We look to famous ocean courses such as Pebble Beach, Bandon Dunes and Kiawah Island for tremendous water scenery combined with outstanding golf. Yet the Great Lakes in the Midwest also offer just such an opportunity and a few courses have met the challenge. Whistling Straits on the west side of Lake Michigan, site of the 2020 Ryder Cup, meets that standard. The Bluffs Course at Arcadia Bluffs on the east side of Lake Michigan is lessor known, but no less exciting, picturesque and challenging.
Overlooking Lake Michigan, The Bluffs Golf course sits on windswept bluffs 180 feet above lake level with 3000 feet of lake frontage. It’s a stunning view. Many come just to enjoy the view with lunch on the terrace. Others enjoy golfers finishing on the eighteenth hole while lounging in the many Adirondack chairs perched above the green. Both take in panoramic views of the golf course and the lake beyond.
The Bluffs Golf Course is a public facility with no private memberships. Open from mid-April to mid-November each year they have a full practice range and separate short game area. It’s one of the few public courses in the Midwest that has an active caddie program. Take one. Their advice and experience will improve your experience.
Besides incredible golf, Arcadia Bluffs offers boutique lodging and a fine dining restaurant. Guests can enjoy the tremendous views from their balconies and their dining table. A large outside patio area with heaters is comfortable. Enjoy amazing sunsets over the lake. The service level is as good as the view.
Arcadia Bluffs Golf History
Developed in 1999 in Arcadia, Michigan, the course is built on the bluffs above the shore of Lake Michigan and sits on 245 windswept acres of lakefront property. The course drops 225 feet from its highest point down to the bluff, 180 feet above sea level, and has 3,100 feet of Lake Michigan shore frontage.
The start of development was rocky. After clearing 80 acres of deep woods to open up expansive views of Lake Michigan, torrential rains dropped far more water than the now barren bluffs could handle. A huge ravine opened up into the lake creating a massive erosion problem. Multiple erosion incidents followed creating lake pollution. To environmentalists, it was a symbol of developers destroying pristine land for commercial purposes. A lawsuit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality followed. They achieved a resolution that included repairs that exceeded one million dollars by the developer.
The Bluffs Golf Course
Designed by Warren Henderson and Rick Smith, the first course opened was The Bluffs Course. The South Course is one mile south and completed in 2018. The Bluffs Course is built in the likeness of a seaside links course, golfers traverse giant undulating dunes and tall wind fescue grasses while battling the wind. They shape two hundred and fifty acres of deep woods and former fruit orchards. Native areas, sand dunes and bunkers create beauty and obstacles. The result is a variety of tough holes one after another. Thick green rough guards fairways. More errant shots find three to ten foot high thick grassy mounds that often block your target line even from the fairway. The contrast between the deep green manicured fairways and the light brown scraggly windswept grassy dunes is striking. It’s a links experience among the best in the country.
The weather is unpredictable and varies. Be prepared for inclement weather that can approach. Flagsticks have been ripping out the embedded cups during severe wind periods. That explains the old style three foot flagsticks.
Recognizing he difficult of the course rendered average golfers helpless on many holes, over the years they have softened up the course. Fairways are wide for many holes. They changed greens to be larger and less undulating. Some steep sod-walled bunkers were converted to less penalizing bunkers. But 125 bunkers still exist. They added teeing areas on more difficult holes. But errant shots still can find the tall windswept fescue. They have created more friendly playing options while maintaining incredible challenge for those who demand it.
Virtually every hole has some view of the lake. Fairways are well-manicured for a links course. Greens are perfect and speeds can be fast. When combined with sweeping undulations, you sometimes need to guard against putting off the green. Decisions on recovery shots have increased importance. Often the best shot is hacking out to the fairway rather than going for the green and making a complete mess of the hole. There is room for a careful shot placement. Good scoring is possible despite the intimidating view on many holes. Another good reason to take a caddie.
As with many overseas links courses, the routing is unconventional. There are five par5s and five par3s. On the front nine players start with a par5 and end with a par3. Strangely, all the par3s are a similar distance from the two teeing areas – about 160 yards from the white and 180 yards from the blue.
Holes ten though thirteen stands out for us to begin the back nine. Being closest to Lake Michigan, they provide some of the greatest views and some of the greatest challenge. Hole ten is a par4 that’s 399 yards from the white and 424 yards from the blue. Playing away from the clubhouse, the deep blue lake is mesmerizing in the background as you endeavor to keep your tee shot on the right side of the narrow fairway. Shots left leave a blind shot to the green over the dunes. A large sod-walled greenside bunker is short and left.
A long par5, Hole eleven also plays toward the lake stretching 563 yards (white) and 594 yards (blue). Few should attempt the 633 yard back tees. After a tee shot to a wide fairway, the second shot landing area squeezes together forming a narrow chute. You must either layup short or challenge the dunes to fly over it. Bunkers on the protect the narrow landing area for those timid tee shots that ventured left. Then a shallow green is protected by another deep sod wall bunker in front.
The 378 yard (white), 430 yard (blue) par 4 twelfth hole is along the lake. A forced carry over a wide fairway bunker what looks to be a narrow landing area is intimidating. The view is intoxicating. Success finds an approach shot to a long and narrow green protected by a large and deep sod walled bunker on the left. Unable to see the back of the green as it falls off toward the steep bluff, it reminds me of an infinity pool.
And then there’s the breathtaking thirteen, a 160 yard (white), 190 yard (blue) par 3 that demands a courageous shot over a deep chasm to a flattish green guarded by another steep sod-walled bunker in front.
The seventeenth is a monster looking par 3. At 158 yards (white) and 170 yards (blue), you would expect it to be manageable. Yet it plays uphill over unplayable dunes to a plateau green that steeply falls off to the lake on the right. The right side pin looked to be sitting in Lake Michigan.
There are few courses on the Great Lakes that render the golfer awestruck. It may be the best all-around golfing experience in the state. You should have this course on your bucket list.
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