by: Jason Deegan
There is perhaps no better spot in all of Michigan golf than the balcony at Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club at sunset. The views toward the horizon of Lake Michigan stretch for miles. The fescue grasses of the course’s rugged dunes flutter in the wind and shimmer in the fading light. A bagpiper in full Scottish regalia sets the mood by playing the haunting melody of “Amazing Grace.” With a drink in hand, and dinner on the way, golfers can experience life as it was meant to be, full and unfiltered.
Like those magical sunsets, Arcadia Bluffs casts a long shadow on the golf scene in Manistee County. The Warren Henderson-Rick Smith design, which opened in 1999, is widely regarded as the top public course in all of Michigan and one of the best in the entire country, ranking no. 13 nationally by Golf Digest and no. 28 nationally by Golf Magazine. The addition of 15 rooms atop the Nantucket-style clubhouse in 2010 created a lodge that attracts bucket-list golfers from around the world.
However, Arcadia Bluffs is hardly the only area course worth playing. The region’s beautiful natural topography – home to the Manistee River and Manistee National Forest – supplies the perfect theater for golf. Away from the course, golfers who love to fish and gamble (available at the Little River Casino) will especially be charmed into staying awhile.
“The variety of courses in Manistee County rivals those in the best known areas of the state,” said Doug Bell, the general manager and director of golf at the Manistee National Golf & Resort. “The tree-lined fairways that cut through the national forest and the vistas of Lake Michigan are what sets us apart. We have old classic courses as well as new world-class layouts such as Arcadia Bluffs. If golfers spend a few days here, they can certainly find whatever type of course fits their desires.”
Bell has seen the 42-room Inn at Manistee National expand and improve over the years, becoming a comfortable and inviting home for golf groups of all sizes, from buddies to couples who love to play the game together.
The resort’s two par-71 courses, Canthooke Valley and Cutters’ Ridge, each offer something unique. Both were named to honor the local history of the logging industry. A ‘cutter’ was a lumberjack who felled trees. A ‘canthooke’ was a tool used by tree handlers to roll logs as they were taken down river to the mill.
The 6,517-yard Canthooke Valley opened in 1994, carved from a forest of white pines and hardwoods by architect Gary Pulsipher. User-friendly Kentucky bluegrass fairways tend to prop the ball up into good lies. Hitting moderately sized greens in regulation will be the round’s biggest test.
The legendary Jerry Matthews, the designer of more courses in the state than any other architect, added Cutters’ Ridge in 2000, using the wetlands and marshes to craft a shot-maker’s challenge. It’s got more elevation changes, more bunkers, wider fairways and larger tees and greens than Canthooke Valley. Even though Cutters’ Ridge is shorter than most modern designs at 6,654 yards from the tips, it’s still formidable with one of the highest slope ratings (147) in the state.
Like Arcadia Bluffs, just on a less grandiose scale, the Manistee Golf & Country Club is also blessed with a serene setting along Lake Michigan. The club dates back to 1901 when a nine-hole routing was laid out on farmland by Scottish architect Thomas Bendelow, known as the ‘Johnny Appleseed’ of American golf for the hundreds of courses he laid out across the Midwest at the turn of the century. Countless renovations over the years haven’t changed the essence of the place: The 5,614-yard par-70 routing might be short on distance, but the pleasing waterfront scenery and historic charms leave a lasting impression.
Water remains a big part of the equation at Bear Lake Highlands, located 17 miles north of Manistee overlooking Bear Lake. Water hazards line two treacherous stretches – holes 3-6 and holes 14-16 – that highlight the 6,477-yard course. Just up the road, the family-owned Chestnut Hills Golf Course opened its first nine holes in 1993 and the back nine in 2004, fitting together into a playable routing to 6,372 yards.
The Heathlands in Onekama, situated 12 miles north of downtown Manistee and just south of Portage Lake, was Gorney. The Heathlands stretches to 6,569 yards, rolling across hills and highlands through forests and orchards. It’s the true definition of a hidden gem.
Two nine-hole routings – the par-33 Fawn Crest Golf Course in Wellston and the executive Fox Hills Golf Course in Manistee – complete a deep roster of county courses. They’re no Arcadia Bluffs, but that’s the point. Manistee County boasts a great collection of golf courses and resorts for every budget and every handicap.