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Talking Arcadia Bluffs’ new course with Dana Fry

Dana Fry is bullish on a bold new course he’s building at Arcadia Bluffs in Arcadia, Michigan. One of the co-designers of Erin Hills, recent host of the U.S. Open, Fry is putting the finishing touches on what will look and feel a lot like the Chicago Golf Club, a C.B. Macdonald original, which was later remodeled by Seth Raynor, Macdonald’s longtime partner/protégé.

Chicago Golf Club, No. 14 on Golf Digest’s recent list of America’s 100 Greatest, is famous for the adventure of timeless design, strategic options off the tees and approaches into big and challenging green complexes, as well as several of Macdonald’s template hole concepts, including a Punchbowl, Redan and Biarritz. As for the second course at Arcadia Bluffs, Fry tells me the Chicago Golf Club was simply a template, there will be no template holes.

I recently caught up with Fry for more on what promises to make waves in the golf world, especially along the shores of Lake Michigan.

Do you have a name for the course?

It is called The South Course at Arcadia Bluffs.

How far is it exactly from Arcadia Bluffs?

It is one mile directly to the south, just off of Route 22, which is the road used to enter Arcadia Bluffs. Ours is inland, there are no views of the water.

What was the process of getting the job?

As you know, the first course is credited to Rick Smith and Warren Henderson. Warren used to work with Mike Hurdzan and me back in the early 90s. Well, a story not many people know, Rick Smith called me and wanted me to go work with him back in the early 90s. I didn’t want to leave Mike, so I referred him to Warren Henderson. Rick called Warren, and that’s how they started working together. Then, after Arcadia was built, Warren went on to work with Gary Player and Nick Price. And about seven or eight years ago, the owner of Arcadia Bluffs, Rich Postma, hired Warren to run one of his companies. We’re not talking golf, we’re talking one of his big businesses. Well, over the course of the last few winters, Warren called and had me host Rich and his buddies at Calusa Pines and Naples National. And that was it. Just a great guy and we had a lot of fun. And then last July, a little over a year ago, Warren called me and said, “We’re going to be working together real soon.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

He goes, “Rich is going to build another golf course and he decided you’re going to be the guy. He said he likes you, thinks you’ll be easy to work with, loves Calusa Pines.” And that was that. It was totally unexpected. There’s no question.

What happens next?

Well, last July, I met Rich and Warren and went out on what was the site. We walked around quite a bit of it. There’s 310 acres and probably 30 to 40 percent of it was treed, the rest was open. And I said, “Rich, have you ever been to Chicago Golf Club?” He said, “Yes.” Mind you, at this point, I wasn’t sure I had the job. He said, “It’s one of my favorite courses in the world. I play there every year.” I said, “It’s one of my favorites too. I think, if all these trees were gone, with your soil and topography, I think we could do something that has the look and feel of Chicago Golf Club.” And I think that’s what cemented the deal. He’s a member at Sand Hills, loves the Coore and Crenshaw stuff. He has seen a lot of Tom Doak and Gil Hanse stuff that he likes, because he’s a well-traveled guy. But he tended to believe a lot of the courses were looking alike, and he wanted to do something that was really different. And what we’ve done at Arcadia is really emulate the style and look of Chicago Golf Club, without copying any of the holes.

Tom Doak had been looking for years for an owner and a piece of property where he could do a reversible routing, which he found in Lew Thompson and built The Loop at Forest Dunes. Have you long been looking for an owner and a piece of property to do something like Chicago Golf Club?

I’d been to Chicago Golf Club about five or six times over the last 25 years, and I have always told people it was in my top 10 or 20 in the United States, but I never felt the urge to do something like that. But when I got on that land, which is pure sand, and the topography was similar in nature, I thought about Chicago Golf Club, which is basically one big square piece of land. And that’s what we have at Arcadia, almost a complete square. And there are parts of the golf course where you can see 16 holes just by standing in one spot. And, when you’re at Chicago Golf, as you know, you can virtually see the entire golf course from everywhere you go.

Did you go to any other Macdonald/Raynor courses as homework for what you were going to do at Arcadia?

Well, I’ve been to probably 15 Macdonald/Raynor courses, so I’ve been to quite a few, including National Golf Links of America, Fishers Island and Blue Mound. But we went to Chicago Golf Club last August and then again in September. Once with Rich and once with Warren, and Rich was bound and determined that this was what we were going to do. And then in April and May, I took the whole construction crew down—all the shapers and the project manager—and then I went seven times in April and May. I’ve become very good friends with the superintendent, Scott, who has been a big help. And a lot of it was just to see how they did their grass lines, cross bunkering and how they mowed the fairways right into the bunkers. A lot of the greens were the high point and the collars would slope down and would go right into the bunker face. The collars, in many parts of the Chicago Golf Club, are just slopes going into the bunkers and I just kept looking at that, taking a lot of pictures.

The bunkering we have is really dynamic and almost all of the backs of the greens are built up with five to 10 feet of fill, which is a big Raynor trademark—where they have steep slopes on three sides—and that’s pretty much what we have, with varying degrees, on all of the golf holes. The greens are all built up in the air.

You’ve seen a few of our courses, and I’ve done a lot of different looking stuff over the years, the all-sod walls at Devil’s Paintbrush, and Calusa Pines with 50-foot fills, faces of sand that are 20-feet high, and now we’re doing steep banks and the sand is dead-flat at the bottom, but this was really done trying to emulate a feel and a style. We drain a lot of our water from the greens into the bunkers. We drain some of the fairways into the bunkers. I’ve never done that in my life. They do that at the Chicago Golf Club. Some of the collars at Chicago Golf are so steep, they almost look like you can’t mow them. When I first showed that to Jim Bluck, the superintendent at Arcadia, he thought I was crazy. So we took him down there to show him.

Any specific template holes on your course?

Rich didn’t want to copy any golf holes. The last hole we’re going to shape, they’re doing the earth work on it now, the 13th, it’s a 420-yard par 4. It’s sort of a semi-blind tee shot over a ridge. It doglegs right up a little valley and by nature it’s sort of a punchbowl setting of a green, with slopes left, back and right, and then about 20 yards short it’ll have a series of cross bunkers. And we have a variation of the thumbprint green, except it’s not straight on, but it’s on the right side of the fourth green, which is a long par 4. But there’s no Redan or Biarritz. The fifth green, a par 3, is sort of a reverse Redan looking shape, but it’s not what I consider a true Redan.

Neither Rich nor I wanted people thinking we were out just copying golf holes, because we weren’t, but we do have square greens like at Chicago Golf, where three or four of them literally look like a slice of bread. We do have some of that. The bunker style, the straight lines in the fairways, and the way they’re mowed into the bunkers, is going to look a lot like Chicago Golf.

You know what’s really weird, when you see the aerials of what we’ve done, they sort of look a little harsh. You can see it in the pictures I sent to you, but they don’t look like that from ground level. I think if people saw aerials of Chicago Golf, they almost wouldn’t believe it. The one thing we have different than Chicago Golf, we have a lot of space. We have a far bigger piece of property. And not on every hole, but we have quite a few chipping areas.

There are only two trees left on the property. Had there been more native trees, I would’ve left more, but someone had already logged it years ago. One of the coolest things about Chicago Golf is that you look around on almost any part of the property and you can see five or six greens in the distance that are popped up into the air, six to ten feet. I’m telling you, Arcadia has that in spades. And in the morning, or late afternoon, the shadowing is visually stunning.

Any preliminary feedback from other architects?

I had Mike DeVries out to Arcadia three weeks ago and we walked the whole golf course together. And his biggest comment that stuck with me, we were on the sixth green, which I think a lot of people will talk about when they see it, he said, ‘These greens are wild. They look like something I would build.” And then he wrote Rich an incredibly nice letter. And then one of the assistants at Conway Farms wrote me and said, “Mr. Fry,” because he doesn’t know me, he said, “I’m telling you, this is going to be the best course in Michigan. I’m a Michigan State grad, grew up in Michigan, and I believe the place is that good.”

I don’t know. Time will tell.

On that subject, how much time have you spent on the ground at Arcadia?

I’ve spent two or three days a week out there ever since April. I missed two weeks not being there, and one of them was the U.S. Open. It has been a real labor of love, and I think it’s going to get a lot of press because it’s a very different type of a product, and, quite frankly, Arcadia Bluffs is one of the most successful golf properties in the country. I’ve spent a lot of time out there. They’ve got a new lodge they opened this July, and Rich thinks, because the occupancy is so good, he thinks he might have to build another one depending on how much play our course gets.

When will it open?

Rich will have a soft opening next summer. He’s saying somewhere around the first of August, but the grow in has been unbelievable. We started grassing holes right after the U.S. Open, and the bentgrass on those holes, tees, greens, fairways and surrounds, is just perfect. I’ve never had a golf course grow in this good this quickly. And that has a lot to do with the sand.

It’s amazing. We started clearing trees last winter. And then finished the clearing in the spring. We started moving dirt in the middle of April and we’ll be done grassing by the middle of September. We already have 12 holes grassed as we speak. We’ll have about 50 or 60 acres of bentgrass, and then another 30 acres of rough, and then we’ll have another 130 to 150 acres of native fescue grass. The front nine greens, completed, average 9,300 square feet. They’re huge. I mean, I really studied Chicago Golf. I got the green sheets that showed the percentages of slopes. The greens at Chicago Golf have a lot of contour in them, and that would be an understatement, and we couldn’t do that for the resort play that will come to Arcadia, but we’ll have a 9,000 square-foot green where only 50% of that is pinnable. There are a lot of transition areas between pin spaces. The greens here are going to be pretty different.

Will it be walkable? Are there cart paths?

It’s an incredibly walkable golf course. But at a resort, most people take carts. I haven’t broached the subject with Rich yet, but I’m hoping he can get the high schools involved for a caddie program of some sort because it’s a true walker’s golf course. There are cart paths, but in most cases they’re in between holes, but he’s expecting most people to take carts.

Tell me more of the scorecard particulars of the course.

It’s a traditional par 72. They can stretch it close to 7,400 yards from the tips. From the next set of tees, it’s around 6,900 yards. Then it goes down to about 6,400. And then it goes down to about 5,800. And then it goes down to about 5,200.

Do you have any concerns or fears?

Not many average golfers have heard of Chicago Golf Club because it’s so private. And God rest his soul, because he was one of my favorite people on the planet, but years ago Bob Cupp did a course with geometric design. Some of the people, when I tell them what we’re doing, they say, “Well, Bob Cupp did something like that and everyone hated it.” But Bob built everything with angles, including cart paths and lakes. This is not like that. We have a lot of curvature in the rough lines and the native lines. Even the fairways have some. And not all the greens are dead straight lines. There are arcs and curves in some. So before you rush to that judgment, you got to see it. Trust me. But I wonder if the average golfer is going to understand what we were even attempting to do.

It might not matter, as long as they have fun playing it.

Yeah. And I think they will. The fairways are averaging about 52 to 55 yards wide. And then we have about 15 to 18 yards of cut rough on each side. So add that all up and you’re pushing 85 yards of cut grass, so you have a lot of space to hit it into. At Erin Hills, we probably average about 60 yards of cut grass.

Do you think you could’ve done this as a first course at Arcadia?

You know, people ask me that all the time and I’ve talked to Rich about that and I’m absolutely convinced that, on its own, without the first course already there, no.

I think golf people would’ve loved it, but would it have gotten the volume of play that they get at Arcadia? No.

And now, because they have the incredible golf at Arcadia, and they have the dining and lodging, the setting and the overall experience, he’ll be able to capture people for at least another day. Instead of two rounds of golf, they may play three or four rounds of golf. The service and atmosphere at this place is unbelievable. Some nights I’m there and there are 300 people having dinner and drinks. Every night! And everybody is taking pictures because the sunsets there are, you know, I’ve been to 109 countries, and I’d say Hawaii, Greece and Arcadia Bluffs have the best sunsets that I’ve ever seen.

Who are some key members of your crew who deserve some credit for the work being done at Arcadia?

Well, I worked with Mike Hurdzan for 24 years, and then a guy who worked with Mike and I for 17 years is Jason Straka, so the name of my company since 2012 has been Fry/Straka. Like Doak and Hanse, he’s a Cornell guy and he has known Tom and Gil since he was in college. And then Bill Kerman has done a lot of our planning. And those are the two guys who help me do a lot of the work.

Well, it has got to be exciting for you, on the heels of Erin Hills hosting an Open, it has to feel like you have some sweet momentum as an architect.

I was already starting to get a lot of work nine months before the Open, and it has picked up. The client we have in Brazil is phenomenal. The job in Vietnam is the same way. And we’ve gotten a lot of big renovations as well, so we’re real busy and very happy about it. And I think the Open has played a big part of that, there’s no question.