I’d played on the western shore of Lake Michigan and marveled that a lake could be so massive. I studied the great lakes in geography as a fifth grader. I couldn’t even imagine at that time that I would one day play golf on each of its shores. On the western shore I’d played at Whistling Straits. A course which after playing 57 courses on my quest to play the top 100 courses as ranked by golf digest in one year, remains one of my top five favorites. Today I’m on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan to play at Arcadia Bluffs. It is a beautiful sunny day and the eastern shore is just as beautiful as the western shore.
Arcadia Bluffs is one of only twelve non-private courses in the Golf Digest top 100 ranking. A tee time and a greens fee are all that are required to gain access to this beautiful course. My 10:00am tee time had been reserved a month in advance, but after checking in, I discovered that the group that I’d been matched with had canceled. There was a group going out at 9:10am. It was now 8:55. Let left no time to warm up. I also needed a caddie.
There was just one available, David. Life is full of intersections. On this day in mid-September on the shores of Lake Michigan, just a few miles from where my wife spent several summers during her youth, my life and that of David’s intersected. With that intersection, my journey along the trail of golf history was forever enriched.
As I stood on the first tee box at Arcadia Bluffs with the guys I’d been paired with, John, Frank, and Dean, little did I know that the looper on my bag had such a rich golf past. David shared several stories with me as we made our loop along the northeastern shore of Lake Michigan. I will include some of those stories as I describe my round.
We chose to play from the blue tees. The Championship tees measured 7300 yards. After my Milwaukee Country Club experience, I had no desire to torture myself from that distance. The white tees measured 6400 yards. This was a wide-open course, that distance would likely not be a good test of my golf skills. The blue tees at just over 6900 yards, were closer to the torturous distance that I dreaded, but more than likely would offer a more reasonable test.
Arcadia Bluffs starts it test with a short and benign par five of 500 yards. The hole is shaped like an orange slice. The slice has bunkers and fescue on the inside or to the right of the fairway. There are also bunkers and fescue on the outside or left side of the slice. The green is on the far tip of the slice and guarded by huge deep bunker in front of it.
My drive landed in the right rough about 280 yards out. David instructed me to hit a 190 yard shot to the middle of the fairway.
This left 90 yards, and the huge deep bunker between my ball and the flag. I hit my sand wedge to 18 feet to the left of the pin, setting up an excellent opening birdie opportunity.
My putt held the line as it rolled toward the hole. It broke off just before it reached the cup. I tapped in for an easy opening par.
The second hole is a beautiful par three set amongst the only trees that come into play on the course. I hit the big green ball before hitting the little white ball. My ball landed behind a hedge. I chipped out and put my third shot on the green. I two putted for a double bogey.
The third hole Is the second of three par five fives on the course. It measures 525 yards from the blue tees. The fairway which looks wider than it is, is a little intimidating from the elevated tee boxes. It snakes its way through the fescue and bunkers on the way to a green that appears to drop off into the lake. This is an optical illusion as there are additional holes between the 3rd green and the lake. That lake that looks like an ocean.
I hit my drive fat. Fortunately, it cleared the fescue and the bunkers between the tee box and fairway and landed in the first cut of rough just short of the fairway.
I hit my lay up into the fescue, missed the green on my approach shot and chipped on to 12 feet past the cup. I missed the putt and made bogey on the hole.
With the first three holes now behind us, the pace became a little more leisurely. David and I chatted some and I was starting to learn more about him as I asked questions between shots. As we walked from the third green to the fourth tee box, David asked if I was planning to play at Oakland Hills, just outside of Detroit. I of course said yes. He told me that he had grown up there and at 16 years old had caddied for Bob E. Smith in a practice round there with Arnold Palmer.
The 1972 PGA Championship was contested at Oakland Hills. The players were not allowed to bring their own caddies. David drew Bob’s name out of a hat. He had no idea who Bob E. Smith was. As he was standing on the practice range, Arnold Palmer walked by and spoke to Bob. He then asked Bob if he had a game for the day. Bob told him that he didn’t. Mr. Palmer continued to the putting green.
Later Bob sent David over to the putting green to ask Mr. Palmer whether he had four players for his practice round. Mr. Palmer saw David looking at him and asked him what was up. David opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Mr. Palmer then recognized him as the kid who was caddying for Bob. He told him to tell Bob that they were on the tee. You can imagine that had to be quite the experience for a 16 year old.
The fourth hole is a 410 yard par four. The fairway gets very narrow in the landing zone. I hit my drive to the left rough.
I hit behind the ball on the approach shot and left the ball 125 yards short of the green. I hit onto the green with my third shot to 30 feet behind the flag. I two putted for a bogey.
The fifth hole is the last of the three par fives on the front nine. The hole measure 580 yards. It’s the 3rd hardest hole on the course. The fairway is straight for the first 400 yards or so and then it makes a hard turn to the left. The first half of the fairway is bunker free, so there are no bunker worries on the drive. This is more than made up for in the second half of the fairway. The second half of the fairway contains somewhere between 15 and 20 bunkers, one of which is extremely massive and covers the last 100 yards to the green.
I hit my drive to the rough, 340 yards from a middle right pin position on the green. I laid up with a seven iron to stay short of all the bunkers in the second half of the fairway.
I hit my approach shot onto the green 18 feet past the flag and to the right of it. David and I studied and debated the line of the putt for a while. It wasn’t easy to read. I thought it was a right edge putt. He thought it was a left edge putt. We agreed to just split the difference and take a line straight to the cup.
The ball held the line and dropped into the cup for a much needed birdie.
After completing the fifth hole, we made the turn back toward the clubhouse with the wind shifting from a helping wind to a hurting wind. The sixth hole is a 200 yard par three. There are several bunkers along the tee boxes and immediately in front of them. None of them were in play. The bunker that was in play was the large deep one just short of the green. With the wind in my face, I left my tee shot short of the green.
My second shot barely cleared the bunker and then rolled back into it. I put my sand shot onto the green and two putted for another rotten stinking double bogey. I had now made a double bogey on both par threes that I’d played.
The seventh hole is 435 yard par four with one of the widest fairways on the course. Yet the hole carries the number one handicap. This is probably because the hole plays into the wind and has an uphill approach shot. Both factors lengthen the hole well beyond the 435 yards that it measures. Any miss on the hole should be to the right. The left side of the fairway has several bunkers and fescue which is closer in.
I hit my drive 225 yards into the wind and to the middle of the fairway. This left 210 yards to the middle of the green. I left my approach shot just short of the green and to the left.
I pitched onto the green to about six feet. I sunk the putt for par.
The eighth hole is one of only two par fours on the course that play less than 400 yards. The hole is only 390 yards. It also has the most trees of any hole. There are trees to the left of the fairway for the full length of the hole. The trees however, are so far left that they are not in play. The fairway bunkers and the one in the middle of the fairway short of the green, are in play.
I sliced my drive into the heather to the right of the fairway. We were not able to find my ball, so I took a drop (the heather was played as a lateral). I missed the green to the left with my approach shot. I putted from off the green to five feet. I sank the bogey putt.
The ninth hole plays down hill to a long green. There is one greenside bunker just right of the first part of the green. The pin was on the front left portion of the green, just past the false front. This pin position reduced the length of the hole to about 150 yards.
My tee shot landed on the front of the green, but didn’t full carry the false front. The ball rolled down the slope to about five yards in front of the green.
I putted up the hill onto the green to five feet past the flag. I missed the putt for par and made bogey to close the front with a 43.
As we made the walk from the ninth green to the 10th tee box, David told me about the time he saw Jack Nicklaus hit a one iron in a tournament. It was during Jackie Gleason’s tournament that used to be played at Inverrary Country Club in Florida. David was caddying for Sam Farlow. Sam was apparently paired with Jack Nicklaus in the final round of the 1977 tournament.
David had joined the tour in 1976 when he caddied for Woody Blackburn. He also caddied for Craig Stadler during his first event on the PGA Tour, the Greater Hartford Open. David also told me that he caddied for Jim Thorpe and Calvin Peete in the late seventies. This was during the time when there were legendary Black caddies on the bag for such greats as Gary Player, but it was very unusual to see a Black golfer on the PGA Tour, let along one with a white caddie.
The back nine opens with a 425 yard par four. The fairway flows along the base of the bluffs that frame it. The fairway has severe undulation. There is one bunker to the left of the fairway at about 250 yards from the blue tees.
I hit my drive 245 yards to the left rough. Unfortunately, my view to the green was blocked by one of the bluffs. My approach shot from 170 yards out caught a part of the bluff, came down in the fairway and rolled to 95 yards out. I hit my sand wedge to 10 feet to the left of the pin, but missed the par putt.
The 11th hole is the longest hole on the course. It is a par five that measures 595 yards. This hole also flows through the bluffs toward Lake Michigan. I hit my drive into the right rough, just off the fairway.
I laid up to the middle of the fairway, 125 yards out with my second shot. My third shot landed on the green but rolled off the right front. I was off the green, but the ball was puttable.
David studied the line. The green sloped severely from right to left. David said he needed me hit a Willie Nelson. I asked what in the world a Willie Nelson was. He said, “I need you to get as high as you can.” I putted onto the green, but didn’t get the ball as high as he wanted me to. I left the putt 12 feet below the hole. I then missed by par putt and made a bogey. On this hole, I had hit a 260 yard drive, a 210 yard lay up to the middle of the fairway, and a 120 yard approach shot right at the flag. Yet I made a bogey. Golf can be brutal and unforgiving.
The twelfth hole is a 430 yard par four that was playing into a strong wind. The fairway is shaped like one of my son’s acoustic guitars. The first part of the fairway is wide like the guitar body. Then like the neck of the guitar with frets, it narrows significantly before reaching the head or in this case the green.
I popped my drive up into a strong head wind. The ball carried just 155 yards and landed in the rough short of the fairway. With 265 yards remaining to the green and a strong head wind, I laid up to 75 yards out.
My third shot landed pin high on the green, albeit 50 feet to the left. I was happy to two putt for a bogey.
I made my third double bogey on a par three on the unlucky thirteenth hole. The hole plays 190 yards along the shore of Lake Michigan. There is a 150 yard carry over the fescue and some native vegetation. The miss is to the right because there is a long bunker, trees and the lake on the left.
I aimed along the right edge of the green expecting to draw the ball. The ball faded and landed pin high in the fescue on a hill to the right of the green.
I left my pitch just short of the green. I then chipped on and two putted for the double bogey.
The fourteenth hole just seems to flow from the tee box to the green like a river that is committed to helping water achieve its one and only goal of getting back to the ocean. My one and only goal on this hole was to get my golf ball into the cup in a reasonable number of strokes. The fairway slopes from left the right. While the tee box on the hole is slightly elevated, the fairway rises continuously as it approaches the green. There are deep fairway bunkers with steep faces, strategically placed along the way. At 340 yards, the fourteenth hole is the shortest par four on the course, but the journey from the tee box to the hole is not an easy one.
I hit a three wood off the tee to the right rough, leaving 120 yards which played more like 140 yards to the flag. There was also no future in being short. The flag was on the back of the green but in line with the bunker that guarded the right front of the green.
My nine iron approach shot missed the green just slightly to the right. I chipped on and one putted for a par.
I made a par on the 520 par five fifteenth hole. I’ll describe the fairway, but it not thatimportant since I chose not to use it. The hole plays fairly straight. As fairways go on this course, this one was seemed reasonably wide, but had lots of undulation. The drive requires a carry over about 200 yards of fescue with a few bunkers sprinkled in just out of meanness. The green is slightly up hill and has a mosaic of bunkers to the left.
My drive flew, and I use that term loosely, only 175 yards and landed to the right in the fescue short of the fairway. The ball came to rest just inside the cart path. I now had a short par four of only 350 yards to the hole.
I took a six iron, stayed down on it and powered the ball out of the fescue to 190 yards from the green. Unfortunately, my ball nestled down into the rough just 4 feet of the left side of the fairway. This time I couldn’t fully muscle the ball out and it traveled just 110 yards.
But fret not. My next shot was a thing of beauty. I did get to the fairway on that third shot, so I didn’t avoid the fairway for the entire hole. Anyway, back to that shot that was a thing of beauty. I hit a Willie Nelson lob wedge. I got it as high as I could, and it came straight down and stop four feet to the left of the flag.
I made the putt for a scrambling par and walked off the green with my chest stuck out!
The sixteenth hole is another one of those holes that looks out directly at the lake and makes the lake look like the sea. There isn’t very much room to the left as the cart path is just a few yards from the fairway. There is a little more room on the right side of the fairway but at about 300 yards out, there are nothing but fescue and bunkers taking up that room. There are no other bunkers on the hole.
My drive landed in the rough about five yards off the fairway and about 240 yards out. I took David’s advice and played it safe by laying up to 100 yards. Unlike my fourth shot on the par five 15th hole, my third shot on the par four 16th hole was not a thing of beauty.
I pulled my sand wedge shot severely and the ball landed to the left of the green. I chipped on and one putted for a bogey.
I was dreading the 17th hole. It was the last of the five par threes on the course. I normally love playing par threes because all I have to do is hit an iron or hybrid to the green. I’m usually much better at hitting irons and hybrids than I am at hitting drivers and woods. On this sunny September day along the shores of Lake Michigan, I had made double bogeys on three of the previous four par threes. This par three, while not the longest, seemed the most treacherous of them all.
The hole measures 170 yards, but plays up hill and requires a carry all the way to the green over the fescue and bunkers. The green has a bank on the left, but falls off steeply on the right toward the ocean. There should be signs to the right of the green saying, “double bogey over here!”
As you can imagine, I wanted no part of the right side of the green even though the pin was on the back right portion of the green. I hit a high shot along the left edge of the green. My ball hit on the bank and kicked right to about 18 feet from the hole. My butt checks relaxed and I headed for the green with my putter in hand.
I now had an opportunity to make up for those double bogeys on the previous par threes with a birdie on the final par three. David and I agreed on the line. We saw a slight right break. It looked like a left edge putt. The ball held the line and somehow didn’t break even a fraction of an inch and slide by the hole. I tapped in for par.
The closing hole at Arcadia Bluffs gives you a wide fairway to close out your round; at least in the landing zone. It makes up for this on this 435 yard par four by putting a bunker in the middle of the fairway at 1 yards from the blue tees and then almost completely taking the fairway away from you for the last 100 yards. There is just a slither of a fairway from 100 yards out to the front of the green. To the left and right of the narrow strip are bunkers and fescue.
I hit one of my worst drives on the day on this hole. I topped and sliced my ball. Think about the physics of that. My ball landed in the rough just left of the high fescue on the right side of the fairway after traveling about 170 yards. This created an epic opportunity. By epic I mean my Callaway Epic driver. With my ball slightly sitting up in the rough, and a long way to the green, I decided to hit my driver. I hit a better shot than I had hit off the tee.
The ball had a nice ball flight. It hugged the left side of the fairway around the bunkers and fescue on the right. It landed and rolled in the fairway to about 10 yards short of the front of the green.
I chipped onto the green to about 20 feet. I hit my par putt way too hard, but made the comeback putt to close my round with a bogey and match my front nine 43 for a total score of 86.
I enjoyed the round with John, Frank, and Dean. It was also an absolute pleasure to meet and make the loop with David. I loved hearing his stories from his time as a caddie on the PGA Tour. David and I have kept in touch. You will hear more about him in future blogs.