Located slightly inland, a mile or so to the southeast of its famed sibling The Bluffs, the unimaginatively named South course at Arcadia Bluffs opened for play in 2018. The Golden Age Chicago Golf Club (one of America’s most exclusive and intensely private clubs) was the blueprint for the daily fee South course, drawn up by Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design. Warren Henderson, architect of the original Bluffs course, provided management supervision throughout the project.
Despite being good friends with Dana Fry, Ron Whitten – who collaborated with Fry and Michael Hurdzan at Erin Hills – was sceptical about the South’s design because Whitten suffers from “MacRaynor Fatigue. That’s the condition brought about by seeing an excessive number of courses designed in the fashion of C.B. Macdonald and his sidekick Seth Raynor.” However, Golf Digest’s architecture editor changed his tune after previewing the South course prior to its official opening.
“It’s the putting surfaces that raise the South Course to a level of interest even above the famed Bluffs Course. They look huge but play small. The 40-yard-deep 7th green has false sides left and right flowing into flanking bunkers. The horseshoe-shaped green on the par-3 12th, which, with its squared off front edges looks like a magnet to me, has 15 feet of false front on the right prong, 20 feet of false front on the left prong and a back half that’s a banked-turn of unpinnable slope. So 12 is actually a wide, shallow green that could prove difficult to hit and hold. Even trickier is the big 15th green with a tiny pot bunker front and center and a humpback ridge running front to back, everything else drifting off left and right toward sand. That’s followed by the large wedge-shaped green on the 246-yard par-3 16th, with a beveled front left edge that kick balls down a 30-yard slope of tightly mown bent grass. All are original concepts that I predict future generations will study and emulate. They’re that imaginative.”
Routed in two distinct loops, across a generous 300-acre and largely treeless parcel of sandy ground, the South course is intended to be a walkable layout where firm and fast surfaces and ever-present wind combine to challenge and delight all comers. The South course is not a facsimile of Chicago Golf Club, it’s an inclusive tribute to the Golden Age. Or to quote Arcadia’s rather corny marketing – “Complexity Veiled by Simplicity”..
When golf facilities of all types are entertaining the thought in having more than once course in their portfolio the key is bringing on board different architects to help ensure that the differentiation in design styles will actually bolster the reasons for going to the facility in the first place.
This happened to mega success with Mike Keiser and the series of courses under the umbrella of Bandon Dunes. Keiser did similarly with the likes of Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Ditto at Sand Valley with the two courses now there. The same has happened at the hugely successful Streamsong Resort in south central Florida. In each of the aforementioned instances various different architects were engaged to provide their perspective on what type of course would work best.
In the far northwest corner of the lower half of Michigan is Arcadia Bluffs. This successful project opened in 1999 and the effort by Warren Henderson and Rick Smith produced a stunning layout that ebbs and flows up and down hills and also providing eye-catching vistas of Lake Michigan. The original 18 holes clearly included a heavy dosage of shaping but the final outcome is one that consistently draws golfers from throughout the area and beyond to enjoy what's provided.
Now fast forward to this year when a second layout opened -- named the South Course and located less than two miles from the original layout. Wisely, ownership opted to hire a very talented architect - Dana Fry. Fry was a main cog years ago when the Tom Fazio "brand name" took hold. After his time there he joined forces with Dr. Michael Hurdzan and the duo was quite successful with a number of riveting efforts -- Devil's Paintbrush in Canada and Calusa Pines in Naples, FL being two clear examples. The duo was together for a number of years before Fry opted to move ahead with a new partnership in 2012.
Getting a really solid course as a follow-up is never an easy task. Many people often see the first course as the main headliner. That's not always the case as was proven when Pacific Dunes was the sequel to the original Bandon Dunes layout and has been lauded as the best of the bunch at that complex. The task for Arcadia was not small. The second course would not have the benefit in having Lake Michigan as the ultimate background visual item. The new layout also does not have the rolling terrain found at the Bluffs.
Fry was truly challenged and his brainstorm proved to be quite adventurous but also rather brilliant. Using Chicago GC in Wheaton, IL as his inspiration, Fry was intent in creating a layout where unique and challenging land forms were created to provide a fast and firm surfaces where various strategies would need to be successfully engaged by those playing the course. Fry went to Chicago GC three times during the planning and 11 times during construction. When you enter the grounds of the South Course you are hardly overwhelmed. In fact, the first impression for many might be to quickly turn the car around head back to the Bluffs. That would be a huge error.
The South is armed with 111 total bunkers -- 59 on outward side and 52 coming back in. The putting surfaces are quite large (just over 9,400 square feet) and the property is blessed with 311 acres. And, most importantly, there’s no clutter from invasive houses and other such inclusions.
The course opens up with a challenging starter. At 429 yards the players must confront two angled bunkers, one on the left and right. The shape of the bunkers is also quite special (often the bunkers are set perpendicular to the line of play and are quite narrow) no more than few paces wide and fortified with a high enough lip to prevent rudimentary escapes. One or two visits to any of them and the fear will be forever implanted into a golfer's psyche. Like Chicago GC, angles are the architect's weapon here. Players have to gauge a number of factors; how they are playing, how hard and from what direction the wind blows and whether the bold play is worth the risk it entails. In many ways, the South is a chess match where physical skills in tandem with smartness between the ears are mandatory.
Greenside bunkers at the South are often deep with the putting surfaces bleeding into them for any misfired approach shot.
The 2nd hole is listed as the 17-handicap hole but that belies the numerous strategic calculations that must be made. At just 361 yards the hole invites the bold play from the tee but a crafty bunker on the right side of the fairway is perfectly situated to block that direction unless the player is able to carry the ball 300 yards in the air. Should one opt to play left there's sufficient room but another bunker awaits for those who hit it long and pull it just tad. Where the pin is located is central because even with the large available amount of putting surface there is always an ideal landing location because failure to find it will result in a constant struggle to avoid three and even four putts.
Fry smartly incorporated a series of internal movements so that the effective size of the green is really much smaller. The back left pin placement on the 2nd provides the smallest of windows for those who dare to fly it into this beguiling target.
One of the key strengths at the South is the routing. The course is always changing directions where wind will constantly influence play. The guiding plan is to get the course to a legitimate and enduring firm and fast condition. When I played the course it did have sufficient run out but more can certainly be had when the turf is totally grown in for all locations.
During my visit the putting greens were ideal, firm on top and rejecting anything not crisply hit. For those accustomed to greens where craters can be had on the greens with just about any lofted club, the South is not a layout that will warm the heart of the novice or those lacking consummate skills. The greens will accept shots, but like any job interview you're not going to get the position simply because of a flashing smile and nod of the head. If you go pin hunting be prepared to deliver or be outed with swift justice being meted out quickly.
Fry deftly includes all the touches -- there are a series of false fronts that must be avoided. The par-3 5th is quite good and the par-3 8th is delicious with a vexing fall-off that prevents anything but well-played shots getting beyond the rise in front of the green.
The inward half starts with two satisfactory holes. The par-4 10th is strong when played into the prevailing wind and the long par-5 11th is simply satisfactory. Fry re-ignites the design momentum with the crafty par-3 12th. The half-moon shaped frontal bunker just eats into the green and provides for two frontal positions -- both left and right -- that are tour de force in the demands provided. The 12th gives the appearance from the tee as being simply a perfunctory hole -- after you play it you'll know how wrong your initial assessment was.
The 13th starts a closing stretch of holes that carries the golf to a convincing conclusion. The 13th doglegs right and pity the player who erroneously concludes that the corner of the hole can be carried with impunity. Two large bunkers provide a separation between the fairway and the green which is setback by roughly 25 yards. Gauging the approach is tested in an exacting manner and the green does its part with a series of movement pushing in from all sides.
Playing normally into the wind the par-5 14th is a test in driving dexterity. Bunkers angle in from both sides and avoidance is crucial to walk away with the hope of a par.
Fry admits that the most underrated hole is the short par-4 15th. It's angled from left to right off the tee and position is crucial. For the strongest of players and with favorable wind conditions it's possible to reach the green but the costs for anything but perfection is indeed high. The brilliance of the hole comes with the green -- a ridge bisects the length of the green with deep fall offs surrounding a majority of the green. One must be ever vigilant to avoid a sloppy short shot, the hole is like an honest judge, no bribes accepted just your truly best execution.
Changing direction comes quickly with the long par-3 16th at 246 yards. The hole plays in the opposite direction of the 15th and Fry provides a run-up area from the right side. However, the slightest pulled shot will be pushed further away from the green by a major drop-off on that side. Like so many other holes on the South the green is once again the cornerstone of the defense.
The 17th is a superb penultimate hole. The hole rises gently from the tee and there is a trio of bunkers down the left side. Landing in any of these bunkers is a sure recipe for bogey or worse. Fry provides an opening between another bunker on the right but the aggressive play must be backed-up with vintage execution. Those who layback away from the bunker are left with an uphill shot to a green that's extremely wide but narrows from front to back. If the pin is cut to either the far left or right sides the need to a high shot with sufficient spin is the only way to assure a reasonable birdie putt.
The South's concluding hole is a stout long par-4 at 492 yards. At times the prevailing wind will assist players, but as before, Fry shrewdly places fairway bunkers to give pause when ready to hit from the tee. There is an alleyway in which tee shots can escape flanking fairway bunkers. The choice is the player's to decide -- execute with precision and the reward is yours. Fail to do so and your finish may result with an outcome bringing a quick frown as you leave the putting surface.
For those not enamored with the subtle elements the South provides, the more visceral Bluffs Course will likely be the primary choice. Yet, the South is an architectural cornucopia of varying elements, rich with spice and always providing different avenues to decide upon. Fry's design career has certainly evolved. His earliest efforts often meant more reliance on style, creating "the look" but often times at the expense of true substance. Going for the flash and often leaving out the crucial details lying at the heart of top tier shotmaking. The South is a winning counterpoint to the big brother Bluffs courser. Each will have their defenders – each is certainly worthy of attention.
I'm looking forward to returning to both and seeing if the vision of the South is carried out to its maximum potential. The goods are certainly there to harvest. The goal of differentiation has been wonderfully accomplished and through Fry's due diligence the end result is clearly one to relish, as each round will no doubt provide more clues to its haunting secrets.
by M. James Ward