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Golf Club at Harbor Shores Boasts Diverse Terrain, Flouts Urban Setting


There's very little that is aesthetically pleasing about the area surrounding Jack Nicklaus's daring design at the Golf Club at Harbor Shores, unless, perhaps, you enjoy the site of closed businesses and reclaimed ground that were once landfills, contaminated wetlands and toxic dump sites that still bare some of those scars.

The Tough 7th at Harbor Shores

Placing this course in Benton Harbor - on the marshes created by the Paw Paw River as it reaches Lake Michigan in the southwestern corner of the Great Lakes State - is part of a grand plan to revive this once-thriving, then-distressed and now-rebounding community. The area was affected even more adversely when Whirlpool Corp. downsized its corporate headquarters, which are in Benton Harbor Township, right down the road from the golf course.

The building of Harbor Shores is the latest step in an enormous reclamation of the land upon which golf course was built. After years of debris removal, soil remediation and demolition, its developers have reclaimed acres of useable and living green space for the entire community to enjoy.

Their ongoing mission is to preserve the community's natural resources and to join with others to protect the area's natural beauty for future workers, residents and - yes - golfers.

Even before Harbor Shores was ready for play, it was chosen to host one of golf's top events, the Senior PGA Championship, not once but twice - in 2012 and 2014. Not surprisingly, the event has KitchenAid - owned by the Whirlpool Corporation - as its title sponsor.

Nicklaus was given a handful of disparate parcels of hand for the course and, for the most part, he fashioned a track wrought with challenge and variety. Three holes offer dramatic views of Lake Michigan and 11 others are routed along the Paw Paw, Ox Creek and their interconnected wetlands. Four holes wind through rolling hills, ravines and a hardwood forest, seemingly out of place in such an urban setting. The result is a course that somehow works.

"Harbor Shores presented me the unique opportunity to design a course through a variety of settings," Nicklaus said. "We believe the beauty of the course will be rivaled only by the golf experience."

The Daunting 10th Green at Harbor Shores

In with a Bang

The full 18-hole configuration at Harbor Shores was unveiled in July 2010. Officials celebrated the grand opening about a month later when Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Johnny Miller and Tom Watson played a charity event. In the year since, the Golf Club at Harbor Shores has quickly become a premier destination for golfers from throughout the Midwest and a must-play for those visiting this popular vacation region of Michigan.

Harbor Shores works its way around industrial buildings and homes and businesses. Several well-trafficked roads have to be crossed during a round as the course occupies seven discrete plots of land, linked variously by bridges, tunnels or long hikes. A four different junctures are least a quarter-mile journey between greens and the next tees; Harbor Shores does not make the grade in a walk-ability test.

Playing to a par of 71 and at 6,861 yards from its back set of four tees, Harbor Shores will eat the players' lunch if their game is not spot-on. With a rating of 74.7 and a slope of 143 from the tips, the course is comprised of some jolting contrasts and features; perhaps as many as a third of its putting surfaces are just plain silly in size, undulation or both.

It's clear that Nicklaus has put his touch on this course. Miss the green and golfers face some interesting up-and-downs amongst swales and collection areas. Putting surfaces are often elevated from fairways and characterized by mounds and tiers that make it crucial to find the correct level with approaches.

No. 11 at Harbor Shores

But for every uphill green, Nicklaus has balanced Harbor Shores with a downhill tee shot or approach; it is this equilibrium that lends the course its playability. There are times that the course has a links-style feel, while other sections invoke target-golf demands. The Golden Bear's notion at Harbor Shores was to defend par at the green at a layout where the fairways are generally expansive and things get tighter the closer to the putting surfaces.

The course's best stretch of holes is Nos. 6-9, the last three of which are on former city parkland and hug the shores of Lake Michigan. The sixth, a 417-yard par-4, plays over a marsh on a long and daunting approach to a green that's raised and well-protected; it's the course's top handicap hole for good reason.

The trio of holes across Jean Drive in Jean Klock Park is both demanding and unforgettable. The seventh, a 436-yard two-shotter, plays severely uphill on the approach to a small green ringed by dunes and sand bunkers. Once the player reaches the putting surface, the real appeal of the hole comes into view; yes, that's Lake Michigan just on the other side of the beach.

No. 8 (a 384-yard par-4) winds back down the hill and right around the corner in almost a tube-shaped fairway. The ninth (usually played with the wind off the lake at the players' back) is a left-leaning, 578-yard par-5 that sports a lake on the starboard side at the landing area.

No. 13 at Harbor Shores

Much has been made of the huge elevation change from back to front on the 539-yard par-5 10th, but suffice it to say that if the pin is set on the upper tier that wild happenings - and high scores - will ensue.

One of the course's most underrated holes is the 549-yard par-4 15th, where the shot to the green - either on the second or the third swing - must carry the Paw Paw as the green is set on a small hill on the far side. At the 422-yard, par-4 16th, wetlands rule the entire left side of the dogleg-left, adding length and testiness.

How tough is the test at Harbor Shores? When I played it last fall, the course record at the time was held by then U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, who shot a 71 on his way home from the PGA Championship across the lake at Whistling Straits.

Links Magazine called the debut of Harbor Shores one of its most significant course openings of 2010.

Tee Box Art at Harbor Shores

Connecting to the Local Community

The Golf Club at Harbor Shores has a strong connection to art and the local community. Each hole has been named after plants indigenous to the area. At each hole, a metal sculpture with at least one piece of hand-blown glass holds a plaque describing one of Jack Nicklaus' major championships. The metal sculptor, Josh Andres, and the glassblower, Jerry Catania, have studios in the Arts District in Benton Harbor. The tee box project was a partnership between the Golf Club at Harbor Shores and the Benton Harbor Arts District.

The connection is further illustrated by the fact that the course's golf shop and offices share a building with the local community college; golfers walk past students at their desks and in labs en route to the washroom.

Overall, Harbor Shores is an ambitious, 530-acre, mixed-used development straddling the cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. It is hoped that the Golf Club at Harbor Shores will enhance and beautify the already popular vacation and second-home destinations of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph to lead the area's revival.

When completed, Harbor Shores will include 12 distinctive neighborhoods with a total of nearly 800 residences. The development will also include a wide array of recreational amenities, including a town center, health and fitness center, boutique lodge and spa, conference center, marina village, deep water marinas, retail shops and restaurants, recreational trails and more.

For additional information, visit http://harborshoreslife.com.

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the managing editor for Texas CEO Magazine and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com) on his many travels, which took him across the nation and to 105 different golf course in 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.