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 skeptical 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 former 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”.
Given the squared features I’d heard about, I expected the South course to feature the template holes of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor. There were none. But the course has an abundance of classical features. I found Biarritz, Maiden and Punchbowl greens, Lion’s Mouth, Church Pew and Spectacle bunkers and my favorite a Macdonald/Raynor inspired 9th green with two double plateaus (that’s four in total)…….and there could easily be others I wasn’t smart enough to identify. Though I counted 64 fairway bunkers, many did not seem to me to be in strategic locations.
As one might expect, the greens featured the lovely contours of the Golden Age and the routing was clever as well. The front nine evoked Muirfield with the first five holes running in a circle which surrounded #s 6-9. Though I enjoyed the South Course, I found its holes less memorable than those of its elder sibling.
Be forewarned: the author has been a friend of South Course designer Dana Fry for over 20 years. I greatly admire his design work and enthusiasm for golf course architecture, and Dana has been very helpful with course contacts all over the world. One of my favorite things in life is spending time with golf course architects. Fortunately, Dana lives here in Naples and is generous enough with his time to have a long lunch with me during each winter season.
The challenge I have in reviewing a course where I personally know the designer can be awkward if the course is only mediocre. The choice is to say nothing or be diplomatic by bringing out a bag of gratuitous clichés. In early June my quandary was magnified because I had front nine preview play with Dana and stepson Noah Kent. It was in early evening shadows and I loved the course. The next morning, I played the full 18 holes and it was a treat. It passed the test for wanting a return visit for multiple rounds of repeat play.
The successful Arcadia Bluffs resort touches the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. I was first here in 2002 to play the highly-regarded Bluffs Course (opened in 1999). The course is on rugged and steep terrain running downhill to a tall bluff 75 feet above the shoreline of the lake. It was a pleasure to return for the full Bluffs course experience.
To make the resort even more of a destination site, a second course was built 1.5 miles south (open for play 2019). The almost flat 311 acres of farm land and trees is sand-based, but inland. Fry’s challenge was to build a significant course in total contrast to the lake view-inspired and highly-ranked Bluffs Course.
The entrance road bisects the course with the front nine to the north and the back nine to the south. The almost treeless course looks flat, especially the front nine. However, there is actually 60 feet of elevation change from the high point short left of the third green to the low point in the valley in front of the twelfth green. The land on the back nine has much more movement than the front nine. This offered Fry the opportunity to create more design variety on the back nine.
There are only two trees on the course and no water hazards of any sort. With no real estate considerations, it is an easy walking course with greens and tees close together. It was early in the growing season, so the substantial amount of fescue grass between the holes was dormant. I could envision attractive mid-season tall, reddish brown fescue grass blowing in the wind.
One's first impression is thinking you can bang away from the tee to very wide flat fairways (many 50-70 yards wide). Then you think you can hit all 18 greens in regulation because of their mammoth size. After playing a few shots you immediately realize that that tactic can quickly lead to bogey, double bogey, or worse.
First you have to deal with a profusion of bunkers (60 on the front and 52 on the back). The challenge is not only their large number, but their placement and playing characteristics. 65 of the bunkers are totally in or protrude substantially into the fairways. In fact, on ten holes there are 14 bunkers in the middle of fairways (9 on the front and 5 on the back).
Then the unique design of many bunkers (referred to as trench bunkers) will stop you from going directly at the green. These wide and thin bunkers are placed at diagonal and perpendicular angles to the fairway. Their bases are flat, so the ball may come to rest directly in front of a steep fourfoot-high grass face. The saving grace is that Fry has provided bailout areas to avoid the bunkers, but the problem with that strategy is that these options make the next shots longer and usually at an undesirable approach angle.
The placement of the 49 greenside bunkers encourages run-in shots, because the fronts of many greens are open or only semi-obstructed by a bunker.
The push-up greens are humongous in size, averaging 9,440 sq. ft. The largest green is on hole #13 (par -4 of 447 yards) at 13,616 sq. ft. Another four are in the range of 11,000 sq. ft. The smallest is on hole #15 (par-4 at 376 yards) at “only” 7,792 sq. ft. Another way to appreciate green size is to measure green depth. Hole #13’s green is 52 yards deep. The least deep greens are on holes 9 and 11 at 34 yards deep. Keep your range finder handy.
Although the greens look large, they play fairly small. Imaginative green contours offer reasonable challenges without being over the top. There is distinct internal movement that divides the greens into sections, and internal slopes are the major contour element. They are so steep that 40% of green “acreage” is unpinnable. If you are not in the correct section, a three putt is on the horizon. Ramps and false fronts, sides, and backs present challenges.
Stay away from the trouble around the unique square-edged greens that make chipping and pitching off tight lies especially challenging. Sixteen of the greens have modest elevations of 5 to 10 feet, so approach shots can easily scamper off. A multitude of recovery shot options are presented.
In summary, the South Course definitely offers a total and enjoyable contrast to the Bluffs Course. It is a challenging and enjoyable walk in peaceful surroundings. The variety of shot options is particularly memorable. A trip to northwest Michigan should definitely include the South Course.
The South course @ Arcadia Bluffs is the perfect compliment to the Bluffs. Overall to give people access to the Macdonald/Raynor style which is usually only accessible through the most private clubs in America was a brilliant idea. Most Mac/Raynor gurus say the course is well done obviously it’s different and is not going to have the finances those courses have. Kudos to Dana Fry & the owner for the ideation and bringing the course to life. I have only one loop the first year the course was open and look forward to getting back in 2021. The South was excellent when I played it and am excited to see how the course has matured the last few years. If you haven’t been to Arcadia it’s a treat with two very different courses, top flight customer service and a great overall experience. I would highly recommend it for any golf traveler or anyone looking for an amazing outside of the box summer get away.
A fun course to play! This course harkens one back to a "classic age" and I really like that. It's the perfect companion to the Bluffs because they play so different! AB is really a fantastic golf experience.
This location close to the shores of Lake Michigan has been significantly boosted by the addition of a second golf course at the already well-promoted Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club.
While this course doesn’t have the views or the rolling topography which elevate the status of the original course, the new South course takes advantage of the imagination of an architect (Dana Fry) to exercise his interpretation of some of the most celebrated MacDonald/Raynor greens and bunkers shapes ever created.
While the scorecard doesn’t name each of the holes, for those of us with educated eyes, you can quickly determine each interpretation is being presented. It starts with the square greens and the very sharp angles that dominate your line of sight on every shot. Many of the bunkers aren’t visible from the tee and essentially all of them are flat-bottomed with relatively high lips. The flat bottom bunkers generally resulted in balls rolling through up against the high grass faced lips – which aggregates into a lot of unplanned bunker shots to get your ball back into play as it’s very tough to advance the ball forward to the desired distance. At the end of the day, bunkers are hazards and are meant to be avoided.
The routing is really cool as it moves in every direction on both loops, and you’ll navigate a piece of land without a tree on the course ensuring the wind is always a factor. The greens are truly massive in size, and with the shaping implemented, they can be quite daunting to navigate. I’m not convinced this helps pace of play.
The land on the South course is generally flat except for the holes at the back of the property which are visually the most enticing (eg: downhill par 3 12th into the Lions Mouth horseshoe green). My personal favourite hole on the course was the par 4 13th which presents a gigantic punchbowl green. However, the movement of the left to right dog-leg and the climbing topography that brings you up to the green is outstanding. The two large bunkers that guard the front of the green are an impressive sight, as is your first glimpse of the punchbowl itself.
While the overall topography is a little plain and the views become repetitive, there’s plenty of strategy off the tee with club selection and the greens will keep your level of interest throughout.
The South Course is a commendable modern-day effort at designs which are a century old.
As has been proven elsewhere, having a 2nd course elevates the whole. The south course certainly does that for Arcadia Bluffs: Completely different, and quite interesting;Essentially Flat as a pancake;Challenging greens. Fun!
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