Arcadia Bluffs is widely considered one of the premier public golf destinations in the United States. Founded in 1999, Arcadia Bluffs’ original Bluffs Course was designed by Rick Smith and Warren Henderson, spanning 310 acres of stunning sandy bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan in Arcadia, Northern Michigan.
Reminiscent of a windswept seaside links course in Scotland or Ireland, the course is routed along the cliffsides and sandy dunes overlooking Lake Michigan. The site was expanded in 2018 with the addition of the South course, which has a similar links-style design ethos as the original Bluffs layout, inspired by vintage American template golf designs from the early 20th century.
While not located on Lake Michigan like its sister course, the South Course aims to transport golfers back to the golden age of design through its strategic simplicity, hiding a complex test of golf.
In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into Arcadia Bluffs, a site celebrating its 25th anniversary, with two premier public courses to offer. Starting with its origins, inspiration, and reception, we’ll walk through the Bluffs and South courses. Finally, we’ll recommend further reading and show some videos to bring the site to life. As always, the images are simulated to set the scene and provide context.
Arcadia Bluffs: Origins
The original Bluffs Course was built on approximately 245 acres of land that was formerly orchards and dense woods on the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan. Arcadia Bluffs has all of the quintessential links characteristics – rolling terrain, natural fescue grasses, and drops 225 feet from its highest point down to the bluff overlooking the lake.
Construction began in 1997 and involved extensive shaping and movement of the natural landscape. This, unfortunately, led to some environmental issues – erosion incidents caused pollution in the lake, resulting in lawsuits from regulatory agencies. Ultimately, the developers were able to resolve these issues and complete the course in 1999.
Arcadia Bluffs opened in 1999 to wide acclaim. Arcadia Bluffs was instantly recognized as a world-class golfing destination with its cliffside holes and ocean-like views. Golfweek magazine named it among the “Best New Courses” shortly after its inception , and it continues to rank highly on lists of top public golf courses in the US.
In 2018, Arcadia Bluffs added The South Course, whose inspiration was born from a “desire to present guests with an experience unlike that of any other golf destination in America.” Architect Dana Fry modeled the South Course after the Chicago Golf Club, originally designed by Charles Blair Macdonald (National Golf Links of America, Lido Golf Club) in 1893 and built by Seth Raynor. Fry’s idea wasn’t to build a collection of famous template Macdonald-Raynor holes like those that make up Chicago Golf but instead create something inspired by Chicago Golf that included punchbowl greens, linear bunkering, and platform greens.
Strategically placed bunkers and cleverly contoured greens work harmoniously with the natural topography. Fry’s minimalist design philosophy lets the land take center stage, and he creates a unique and memorable experience. After its debut, the South Course garnered praise from players and critics alike. It continues to draw visitors from across the globe and has further cemented Arcadia Bluffs’ reputation as a world-class golf destination.
The Bluffs Course
Spanning 6,913 yards with a par of 72 from the blue tees, the Bluffs Course is routed along the sandy cliffs and shoreline of Lake Michigan. The course features undulating terrain, fescue grasses, sod-walled bunkers, and expansive views of the Great Lakes. The Bluffs course has a rugged, windswept style reminiscent of the classic seaside links courses of Scotland and Ireland. It presents a tough challenge due to the land’s undulating nature, resulting in blind landing areas and unpredictable bounces. The severe mounding and thick fescue demand precision, while the complex greens require thoughtful navigation.
The Bluffs Course begins with two inland holes before presenting golfers with a series of three exciting downhill holes that offer stunning views of Lake Michigan. The 3rd hole, a 524-yard par-5, presents an elevated tee shot that culminates in an infinity green, creating a striking visual effect as the backdrop of Lake Michigan seems to merge with the putting surface. The 5th hole, even longer at 578 yards, is a testament to strategic design, with around twenty formidable bunkers guarding the way to the green, demanding power and precision from golfers.
The 11th hole, a par-5 stretching 594 yards, is another standout, requiring a well-placed drive and a careful approach to navigate the hole’s length and the surrounding hazards. The 12th hole is a par-4 that runs parallel to Lake Michigan, offering a choice between two greens that alters the yardage by 30-40 yards depending on tee selection. The left green provides a more dramatic lakeside setting reminiscent of the famed Bandon Dunes, while the right green offers a less daunting inland approach. The 13th hole is a lengthy par-3 that requires a tee shot over a ravine with the lake to the left, adding a layer of challenge and beauty that encapsulates the essence of The Bluffs Course.
The South Course
The South Course at Arcadia Bluffs offers a unique throwback golf experience with a stated goal “to present players with the opportunity to play a golf course that would stand as a testament to the challenges and emotions experienced only at a few select classic private courses from golf’s earliest days.”. Though it lacks the dramatic bluff views of its sister course, the South Course impresses with its strategic design and variety across 18 holes.
The South Course features large greens, averaging 9,400 square feet, often squared off, divided by ridges and slopes. Other prominent characteristics include wide fairways and firm, fast conditions that bring the ground game into play. This places a greater emphasis on shotmaking and provides more options to the strategic thinker.
The front nine gives golfers a taste of the old-school challenges, with holes like the Cape-style 7th and the formidable stretch from holes 4 through 6 winding through a restored natural area. The back nine ratchets the difficulty, starting with the tough 10th hole, a long par 4 of over 450 yards from the tips. The course also finishes strong, with a great closing stretch highlighted by the tiny but terrifying par-3 16th and the uphill 18th hole with a tricky green.
Throughout the round, golfers will enjoy playing across the vast, exposed, sandy site with few trees interrupting sightlines. Greens are full of interesting contours and sloping edges reminiscent of classic templates. With shape and strategy taking precedence over forced carries and tricked-up features, the South Course offers a pure golfing test emphasizing shotmaking skills and course management. It’s a unique and engaging complement to the world-famous Bluffs course that stands on its own as one of Michigan’s finest golf experiences.
Arcadia Bluffs Today
Now in its 25th year, Arcadia Bluffs has cemented itself as one of the premier golf destinations in the entire country. Arcadia Bluffs has continued to rank highly on lists of the best public courses in the US, currently sitting among the top 30 on Golf Digest’s ranking.
In addition to its 36 holes of acclaimed golf, Arcadia Bluffs is also a full-scale resort. Recent expansion efforts have focused on enhancing the overall guest experience. In 2018, a chic 24-room Lodge featuring luxury accommodations and amenities was added. Other on-site lodging options include golf cottages and homes. Resort activities range from wine tastings to cooking classes to lake cruises. And the property’s dining options, like the new Clubhouse restaurant, draw visitors from across the region.
Visit Arcadia Bluffs online at https://arcadiabluffs.com.
Scotland’s Gift, Golf
by Charles Blair MacDonald
Summary: Scotland’s Gift, Golf is a masterpiece of early golf literature, written by the Father of American Golf Course Architecture, C.B. Macdonald. Considered by historians to be the most important book ever written on early American golf, this book details the birth of golf in the United States in the late nineteenth century and the formation of the U.S.G.A. in 1894.
In addition to a detailed summary of the characteristics of an ideal golf course, this guide provides rare insight into the methods and philosophies that Macdonald used to design some of the world’s most renowned courses, including the National Golf Links of America, Mid-Ocean Club, Lido, and Yale Golf Club. It also includes personal anecdotes and correspondence describing the development of the rules of golf, as well as the evolution of the modern golf ball and golf club.
Written in 1928, this book features 56 black-and-white photographs from the author’s personal collection, including rare photos of Bobby Jones, Young Tom Morris, and Francis Ouimet. Also included is an appendix which highlights the oldest surviving rules of golf from 1754, as well as the amended version from 1858.
Sand and Golf
by George Waters
Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.
Anatomy of a Golf Course
by Tom Doak
Summary: The book explains the thought process and strategies used by golf course architects in designing courses, including factors like hole length, placement of hazards, and routing. It aims to help golfers understand why certain design choices are made so they can better approach playing the course. Written by acclaimed golf architect Tom Doak, it appeals to both knowledgeable golfers and beginners interested in course design and architecture. The book also includes an appendix with examples of noteworthy golf courses that are worth studying.
by Robert Hunter
Summary: A masterpiece of architectural literature, The Links is the first book that fully addresses the complexities of the golf course in terms of design, construction, and definition of the game. Written in 1926, Robert Hunter conceptualized The Links as a complete study, a manual for golf course architects and design enthusiasts, specifically written to advance the field of study in a way that had never been tried before.
Although Hunter was not a golf course architect by trade, or even a golfing professional, his background as a dedicated socialist reformer led to his unique understanding of the relationship between golf and its greater contribution to society. The challenges posed by golf, as well as the beauty produced by the singular nature of the world’s most famous links, led Hunter to conclude that diversity is what makes golf the cherished game that it is. In The Links, he postulates, “It is not the love of something easy which has drawn men like a magnet for hundreds of years to this royal and ancient pastime; on the contrary, it is the maddening difficulty of it.”
Book of the Links
by Martin H.F. Sutton
Summary: The Book of the Links features selected writings from prominent golf figures of the early 20th century, including Martin H.F. Sutton, Bernard Darwin, and H.S. Colt. Written in 1912, this collaborative guide provides rare insight into the methods and philosophies that were used to design, construct, and maintain the world’s most renowned golf courses.
According to Sutton, “In producing this volume, it has been my aim to provide in the first instance a compendium of information, of a more complete character than has before been compressed into a single volume, on all the points upon which golf secretaries, green committees, and greenkeepers desire instruction.”