that “the dining experience is almost as special as your round” - with wonderful views across the lake.
A new 18-hole layout opened at Arcadia Bluffs in 2018, designed by Dana Fry as his homage to C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor’s course at Chicago Golf Club. Featuring flat-bottomed, grass-faced bunkers, along with wide, straight-lined fairways and crowned square-shaped greens, the new South course goes a long way towards capturing the feel of a Golden Age design from the 1920s.
There's little question having Lake Michigan as a course's backdrop is truly a major plus. But, the secret of the qualities of Arcadia Bluffs is taking the scenic views and marrying them with a range of top quality holes. Keep in mind, it helps immensely that Arcadia Bluffs is a power cart course. There is some amount of spacing between a few of the holes and walking the course would prove to be a chore for all except the most physically fit.
Given the elasticity with power carts the routing is able to go into different directions to ensure that the overall hole flow is maximized. The opening sequence of holes is testing without being overbearing. When you commence at the 1st hole you will see the penal nature of a few of the bunkers with their vetted faces. Pay close attention to avoiding them because escape is anything but assured.
Some of the initial design features were modified to enhance overall playability - this is particularly true with the false fronts that exist on several of the holes such as the 7th, 10th and 17th. The routing was also changed and the existing flow of holes does work much better.
The character of Arcadia Bluffs begins to accelerate when you reach the par-5 5th. Playing downhill the tee shot commences with a gorgeous view Lake Michigan in the backdrop. The hole turns left and those able to get far enough down the fairway can give the green a go in two shots. The play is fraught with danger as prepared sand areas as well as natural blowouts await the hapless play.
The uphill par-3 6th is a great follow-up hole. Playing uphill the hole requires quality execution. The green is protected by a solitary frontal bunker but the putting surface is vexing with a range of twists and turns. The uphill 7th -- a par-4 of 472 yards -- is a lengthy hole but one lacking in overall character.
When you reach the par-4 8th -- the test you face increases but so does the variety of holes encountered. The uphill 8th plays 449 yards and is artfully created. There are bunkers to avoid the approach must be carried all the way into the elevated target. At the par-3 9th -- you play 203 yards going the opposite direction into a green that wraps itself around some large trees that guard that side of the target.
The inward half starts with one of Michigan's finest holes -- the long par-4 10th. The tee shot is a blind play -- similar to what you face on the front nine at Royal County Down. The key is realizing how the fairway bottlenecks down the longer the ball is hit. The green is slightly elevated and requires a fine approach to get near the pin. The par-5 11th at 633 yards is often pictured. The hole plummets downhill with Lake Michigan in the distant background. The long tee shot can give some players an attempt to go for the green in two shots. One of the fascinating aspects of the 11th is how the fairway tightens up considerably from roughly 250 yards out to the green. Players have to be especially keen in not missing the short grass for the 3rd shot approach. When you reach the green -- it's hard to take your eyes of the nearby Lake and to look back up the fairway and see the ground you just covered.
The par-4 12th runs parallel to the Lake and is first-rate hole. Once again -- the tee shot is tested -- finding the fairway is crucial so that the approach is within one's capabilities. Just like the 11th -- the fairway necks down with the longest of tee shots. The long par-3 13th at 240 yards is even more breathtaking. The tee plays over a major depression with the putting surface sitting high up on the far side. The long par-3 hole is unfortunately not carried out by many architects and this hole reinforces how crucial a hole such a hole can be when done smartly. There's a bailout area to the right of the green but those heading that direction then will need to pitch over two bunkers protecting that side.
The uphill par-4 14th is meant to be the short two-shot hole at 340 yards and while it's good -- it does not produce the kind of edge-of-your-seat dimension that a hole of this type should provide. It's good -- just not especially noteworthy.
On the other hand the finishing quartet is rock solid. The par-5 15th at 519 yards plays uphill towards the clubhouse. The key is avoiding a pesky center-placed bunker that is right where the 2nd shot can land if one is not careful. Just when you think a possible birdie can be had -- you find quite quickly that nothing at Arcadia Bluffs is ever giving away cheaply.
The downhill long par-4 16th at 486 yards is simply top tier -- in alignment with the qualities played earlier at the 10th. The hole turns left in the drive zone and it's imperative the fairway is found. The green is neatly angled so running shots can get to the hole -- provided they stay up the left side.
The uphill par-3 17th is truly an eye-catcher. The green is perched high above the tee and it's essential the right club and trajectory is played. Only listed at 176 yards but the 17th is played to a pear-shaped green. When the pin is near the front it takes a Merlin-like ability to get near.
The home hole is uphill -- at 439 yards and a par-4. Given the elevation change the closing 18th requires a fine tee shot. Like a few others at Arcadia Bluffs the fairway does narrow down and the preferred landing is on the left opening up a clear approach shot. Gauging the distance is no easy feat as the elevated target will likely call upon an extra club or two to be successful.
It's important to point out Arcadia Bluffs is clearly manufactured. The holes are often slotted through hillocks that were no doubt produced from other than Mother Nature. If the actual site were one not manipulated by man then the overall assessment could very well have been higher. But, unlike those purists who get upset when man's hand gets overly involved -- the net result at Arcadia Bluffs is extremely well done. There are clear strategies at nearly all of the holes. You also have to contend with the ever-unpredictable winds that can sweep in from the Lake. The strategic implications are varied and are well served by putting surfaces that are fairly contoured given how severe winds can blow at certain times.
The Michigan public course scene is a very competitive one. Arcadia Bluffs now has competition from the recently opened South Course just down the street. Catch Arcadia Bluffs on an ideal day and the experience is nothing short of intoxicating. Watching the sun drop over the edge of the Lake late in the day is a real capper.
My first visit to Arcadia Bluffs came not long after it opened. I wondered would the course still provide the enjoyment factor I originally experienced. I can say without any reservation the 2nd visit simply reinforced my original thoughts. One last thing -- be sure to sit on one of the large chairs facing the 18th hole and Lake Michigan with your favorite beverage in hand. It's the only way to conclude such a fun time.
by M. James Ward
Arcadia Bluffs is a public pay and play course built along the cliffs above Lake Michigan. It’s truly an impressive piece of land with amazing views of the lake and the clubhouse. That part is definitely as good as you’ll find anywhere. It has spots where you are reminded of the likes of Whistling Straits and a couple tee shots that could almost be placed at Old Head given their close proximity to the cliffs edge.
The golf course is really fun but certainly not world class. There are many decent holes don’t get me wrong but only a couple really memorable holes and after the round I had trouble recalling quite a few holes without looking at photos. I have the feeling that a lot of earth was moved in creating this course. That is fine but perhaps they tried just a little too hard to make something really special.
The greens are large with huge undulations which border on going too far in many cases. The greens were not running too fast on my visit but it was beginning of the season for them and I imagine they try to play them at 10 + on the stimp. Many would border unplayable especially if the wind was up. I think when you consider how the average 15 hcp would fair on this course you quickly realize they may have put something together that’s way too tough to be fun and playable for their average clientele. If my group was any indication then most people choose the wrong tees as well and bite off way more on this course than they can chew.
It’s also for the most part designed as a cartball course in my opinion, I played most of it twice, the fog rolled in on #10 the first day and it went from being beautiful blue sky to visibility of less than 50 ft in the span of like 20 minutes. It’s a tough walk as a lot of the tees are a good distance from the previous greens and there is also quite a huge elevation change. They actually advised me against walking when I said I had already walked 18 the same morning. The front 9 is certainly walkable. The back 9 is a certain workout to walk.
I would not consider Arcadia Bluffs to be a destination course for me personally living overseas but they have great condos on the property right there which would make it a brilliant place to spend a weekend if you lived in Michigan or perhaps came up from Chicago. The other thing I will mention is that I really thought the clubhouse was impressive and the food was excellent. If I was up in the area I’d make a special trip there just to have dinner on the terrace. Indeed the 19th hole there is among the best you will find with amazing views and great service.