If you parachuted in here under cover of darkness or maybe blindfolded by day, and they handed you a bag of golf clubs on the first tee, you'd take your first look out over the rolling seaside links and scratch your head. Scotland? England? Is it Ballybunion in County Kerry? It must be the old sod somewhere, right? Toss a gaze over at the clubhouse standing sentry on a nearby bluff and you might guess Long Island's venerable Shinnecock Hills. That's a possibility.
What about that major body of water you glimpse from nearly every corner of this God-forsaken and windswept place, a place so beautiful in its desolation? Is it the Irish Sea? Maybe the Firth of Clyde? Then it dawns like a dull, dim bulb in an otherwise darkened Dublin pub: "It's not the British Isles out there in the mist and breeze and sun. Jeepers, mates, this is the upper Midwest."
Specifically, this is Michigan. "Pure Michigan," as the ads go. And as golf courses go, this one will bring you to your knees early and often ... and happily. Your scorecard will show it, but you really won't mind. The fresh air, the never-ending scenery and the occasional well-struck shot will be enough to satisfy.
Picture Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., and then aim east and north about 60 miles across Lake Michigan toward Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club in Arcadia, Mich. Bring your game, not to mention a supply of balls and patience, and then just relax and enjoy the view. Don't let golf spoil the day.
Arcadia Bluffs is in Manistee County, about 500 miles from home. It's less than an hour south of Traverse City in Northern Michigan.
Michigan is a golf mecca; no state has more golf courses per capita, with only California and Florida offering more places to play. Golf Digest magazine rates Arcadia Bluffs 10th in its annual ranking of America's 100 Greatest Public Courses.
This is golf, at its conception in a manner of speaking - rugged and full of contours, painted in hues of green and brown and gold with the vast, silvery lake and paintbrush-blue sky as the backdrop.
Tall, tan native fescues frame the fairways, leaning and bending waiting to grab wayward shots and offering visual contrast to the emerald-green short grass. The deep bunkers pocking the landscape appear at once to be lunar and sinister. Down at the bottom of one of these monsters with a wedge in your hand, you are alone in the golf world, invisible even to your playing partners. You need climbing gear to ascend back up topside, never mind getting your ball back in play.
You can drive the golf ball here; the fairways are generous and pristine as are the greens, which are large (averaging 8,000 square feet) and sloping and dangerous. Four-putts are not a rarity. Errant chips can get away from you quickly and just as suddenly reverse course and come right back to stop gently at your feet almost in the spot they started from.
This Warren Henderson/Rick Smith design has 3,100 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline and was founded in 1999. At high season, early June to late September, the rate is $180. It's $110 at twilight, which starts at 4 p.m., no problem finishing your round given that you can play until around 9:30 p.m. up here in the western reaches of the Eastern Time Zone.
From the crazy way-back championship tees, Arcadia Bluffs, a par 72, measures a brutal 7,300 yards, with a course rating of 75.4 and a slope of 147. A sensible (you may insert cowardly here) golfer would be smart to play from the middle tees to trim off about 1,000 unnecessary yards.
When all is said and done, grab an Adirondack chair on the wide back porch and give a tired gaze westward as the sun drops over the lake. You'll have lots of company as this is a popular spot for sunsets with non-golfers, too. Order a cherry chicken salad sandwich - this is the cherry capital of the world after all - and tip a glass of Bell's Oberon Ale, a local seasonal brew, to the day's many swings. Then, promise yourself another crack at Arcadia Bluffs next summer. The date on the calendar rolls around quicker and quicker with each passing year.
Story published Friday, September 5, 2008 ( Volume 3, Number 5 )