Major championship golf courses are special. They’re even more special when the general public can get a tee time. You can do just that at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Mich., which will host the Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid  for the second time in three years, May 22-25.
GETTING THERE: If you’re visiting Harbor Shores from out of town, here’s your best bet to get there – either fly into South Bend, Ind., and rent a car for a 35-mile drive into Benton Harbor, or choose a Chicago airport and then plan on a 90-mile trek around Lake Michigan. With so few direct flights into South Bend, Chicago is a decent option to avoid a lengthy layover in another city.
ABOUT THE COURSE: Designed by 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus, Harbor Shores opened in the summer of 2010. From the black tees, the course plays to a par of 71 and measures 6,852 yards.
Harbor Shores isn’t only special because of its terrain, but also its story and tie to the Benton Harbor community – and the fact that the course itself weaves through parts of the community.
The Harbor Shores project has been a leading force in the revitalization of the Benton Harbor and St. Joseph communities with the help of KitchenAid, part of Whirlpool Corporation, which calls Benton Harbor home.
"With Harbor Shores, we set out really to change a community," Nicklaus said before the course hosted the 2012 Senior PGA Championship. "This wasn't just about a golf course. This was a non-profit project. That's the important part of it. When we started, we had a factory where the first tee is. We had to remove toxic waste and buildings. But in the end, the whole course looks beautiful and we hope is enjoyable to play."
I recently had the chance to tee it up at Harbor Shores, playing from the grey tees – one set up from the back tees at a not-so-overwhelming 6,246 yards. It was my first round of the season and also early on in the season for golf in Michigan.
The day that I played was brisk and overcast with plenty of wind. I was thoroughly impressed by the condition of the course after what locals said was a long, brutal winter (what winters in Michigan aren’t?).
Overall, the course is known for its treacherous greens. There isn’t a green on the course more treacherous than the one on No. 10. There are four tiers on this massive 10,500 square-foot green and it’s the first time I can ever remember standing on one tier of a green and not being able to see the tier above it. It’s that dramatic. More on this later.
MEMORABLE HOLES: After a straightforward opening par-4, we moved on to the 144-yard, par-3 second. You can’t be short here, as large bunkers weave their way from the front of the tee box all the way up to the green. It’s one of the shorter and easier holes on the course – the No. 17 handicap – but that’s only if you can block the bunkers out of your mind and commit to your club.
Of particular note, was the 396-yard, par-4 seventh hole, known as, “Arum Arrow.” This gorgeous hole starts on an island tee box. You can bail out to the left side of the fairway – though that sets up a blind approach – or you can challenge the bunkers and water hazard right out in front of you. Once safely in the fairway, you’re faced with a second shot to an elevated green surrounded by dune grass. And when you get to the green, you’re looking at the pay off – breathtaking views of vast Lake Michigan.
Speaking of “Dune Grass” that happens to be the name of the eighth hole at Harbor Shores, a 364-yard par 4. While a great drive will leave a short approach, there’s still plenty to distract you, as five bunkers on its three front sides protect the green.
No. 8 was one of my favorites at Harbor Shores because it gives the feeling that even though you’re playing golf in the middle of a city, it at times has the feel of a links-style course you’d expect to find in a seaside town in Scotland.
The 10th hole at Harbor Shores – a 539-yard par 5 from the back tees – might be its most famous because of a shot that was hit there by the Nicklaus, the course designer, when it opened in 2010.
The beautiful par-3 11th hole, known as “Maple,” is a nice escape from that brutal 10th green. Unlike the features on No. 8, No. 11 -- the shortest hole on the course, playing just 144 yards from the back tees (it was 122 from where our group played it) -- has a parkland, tree-lined experience with a pond that fronts the middle and right portion of the green. Don’t get suckered into hitting a tee shot at the flag if it’s on the right side like everyone in our group did. It can quickly turn the shortest hole at Harbor Shores into a beast.
If you like risk-reward on a par 5, you’ll love the 549-yard 15th hole at Harbor Shores. There are plenty of options off the tee and, if you take an aggressive line, you certainly have the chance of reaching this green in two… it’s something you’re going to have to give hard thought to, however. The Paw Paw River runs up the entire right side of the hole and then crosses just in front of the green. If you’re not laying up, you’re better off long than short.
Lastly, there’s the demanding par-4 18th, a strong, closing 420-yarder where no lead is safe. It plays into the prevailing wind off Lake Michigan and the Paw Paw River runs along the right side and wetlands are off to the left. After a solid drive, you’ll have a medium-to-short iron in yours hands for an approach to a large green and one last experience with those ridiculously undulating greens.
CLAIM TO FAME: Aside from England's Roger Chapman winning the 2012 Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid , there was this...
On the 10th, Nicklaus, playing alongside Arnold Palmer, Johnny Miller and Tom Watson at the course’s opening in August 2010, was catching grief from his playing partners about the severity of the green’s undulations. Miller, faced with a 102-foot putt, thought about using a wedge instead of a putter.
Nicklaus wasn’t having that.
“There’s no chance putting it,” Miller argued.
“Want me to show you how to putt it?” asked Nicklaus.
From there, Nicklaus dropped a golf ball on the green, took a quick look at the line and proceeded to hole the putt that had more twists, turns and elevation changes than a roller coaster ride.
Nicklaus threw his arms in the air and walked away when the putt dropped as if to say, “See, it wasn’t that hard.”
But, it was that hard.
WHERE TO STAY: If you’re planning a visit to Harbor Shores, Benton Harbor is the closest place to stay and the course itself has a hotel – the Harbor Shores Inn – expected to open this spring. Five more minutes away and you can find a great spot in St. Joseph Township right along Lake Michigan.
And if you really don’t mind driving – about 40 minutes or so – New Buffalo is also a great option and makes for a fantastic family getaway with beach activities on Lake Michigan when you’re not playing golf.
As for other things to do – if you’re a college football fan, take the 35-minute drive to South Bend for a tour of Notre Dame. It’ll be worth your time.
KEY COURSE DETAILS:
Address: Harbor Shores, 201 Graham Ave, Benton Harbor, MI 49022
Phone: (269) 927-4653
Daily rates for Harbor Shores -- May 30 to September 28 -- are $100 for non-residents, Monday-Friday; $125 for non-residents, Saturday and Sunday. The rate includes a cart, which you will certainly need at Harbor Shores, as there's a bit of distance between many of the holes. There's also a twilight rate. After 3 p.m. all week long, you can play the course for $75 with a cart. You can get a tee time by calling (269) 927-4653, or you can book online at http://www.harborshoresgolf.com/public-tee-times.html .
Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair .