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The Golf Club at Harbor Shores

Jack Nicklaus’ newest course in Michigan is at the core of an ambitious new development that is looking to revitalize a community located along the shores of lake michigan

By: Hunki Yun

Appeared in 2011 Nicklaus Premier Clubs

In one sense, Tiger Woods’ path to immortality nearly hit a detour just hours after it began in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where Woods won his first major men’s title at the 1994 Western Amateur at Point O’Woods Golf & Country Club. Afterward, Woods and his father, Earl, headed to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to catch a flight to California so Woods could play in a qualifying round for the U.S. Amateur the following morning. They got stuck in traffic and missed their scheduled departure, but caught the last flight west.

Of course, Woods not only qualified for the U.S. Amateur but won the first of three consecutive national championships, a milestone that marked his arrival onto golf’s biggest stage, a scene he has yet to exit.

Sixteen years later, Benton Harbor, located in southwest Michigan, witnessed another historic beginning: the grand opening of the Golf Club at Harbor Shores. Designer Jack Nicklaus enlisted three other legends—Johnny Miller, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson—to play in the grand-opening charity event, Champions for Change.

Although the players had battled against each other in major championships like the 1962 U.S. Open (Nicklaus and Palmer), 1973 U.S. Open (Miller and Palmer), 1975 Masters (Nicklaus and Miller) and the 1977 British Open (Watson and Nicklaus), Champions for Change was the first time this foursome had played 18 holes together.

The mood was festive and the players had a good time, trading both birdies and one-liners. But they found it difficult to turn off the competitive zeal that had won the group a total of 35 majors. The highlight of the day took place on the 539-yard 10th hole, where Arnold Palmer’s eagle attempt from the bottom tier of the three-level green failed to make it to the top, and the ball returned to his feet. After a challenge by Miller, Nicklaus tried the putt himself. Of course, he sank the 100-foot putt, which climbed more than six feet and broke nearly 20 feet from left to right.As special as that summer day was, the event represented far more. It was an important leg of a transforming journey for Saint Joseph and Benton Harbor, a former manufacturing center that had become one of the most beleaguered, poorest cities in Michigan following a series of factory closings in the mid-1980s, including the shuttering of a large plant by the Whirlpool
Corporation.

Through its Whirlpool Foundation, the large manufacturer has teamed with several private and public organizations, including the Consortium for Community Development, Cornerstone
Alliance and Evergreen Development, to develop Harbor Shores, a non-profit resort property designed to revitalize the local community.

Managing Director Mark Hesemann’s task is to complete the ambitious vision for the 530-acre community. When built out, Harbor Shores will feature nearly 800 residences, town center,
hotel, spa, conference center, marina, shops, restaurants and various recreational facilities. Already, the development has embraced partners like Habitat for Humanity, the Boys & Girls Club, The First Tee and Michigan Works. (At Champions for Change, Whirlpool donated $1 million to the Boys & Girls Club and The First Tee of Benton Harbor.)

“This project is changing lives,” Hesemann says. “Putting this together has been hugely challenging, but it is also hugely rewarding.”

A significant piece of Harbor Shores is the 6,861-yard course designed by Nicklaus, who was introduced to the project by Hesemann, a former executive in the Golden Bear’s design firm. Of all the sites Nicklaus has seen for great courses, there is little doubt that Harbor Shores would rank among the bottom few.

When Nicklaus made his first visit in 2005, he saw an industrial wasteland that was so toxic that the Environmental Protection Agency had designated a portion of it as a Superfund site. Halfway through the tour, Nicklaus turned to Hesemann and asked: “Where did you find this place?”

Fortunately, Nicklaus and Hesemann had experience with previously contaminated sites. Built on a former copper-smelting facility, Nicklaus’ Old Works Golf Club in Anaconda, Montana, was the first course built on a Superfund site. After its 1997 debut, Old Works won accolades for environmental stewardship.

At Harbor Shores, the developers spent nearly $9 million on environmental issues, removing 117,000 tons of debris, waste and contaminated soil. Remarkably, the final product contains few vestiges of its industrial past. Instead, golfers play a natural-looking, challenging layout that meanders through three distinct landscapes.

Most of the first six and last five holes play along the banks of the Paw Paw River, while holes 10 through 13 wend through a wooded ridge that offers the most elevation changes on the course.But the stretch that really captures golfers’ attention is the three holes—the 7th through 9th—that sit just behind large dunes along Lake Michigan. The 436-yard 7th tempts players into taking the straight route to the green by hitting a drive over a pond, tree and several fairway bunkers. The upside is a wedge into the small elevated green that offers a view of the lake.

The 384-yard 8th plays around a massive dune to a green set naturally in a semi-amphitheater formed by sand and scrub—a site that is reminiscent of links golf. The front nine finishes with a muscular par 5 of 578 yards that requires accuracy, whether players go for the green or lay up, to avoid the strategically placed bunkers.

Harbor Shores will receive wider recognition—and the local community will receive an economic boost—when the course hosts the 2012 and 2014 Senior PGA Championships. Although Harbor Shores is designed for the enjoyment of golfers, spectators, vacationers and second-home owners from across the country, the real beneficiary is the local area—on all levels.

In addition to offering obvious benefits in the form of jobs created by the construction of the community and the opportunities provided by programs like The First Tee, the developers have put plenty of thought and care into engaging all residents. For one, the hole markers are metal-and-glass sculptures created by local artists Josh Andres and Jerry Catania.

In addition to depicting flora found in the area, the works celebrate each of the Golden Bear’s 18 major championship victories, a tribute to the designer who turned a challenging site into a jewel. Not surprisingly, the admiration is mutual.

“I’m proud that I was asked to be part of this project,” says Nicklaus. “It’s more than a golf course. It is a project that is going to make a difference, and that’s what it’s all about.”

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