Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club: Better than Whistling Straits?
Every once in awhile, out the blue a golf course completely surprises and captivates you.
Arcadia Bluffs is one of the best public courses in America, yet for some reason I think my excitement was overshadowed by my previous round at Whistling Straits, which is largely regarded as one of the very best public golf courses in the country.
I hadn’t heard much about Arcadia, except that it was difficult, and set up above Lake Michigan, as opposed to the Straits which is right on the water.
Looking back I’m really happy that I didn’t know much about the course, as it made the surprise all the more special.
Arriving at Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club
We didn’t get in until almost 2am the night before our tee time.
After my round at Medinah, I headed to O’Hare to pick up my buddy Dan who would be joining me on the remainder of the trip.
Of course, the airline forgot to load his clubs on the plane. So we hung out for an extra two hours waiting for his clubs, before making the night trek up the eastern coast of Lake Michigan.
Upon waking up the next morning, nothing could prepare me for the view in front of me.
I’ve been asked numerous times what my favorite course was on my trip. The answer?
To this day, it’s still in my top 25 rounds of all time.
What was so great about it? I could go on and on.
But there’s one word that sums it up best: fun.
I’m not an unbelievable golfer, perhaps a 14 handicap on a good day. So playing difficult championship courses can sometimes get overwhelming. That’s why when you look at my top courses, the ones that are at the top of the list are the ones that have a sense of adventure, and that’s exactly what Arcadia has in spades.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the stretch between 10 and 13.
It looks like this:
- Hole 10: Downhill par 4, with banks on both sides of the fairway
- Hole 11: Even more downhill par 5 that runs through a canyon ending with a green perched atop Lake Michigan
- Hole 12: Par 4 that runs parallel with the lake, providing some of the best views on the course. Blown out bunkers and water views that feel reminiscent of the 13th at Pacific Dunes.
- Hole 13: Long par 3, that must carry a deep ravine, with the lake in the background.
These holes not only have strategy, but they’re fun and adventurous. Two incredibly important features in a top golf course.
Sure we had a perfect bluebird day while we were there, but everything about Arcadia Bluffs struck a chord with me. From the tastefully appointed guest rooms and the spectacular view from the balcony at sunrise to the waitress that seemed personally thankful that we made the trek to Northern Michigan to play.
However, rather than tell you about the course, the best way to illustrate the adventure is to show you.
Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club: Just the Facts
- Designer: Warren Henderson and Rick Smith
- Built in: 1999
- #46: Top 100 Courses You Can Play (Golf Magazine)
- #83: Top 100 Courses in America (Golf Digest)
- #14: Arcadia Bluffs
- Location: Arcadia, Michigan
- Fees: $90-220 depending on time of year.
- Website: http://www.arcadiabluffs.com
- Slope: 147, Rating: 75.4
- Originally Played: October 2013
Worth noting, that in 2018 Arcadia Opened up the South Course a few miles away. I haven’t been back to play it yet, but I hear this homage to Chicago Golf Club is very good, and well worth making time for when you visit!
Arcadia Bluffs Golf: Hole by Hole
We played from the white tees which came in at 6,244 yards. A pretty big differential between the next step back at 6702.
All distances from the whites.
Arcadia Bluffs Practice Facility
The range was perfectly adequate, but not necessarily anything special – range balls are included in your green fee. The short game area, however, is phenomenal.
An array of bunkers and interesting green undulations will make sure that you get to practice any shot you want before your round.
Hole 1 (Par 5, 459 yards)
After warming up on the incredible practice facilities we headed to the first tee, unsure of what to expect. The first hole is kind of confusing in that it leads you away from the lake, but it really helps to build the tension.
Although a relatively easy short par 5, there are certainly ways to get in trouble. If you drive too far and miss the dogleg you’re in a pretty scary sod-faced bunker.
The only thing scarier than that bunker, is the deep greenside bunker that sits awaiting to eat up any short approaches – so keep this in mind if you’re thinking of going for it in two.
Seriously, this thing is enough to make even the best golfers quiver.
Hole 2 (Par 3, 144 yards)
The first par 3 on the course while not real long, will leave you with your work cut out for you. A large waste bunker all down the right, and a large tree to the left of the green is waiting to swallow up anyone who over compensates for the bunker. The two-tiered green is huge and has some pretty serious undulation to it.
Hole 3 (Par 5, 467 yards)
Ah, now the round has started. Standing on the third tee, you get your first view of what’s to come as you face the rest of the course and the lake.
One of the first things you’ll notice are the four cross bunkers, that can be really visually intimidating on your second shot.
Similar to the first, it’s not a long hole, but it definitely has risk vs reward. If you go for it in two you’ll have to clear a greenside bunker to a narrowed green – whereas if you lay up to the right of the green you’ll have a much easier approach shot to work with.
Hole 4 (Par 4, 311 yards)
One of the things I like about Arcadia Bluffs, at least from the tees we were playing, is that the shorter holes require you to really think about what you want to do.
The 4th is only a 311 yard par 4, but the fairway narrows dramatically around the landing area for a driver, with bunkers on both sides. So decide if that’s really the right play here. The green dips down to the right, so keep it on the left side of the fairway if you don’t want a blind approach.
Hole 5 (Par 5, 557 yards)
A long par 5 with a sharp dogleg left for your approach shot.
A well-struck drive may have you thinking about clearing the bunkers and the waste area and going for the green. Thats probably a bad idea as there’s a sign that specifically forbids it (for pace of play and safety reasons.)
Even though the green is pretty big, the massive bunkers on almost every corner surrounding it can be pretty intimidating.
Hole 6 (Par 3, 149 yards)
The second par 3 on the course, has you going back up away from the water – but that doesn’t make the hole any less interesting. A forbidding bunker guards what is one of the trickiest greens on the course. Similar to #5 at Bandon Trails, it doesn’t matter where you are on the green – par is a good score.
Long is better than short here, as everything slopes pretty severely back to front.
Hole 7 (Par 4, 409 yards)
The #1 handicap hole on the course, this a long par 4.
The tee shot is pretty manageable, especially if you can get the center or right center of the fairway. However, it’s the uphill approach to a two-tiered green that can give you trouble.
Hole 8 (Par 4, 352 yards)
This is one of my favorite holes on the front. A mid-length par 4, you need to clear the rough off the tee, but the real fun lies in the second shot. It’s a steep uphill shot to a plateau green – aim left off the tee for the best angle to the green.
If you find yourself on the right half of the fairway or rough, you’ll have to contend with what now becomes the most intimidating bunker on the course – which is saying something.
Hole 9 (Par 3, 162 yards)
This downhill par 3 gave both Dan and I problems. I ended up in the tree and a steep downhill chip, that was far from easy. Dan ended up on the green, but short, and he watched his ball roll all the way back down to the approach area.
Use the mounds around the green to your advantage, and make sure you calculate your yardage carefully.
Hole 10 (Par 4, 399 yards)
After a string of bad holes, I was a bit frustrated at this point in my round. That all changed when I stepped up to the tee on 10. The next 5 holes are easily one of my favorite stretches on any golf course.
I’ve heard 10 and 11 critiqued for being too easy, but in my mind, they’re just fun – how often do you get to hit balls down a steep canyon with a giant lake at the end??
On the long par 4 10th, the best play if you’re feeling aggressive is to try and clear the mound on the right. A solid drive will do it, and will put you in the best place for your approach, to minimize the greenside bunker.
Hole 11 (Par 5, 563 yards)
I love this hole.
Similar to 10, but a par 5 and even more dramatic. Hitting down through the canyon is exhilarating, and the payoff of being directly above lake Michigan on the green is a view and experience you won’t soon forget.
Hole 12 (Par 4, 378 yards)
This might be the signature hole on the course? Although, how can you tell on a course full of signature holes.
The only hole that runs parallel with the water, the tee shot on this par 4 is deceiving. You can’t see most of the fairway, so it forces you to want to hit it closer to the cliff than you really need to. Just hit driver straight or a little right and you’ll be just fine.
Take an extra second to enjoy the view.
Hole 13 (Par 3, 160 yards)
The most dramatic of the par 3s at Arcadia Bluffs, this one has you carrying it around 160 yards from the white tees. This one gets insane if you’re playing from the Championship tees that stretch back to 240 (although it usually plays a bit shorter than posted distance).
Once again, dramatic views prevail on this one. I can’t think of another hole that combines such a dramatic ravine, with such dramatic water views.
Err on the side of long and right if you want to avoid trouble.
Hole 14 (Par 4, 304 yards)
This is one of those holes that just begs you to hit a stupid shot. It reminds me a bit of the short 12th hole at Chambers Bay. It’s only 304 yards, but you can’t see the green because of an outcropping and giant bunker.
Most people should be able to clear that giving you a short wedge into the green, but right around driver distance, the fairway narrows considerably.
If you want the smart shot, hit a mid-iron or hybrid to the right side of the fairway for a short iron on the approach.
Gotta love the risk/reward aspect of this hole.
Hole 15 (Par 5, 464 yards)
A short uphill par 5 is up next, and there’s an intimidating-looking bunker directly in the center of the fairway. However, it’s the one short and to the left that presents the most realistic challenge off the tee. With a well-struck drive you can get it there in two, and being the 18 handicap hole, this is a great birdie opportunity – so play smart.
Hole 16 (Par 4, 441 yards)
The last hole to come back towards the lake, 16 is a difficult hole. The ideal approach shot is long on the left side of the fairway (really long, this thing plays 441 from the whites). Problem is, everything on the fairway slopes right, and chances are you’re going to have a very difficult approach with a lot of bunkers to clear.
Try and keep it on the left side of the green, and if the pin is at the far right, go chase it at your own risk.
Hole 17 (Par 3, 150 yards)
The last par 3 is isn’t long at 150 yards, but it’s straight uphill. Long is better than short, so take an extra club or two and pay attention to the wind. It had really picked up at this point in our round, and it could make the difference between an 8 iron and a 4 iron.
Hole 18 (Par 4, 375 yards)
A really picturesque finishing hole. The best play is directly over the bunker in the center of the fairway, just make sure you’ve got the carry to do it, otherwise getting it up to the elevated green is going to be next to impossible.
Also check the pin placement, as this green has multiple tiers, and will make par a tough prospect if you’re on the wrong one.
Final Thoughts on Arcadia Bluffs
Arcadia Bluffs was easily the biggest surprise of my trip. I liked it better than Whistling Straits, personally. It was less crowded, not quite as tough, and had more fun holes.
It may not have been quite as dramatic, as it sat above the lake as opposed to on it, but at over half the price – it’s well worth making a trip across the lake if you have a couple extra days in your schedule.
Better yet, plan a trip to northern Michigan solely for the pleasure of playing this course, and I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Arcadia Bluffs along with Forest Dunes are probably my favorite northern Michigan courses and are worth a trip from anywhere in the country.
It certainly was for me.