Course Review: Harbor Shores

Harbor Shores Golf Course – Benton Harbor, MI (Architect: Jack Nicklaus)

Background

Less than 90 miles from Chicago resting on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, Jack Nicklaus was hired to design a golf course that would someday host major professional championships. The end result of this project is Harbor Shores Golf Course which has already hosted the 2012 Senior PGA Championship and will again host the same tournament in 2014, 2016, and 2018. Three holes play along the shore of the big lake, while several other holes play along, across, and through the the Paw Paw River and various wetlands.  

According to the Harbor Shores website, over 3 million square feet of dilapidated buildings were demolished and over 140,000 tons of waste material was removed from portions of the property and river to make the various parcels suitable for use. The project is technically a non-profit development, but that seems to be merely a technicality due to the list prices on lots and homes that border the course.

The HS site also points out that while none of the greens fees are used to pay for the construction of the facility, a portion is used to maintain the public areas in Jean Klock Park and its 12 mile walking system that intersects the golf course. Additionally, they claim that any revenues above operating expenses are granted back to the community for job training and educational programs. Harbor Shores is also a proud partner of The First Tee of Benton Harbor.

As informational as the course’s website is, there’s plenty of details that aren’t filled in for you. During construction, local residents took exception to the golf course using a portion of the public land in the nearby park for three of its holes near the lake. After heated legal battles, the Michigan Surpreme Court eventually ruled in favor of Harbor Shores and gave the course the land at Jean Klock Park. The land swap was a crucial aspect of the project that could have stopped the construction of the course from happening. Because the project was viewed as a public good the court ruled in favor of giving the course access to the land in the park.

Layout/Scenery

One of the most unique things about Harbor Shores is how the property fits and flows together, or doesn’t. The course is built on what feels like or might even actually be four separate plots of land. You start near the clubhouse and range and navigate some woodlands, meadows and dunes as you make your way to the lake. From there you drive your cart to a new territory that feels like you’re entering a demilitarized zone in some Communist nation. This is part of the public land in the park. I’m told you can’t even take the beer or liquor you purchased from the course into this area because it is public. At the 9th tee you even have to wait for a signal to say it’s all clear below in the park so you don’t strike a walker in the park with your tee shot!

The rest of the round guides you back through property owned by the course, however, it too is quite divided. You cross several public roads and even swing by a local tavern where you are enticed by the signage to purchase a ‘roadie’ as you traverse from the 13th green to the 14th tee. On the 18th tee you see more cell towers, power lines, and smoke stacks than you do lakes, wetlands, and any other natural beauty. If I could sum up the layout in one word, that word would be ‘clusterfuck’.

Almost any course you play in Northern Michigan provides you with views and surroundings that only enhance and enrich your golf experience. That isn’t necessarily true when teeing it up in the southern part of the Mitten State. In the Benton Harbor area, there isn’t much to see if you’re not near the lake. I think Harbor Shores is very similar to its surrounding town in that regard. Get your views of Lake Michigan in on 7, 8, and 9 and then focus on your game.

A view from the 7th green/8th tee area.

A view from the 7th green/8th tee area.

In an attempt to connect to the locals (or appease them for stealing their land) the course named each hole after plants indigenous to the area. At each tee box, a metal sculpture with at least one piece of hand-blown glass holds a plaque describing one of Jack Nicklaus’ major championships. The glass and sculptures were created by artists that live in the area. They might be the stupidest things I’ve ever seen on a golf course. They’re a weak attempt to contrive some connection to Nicklaus and the local community. That’s all.

The picture above is taken from the 3rd tee. You can clearly see the shit scenery I’ve discussed in the background. The hole might be the best on the course. It’s a 320 yard par 4 that you can take a swing at and make birdie if you hit a great shot. There’s also an option to lay back and wedge it close to the hole and make a 3 that way. The hazard down the left and a tiny green offer plenty of protection on this risk reward hole. Seriously, it is a fantastic hole. The problem is the back drop. It’s disgusting, and you see plenty of that same garbage throughout your round. 

The picture below is of the 13th green. Looks great, right? What the pic doesn’t show is the two houses just off to the right. They weren’t blocked by trees or a fence…..nope….fuck it. Why bother? Instead you have some guy’s old house with his pick up truck and basketball hoop in the driveway. It appears that a Winnebago was strategically there to deflect stray shanks.

Score: 1.0

Conditioning

Having only played Harbor Shores once (and I can almost guarantee that’ll be my only round there for life) it is hard to give a fair and accurate assessment of the course conditioning and overall maintenance, but I’ll push onward. I played the course in the fall the day after a decent amount of rain. It held up fine. The greens roll alright, but they can’t make them too fast because they’re severely undulated. The fairways are lush, the practice tee replicates the course conditions, and you won’t get a bad lie in the bunker because of how well they’re maintained.

The rough gets plenty of water and is quite thick, but playable. If you hit it in the native grass or marsh areas, don’t bother taking a look because that shit is thick and healthy. Where Harbor Shores loses points in this category is the fact that customers often see the general wear and tear of the course as well as some of the areas the super is struggling to maintain due to poor design features. If after reading this you still end up planning a visit, be weary of the fall aeration schedule.

Score: 3.0

Value

The peak season rack rate at Harbor Shores is roughly $14o. There are some discounts available with stay-and-play packages, twilight rates, and Golfnow.com. If you pay anything over $85 you’re getting ripped off. The place isn’t worth playing for a dollar more than that and with all the other options the area can offer to golfers, that still might be too high.

Because of the proximity to Chicago and the Nicklaus name on the design Harbor Shores thinks they can get that asking price (or needs to so they stay afloat). The green fee does include range balls, but nothing else.  I would suggest paying the freight one time if you can’t get a discount if only so you can form your own opinion of the place or have 5 hours to kill.

Score: 1.0

Service/Pace

Difficult Nicklaus tracks that are spread out as far as Harbor Shores is are not built for rounds to be played in under 4 hours. You have no chance of doing so. Plan on 5. Add in tricky greens, a stiff breeze off the lake, and an abundance of wetlands to lose balls in and……well………your pace of play is fucked.

For all of Harbor Shores faults, the staff is adequate, if not above average. The shop staff accommodated my two foursomes of drunkards that showed up 3 minutes before our tee time (thank god for the frost delay) and did so while smiling and joking. The bag staff loads and unloads like a pit crew at the Indy 500 and has your shit on a cart facing the first tee and range before you can blink. And the starter? He’s your typical retiree that wants to read you the novel he wrote about the course, the designer, his favorite hole, etc. I’m not knocking the guy, that’s his job and he did it well.

The halfway house had ample options to cure your hangover and get some breakfast in your gullet, but the food and beverages were mostly served by middle aged locals instead of the young, hot college co-ed you’d hope to see and drool over. 

Score: 2.0

Amenities

The Learning Center (a.k.a the driving range) at Harbor Shores is a splendid facility with one major flaw, it faces directly east and forces you to go through your warm up by hitting balls into a blinding morning sun. Add that to the list of Harbor Shores fuck-ups. Practice facilities shouldn’t be afterthoughts. Otherwise, the range is well kept, groomed, and conditioned. The putting green is fun and gives you a good idea of what you’re about to see on the course as far as pace and severity of break and slope. With how spread out the holes are on average, there is no caddie program and likely never will be. That’s a shame considering the fact that Harbor Shores was built as a public works project (in part) and a caddie program to go with the 1st Tee in the community would have probably helped to leave a better taste in the mouths of those who fought the land swap.

Beyond the golf course there isn’t much to do in the area. Your best bet is to do what we did. Rent a lake house, play golf at various courses, and try some of the local eateries in the neighboring towns. During the peak season you’ll find these beach towns to be lively and festive with plenty of watering holes at your disposal for night time debauchery.

The clubhouse at Harbor Shores is shown above with a view of the putting green near the 1st tee box. The Grille restaurant has a little bit of everything, but I didn’t dine there so I can’t comment on the quality of the food. Of course HS will also host weddings, parties, and other events to go with the various golf outings they put on in a given year. 

Score: 4.0

Difficulty

As with almost any Nicklaus course you can think of, Harbor Shores is extremely difficult. An average hack playing under normal conditions will probably need 6 to 10 balls just to finish their round. Being so close to the lake, you’re likely to encounter quite a bit of wind that will greatly impact each shot you strike. The landing areas on most par 4s and 5s are typically generous, but they also include several forced carries over bunkers and wetlands. That’s fine for a single digit index that hits the ball 23o yards or more in the air, but it makes for a long day for most weekend golfers no matter what tee box they play.

Bring your wedge game. Getting up and down around Nicklaus green complexes is never easy. He typically builds greens so that they have different levels and tears to them. If you hit the green and have to putt from one tear to the next, good luck. Even worse is missing the green and having to pitch or chip from across levels. Short siding your misses will likely leave you marking a bogey or worse on your card as well.

The above photo shows you about 80% of the 7th hole. It’s 440 yards from the back tee and plays into the wind and up hill. Unless you’re a freak that likely means you’re not hitting a scoring club into this green. The deep bunker you see in front of the pin is a common miss for the golfer’s 2nd shot here. I might have given you the impression that I don’t like the course and many of you might be thinking that means I had a bad round here. On the contrary. I played fine considering the chilly conditions and wind and won a bit of money mostly due to the extremely difficult 7th hole.

I of course left my 2nd shot in the bunker I mentioned that might as well be called the Devil’s Asshole II. I figured under such difficult conditions it was entirely possible that no one in our two groups even made par here (with mostly scratch players). If I could get something to about ten feet and give myself a chance, making a putt could equal a skin. I hit my third shot long making sure I got it out of the trap. It spun back off the back stop some 35 feet and hit the pin dead center before it could spin off the green. I won enough from that skin and one on 16 to pay for my green fee.

Harbor Shores will test golfers of all skill, but I think it’s especially difficult for higher handicappers. On a calm day, I’d expect tour pros and low handicap players to be able to go somewhat low (in comparison to their average round). The rating of 74.7 and 143 slope from the tips might be a bit high even when you consider the rating is based on a par 71 golf course.

Per usual, this rating isn’t based on a 5 being “way too fucking hard”. I’m rating a course a 5 when I’d say it’s playable and enjoyable, but not easy, for players of all levels. Harbor Shores being too hard for hacks but somewhat easy (minus the wind) for a good player gives it a very pedestrian rating in this category. 

Score: 2.0

Composite

With all the controversy surrounding it and the mixed reviews you’ll read, my only advice will be to experience it for yourself. Personally, I haven’t yet met someone that likes the course. If you’re in the area on a buddy trip I think you should put it on the itinerary. If you live in the Chicago area and are thinking about swinging around the lake for a day trip of golf….don’t waste your time. Drive an extra hour to Erin Hills and thank me later.

Score: 2.17 (out of 5)

If you’re an avid reader of this site and you’ve read other reviews I’ve done you’re likely aware that this is the lowest score I’ve ever given a course. I’m curious to see if any of you have played this and what you think. I’m dropping a poll in to make feedback easy for you. I’d also love to read your comments so post them below and thanks in advance. I think that overall score is accurate when comparing it to other courses I’ve reviewed. I kept thinking to myself as I left the property to head to our afternoon course, “they must have paid Jack a shit-ton of money to have him put his name on this place”.

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One Response to Course Review: Harbor Shores

  1. shutfacegolf says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:

    The Seniors are playing a major at Harbor Shores this week. I reviewed it in December and it received the lowest score of any course of reviewed.

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