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SUNSET SPECTACULAR AT ARCADIA BLUFFS

How to experience the magic of twilight golf on the water at the Warren Henderson designed Arcadia Bluffs

Who doesn’t love chasing the sun on a golf course? As the golden hour gives way to the gloaming, the game’s most magical moments have a way of materializing. Add to that time of day a large body of water, and goose bumps rise on a golfer’s arms. In the States, with a few exceptions, that special combination of course, sea and sunset can only be found at those “single name” courses—Pebble, Bandon, Cypress, Chambers, Torrey. Here in the Midwest, we have one such course of our own, and it belongs in the same conversation in its ability to stir sun-chasers’ souls—Arcadia.

Lest I be labeled a superficial hypocrite, a few points to reiterate and clarify. As a rule, resort golf is not my cup of tea, especially when played in carts. It takes too long for my taste due to players using the wrong tees relative to their skill level, and general sight-seeing. I’ve run the gamut from blasting this glacial pace to finally coming to terms with it while playing at another notable course on the other side of Lake Michigan. Personal preferences aside, I still recommend these places for those who have the money and patience. They are indeed neat experiences.

If I don my architecture hat, I can understand why the Bluffs Course at Arcadia receives criticism. The course was the first big opportunity for Warren Henderson to showcase his skills, and not surprisingly, it is overdone in certain regards. For example, the decision to build giant revetted bunkers was bold and the results are striking. The choice to distract from those distinctive (for America) hazards by also including blow-outs and large sandy wastes was unfortunate. From a strategic perspective, there are a handful of holes that have me scratching my head and one that causes me to pull my hair out, but the bulk are quite good with a few standouts like the 3rd, 8th, 12th and 15th mixed in.

My criticisms of the course likely preclude me from ever being a corporate spokesperson or comped guest, and my praise probably makes the purists cringe. No worries here as I’m happy to be a paying customer who enjoys the challenge of Henderson’s design and the playing conditions delivered by Director of Agronomy Jim Bluck and his crew. I’m grateful to owner Rich Postma for having the vision and determination to create a golf course in this spectacular setting.

The GeekedOnGolf Twilight Loop

The foregoing matters having been settled, let’s return to those sunsets and an insider’s tip. There is a way to experience the magic of Arcadia without breaking the bank or taking up half a day. It can be done at any time of the year, but works best at non-peak times. It is called the GoG Twilight Loop, and for those players who have an adventurous spirit, it is nearly guaranteed to deliver lasting memories. Two prerequisites must be put on the table before proceeding:

First, to do this Loop, you have to walk and the walk is not easy. There will be moments when you might feel like you’ve entered the Olympic biathlon. You will catch your breath, and I promise that the exertion is worth it.

Second, you have to be patient and courteous. In the late afternoon and early evening, Arcadia Bluffs gets a bit chaotic with groups doing replays and the twilight crowd coming out. Everyone understandably wants to get in as much golf as possible and you might bump into a group or two. Go with the flow.

If you’re still with me, let’s begin with the objective. You want to be on the 12th hole, which runs along the bluff above Lake Michigan, when the sun is setting. Arrive at the course approximately two hours before sunset and pay the 9-hole green fee. I have developed a routing that will get you where you need to be by just the right time.

Head to the first tee and follow the map. There is a bit of dune hiking involved, but you’ll find that the path ahead is typically intuitive. The tour below will whet your appetite with a taste of the holes in the Loop.

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The opening holes at Arcadia Bluffs lead east away from the clubhouse, brilliantly producing anticipation of the lake views to come. The par-5 1st swings right around a hillside and can be reached in two by longer hitters. Sod wall bunkers flank the fairway left and front the large green, offering players an initial impression of the bold style to come. The 2nd is a mid-length three par that plays over a large sandy waste to a tiered green in the shadow of the course’s lone specimen tree.

After heading up a hill to the highest point on the property, Arcadia’s first jaw-dropping reveal awaits on the 3rd tee. The course’s second par-5 is the most strategic, with three bunkers angling across the fairway inviting players to test their tolerance for risk on the approach. The table-top putting surface makes positioning crucial. The two-shot 4th continues the trip downhill to a large punchbowl green which injects a solid dose of fun.

Instead of continuing on to the 5th, our twilight routing doubles back with the uphill 7th. This four-par is straightforward tee to green, but features a large putting surface that is canted and subtly contoured. Cutting across the road, players then take on the fantastic lay-of-the-land 8th with its enormous centerline bunker. Left off the tee yields the better angle, but right shortens the approach into the elevated green. Solid strategic design.

After following the path to the tee on the 9th, the GoG Loop next goes into billy goat mode to cut over to the back tee on the par-5 11th. The drive is semi-blind to a wild fairway that tumbles down a valley to a green set on the bluff. Players next climb the steps to ascend a dune to another great reveal at the 12th tee. From this vantage point, the Lake Michigan coast stretches north for miles. It is stunning. The hole itself is also no slouch, requiring a tee shot over rugged terrain to an angled fairway. The 12th green is fronted by a large bunker with infinity beyond.

Stop here to feel the wind blow and take in the full beauty of the sunset. If you are lucky, Mr. Postma will cue the bagpiper to play you a tune that floats down the hill like an irish mist. The 18th hole is your route home, with a moon rise in the distance and happy golfers conversing over cocktails on the lawn above.

Northern Michigan is a long way to travel to only play nine holes, so to make a day of it, one final insider’s tip. Set aside a full day. Get one of the first tee times at the South Course at Arcadia Bluffs. The course is very walkable. Grab a quick lunch and then head over to Champion Hill for some home spun cart golf. If you book close to or between the Memorial Day or Labor Day holidays, you should have plenty of time left over to execute the plan above for the perfect end to an epic golf day. Post your sunset spectacular photos and tag me so that I know who deserves respect for completing the adventure. Enjoy!

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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FROM CHRISTMAS TREES TO GREEN FEES AT CHAMPION HILL

The story of the Stone family’s Northern Michigan journey into golf course construction and ownership at Pinecroft and Champion Hill

“Are you going to play Champion Hill this time?” My golf buddy Ben knew that I was making trips to Northern Michigan and he would text me this question every time I posted a photo of Kingsley Club, Arcadia Bluffs or Crystal Downs. “It’s on my list,” I would reply. Not a lie, but a truth lacking in any sense of urgency. I was busy getting intimate with three of the best courses in the state, the region, and perhaps even America (depending on who you ask). What need did I have of seeing a country course, even if it was a favorite of the locals? After years of this exchange, I finally made the short trip, and by the time I reached the fourth tee it was clear why Ben was so insistent. Champion Hill is a joy of a course with hand-crafted architectural feel on a piece of land that is as good as The Downs—all at a green fee that makes you feel like you’re taking advantage of the family who owns it.

Do You Think We Might Have Something?

The Stones have been a farming family for generations, growing cherries and other fruit, along with Christmas trees. City folk might not give much thought to where those firs, pines and spruce come from. Thank growers like the Stones. By the late ‘80s, tree farming had become a grind as big box stores squeezed producers and pushed out independent tree lots. The family was getting by but feeling the pressure, prompting Lee Stone to begin contemplating other uses for the land.

In college, Stone had taken a golf class and then played with his father at the courses around Benzie County throughout his twenties and thirties. To call him an avid golfer would be a stretch, and he certainly didn’t have any experience in designing or building courses. He was, however, on the lookout for opportunity, which materialized in the morning queue at the Signal Hill Golf Course in Panama City Beach, FL. Stone shared the story of inspiration hitting while on a family vacation with NewClub’s Matt Considine on the Bag Drop Podcast. “Standing there with a bunch of guys and it wasn’t even light yet,” he recounted. “I thought, maybe that’s what we do with the farm up north. That was the start of it.”

The Stones might not have had a golf pedigree, but they did have land in what has come to be seen as one of the ideal places in America to build a golf course. Northern Michigan’s trademark sandy soil and glacier-made topography characterized their property. Lee connected with Jim Cole, who left turf school at Ohio State to work on construction of the courses at Agaming and Crystal Mountain. Cole had a landscaping company at the time, but agreed to take a look at the land that would become the family’s first course, Pinecroft. “What do you say Jim, do you think we might have something here?” The answer came back strongly in the affirmative. Testing from Michigan State confirmed that the soil was perfect for golf, requiring only stripping, screening and seeding. Cole and the Stones set to work clearing, shaping, and installing irrigation, doing nearly everything in-house. Pinecroft opened for play in 1992 and the tee sheet filled up immediately.

The magnificent lake view from the 16th green at Pinecroft

Let’s Do Another

Pinecroft was a resounding success with locals and golf tourists alike. Lee Stone was pleased with the result, and upon reflection found the process of building the course to be highly enjoyable and satisfying. He proposed to Cole that they create a second course on another site owned by the family. The 350 acres that became Champion Hill sits on the highest point in Benzie County with views of Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan in the distance. A setting that rivals its much more famous neighbor in Frankfort.

By the time clearing began in 1995, Stone and Cole had augmented their hands-on experience with study of the subjects of architecture, construction and agronomy. The pair agreed to a simple set of timeless design principles for their second offering: an open, airy feeling with wide fairways; no trees or water hazards in play; natural, sand-pit style bunkering; big, contoured greens. In rural Michigan, they had organically settled on the formula that would also captivate golfers in the sand hills of Nebraska, along the coast of Oregon, and beyond.

Stone hopped on the family’s new bulldozer and did most of the shaping himself between 1996 and 1998. He likes to tell the story of meeting an up-and-coming architect named Mike DeVries, who stopped by to see the project and offer his services. Stone politely turned DeVries down because he was having too much fun doing it himself. What was born of necessity came to be permeated with a joy that players still feel twenty years later.

The Course

Champion Hill is a course that achieves the holy grail of playability. Interesting, challenging and fun for players of all ages and abilities. With holes working up, along and over a primary ridge, the hilly terrain makes for a tough but doable walk. Stone and Cole stayed largely true to their design principles. Trees are part of the scenery, but with the exception of a few nods to the orchard heritage of the land, they are not on the stage. There is enough strategy baked into the design to satisfy geeks and sticks alike, and enough quirk to charm even the well-traveled.

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The round begins with three consecutive par-4s that work up to the high ground. The 1st is straightaway, the 2nd banks left around a large set of bunkers, and the 3rd is an up-and-over to a green set at the base of a hill. This opening stretch introducers players to the naturalized aesthetic and the wonderful contours to come. It culminates with a green-back view of both lakes that is worthy of a brief pause to absorb.

The 4th is a bunkerless par-4 that runs along the base of the dune, providing plenty of challenge in spite of its lack of a hazard. The par-5 5th features a dramatic downhill tee shot to a sharp dogleg right. Deciding how aggressive to be with that corner gets tricky at elevation. The first one-shotter on the course, the 6th plays over a valley to a green benched into the hillside.

The short par-5 7th is a stunning example of lay-of-the-land architecture. The tee shot is downhill into a valley. Players are then faced with an uphill approach to a lay-up area and green that are defended by sneaky tough bunkers. The putting surface is large and can be held with longer clubs, but is contoured to make lag putting no bargain.

After the 7th, the course comes up over the ridge to begin the descent to the turn. The 8th is a picturesque par-3 with a shelf green and expansive views. The 9th once again asks players to choose a line down to a fairway set at an angle along the foot of the hill. Upon making the turn, the 10th is a simple but tough four-par with a very deep green.

The par-3 11th is one of the most heavily bunkered on the course and can be a card wrecker when the wind is howling. Not to be outdone, the green on the two-shot 12th has devilish contours that give players fits. The final par-3 on the course, the 13th requires a stout tee ball while dealing with the distraction of the breathtaking vista from the high point of the property.

The next two par-4s are among the most creative and strategic holes on the course. Anything from a mid-iron to a driver works off the tee on the 14th, with its drivable green perched near the top of the ridge. The 15th requires that players check the hole location as a small tree fronts an offset green that runs away. Angle of approach is critical to set up a birdie chance.

The closing stretch begins with the par-4 16th, which plays over a rise and then down to a deep, well-defended green. Back-to-back par-5s complete the round. The 17th swings right around an orchard and the 18th includes the only water on the course, short left of the home green.

Listening to Lee Stone discuss his creations with Matt Considine, the discomfort he feels being the focal point is evident. Pay close attention and you can also pick up flashes of confidence and pride. He knows that the collaboration with his old friend Jim yielded a gem at Champion Hill. Best of all is the satisfaction that he expresses knowing how much players have enjoyed his courses over the years. Go play Pinecroft or Champion Hill and you will feel like you’re a part of that great, big golfing family.

As is the case with family farms, many family owned golf courses are struggling to survive. If we want the best of these courses, like Champion Hill, to be around for the long haul, we have to seek them out and play them regularly. Don’t do it out of charity, though. Do it because it is a golf experience that is much richer than the shots hit on the course.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf