The Golf Bucket List
Crystal Downs is an awesome place. After leaving the club, we had a two-and-a-half hour drive back to Grand Rapids to reflect on the day. First off, we were just thrilled to have gotten the round in, especially in light of the three weather delays we endured. Beyond that, my father-in-law asked me an interesting question: "Was there anything that surprised you about it?" I hemmed and hawed over that question for a while. I typically do as much research as I can when I'm about to play a Top 100 course, which consists of reading other people's reviews, looking at whatever pictures I can find, etc... So, what surprised me? I knew going in that the greens would be one of the best tests in golf...they were. I knew going in that the course favored precision over distance...check. What I didn't expect, was how low key and down-to-earth this club was. Being probably the most exclusive club in Michigan, I was expecting an old and stodgy feel. It wasn't like that at all. The second, and probably most surprising this about Crystal Downs to me, was what a tough walk it would have been. Being built in the late 1920's, the course was certainly designed to be walked--there were obviously no golf carts in those days. With that in mind, courses in that era typically have tees located very close to the previous greens to reduce needless walking. This is true in many spots at Crystal, but I was surprised at the hike that would be required between #11, and #12...just odd for a course from this era. I'm impressed that so many people would have walked the course back then, because it seems like not many people do now.
This is a course that would take countless rounds to really figure out. The greens are so wild that playing angles are critical to scoring, which includes where to hit shots and more importantly where not to hit shots. For a guest, it's a tough nut to crack on the first time out. However, if you keep the ball in front of you and have a decent short game, it possible to get through with a reasonable score. It's a course with a lot of variety with short par fours, long par fours, hard holes, easier holes, links holes, and parkland holes. Most importantly, it's a fun course, and that's probably the biggest compliment I can give. While it's always great to play well and post a good score at a Top 100 course, as I mentioned before, we were just happy to have finished. Thanks so much to our host for his persistence throughout the day. As a member who can play any day, he didn't have to stay around the club to escort us around, and we're very grateful that he did. Thanks to all who helped to put this day together. What a treat!
#13, Par 4, 442 Yards
"This is the most difficult par at Crystal Downs. Hit a hard fade off the tee that will run with the contour of the fairway. The shot into the green is determined by the pin placement. This green is very small, with a tiny front portion, dropping off to the larger rear portion of the green. Choose a club for your second shot that reaches just short of the green and then pitch at the pin if it is in front. Try to hit the ball deep into the green for the rear pin. The greenside bunkers are easy to roll into and difficult to recover from."
Outside of getting lucky or chipping in, I can't really imagine making a birdie on this hole. It's darned near impossible to hit a shot that actually holds the green, especially being a long hole where most players will come in with a lot of club. Off the tee, a shot down the right side, hugging the trees, will give the best angle coming into the green. From there, playing a shot that ends up long and right is the only way to play this hole in my opinion, at least when the pin is anywhere but the front. From there, you'll have an uphill chip shot and a reasonable chance to get up and down. The hole green slopes from left to right and front to back. Missing on the left side of the green gives you essentially no chance to keep a pitch shot on the putting surface. I don't think I've ever played a hole where I thought missing the green was the best way to make par.
#9, Par 3, 175 Yards
"This green is over 30 feet above the tee, which slopes from the back up to the front (Yes, it's an uphill tee). Do not attack this hole. Hit a low shot and bounce the ball onto the front center of the green. Be careful with your putter. A careless shot could send you back for your wedge."
The fact that this hole was an afterthought on his original eight-hole routing doesn't make it a throw-away hole--quite the opposite in fact. It's a really tricky hole with trouble all around. A shot that misses the green on the left will end up well below the surface of the green as it goes bounding down a steep hill. The right side has another steep hill with rough, tall grass, and a huge bunker. The green is really the only place to ensure a safe result, and from there, it's no easy two putt. The pin was all the way back on the day I played, and it took three putts to get there from my approach which ended up on the front of the green.
Finishing right in front of the pro shop, and under a steady rain, we decided to take another break. The rain stopped after 20 minutes or so, and we decided to give it one last try to get the round in. If we had to take another break, we'd be heading to our cars rather than the clubhouse!
#5, Par 4, 353 Yards
"This is one of MacKenzie's great holes and most complicated, and is rated by Golf Magazine as one of the best par fours in the world. hit the tee shot over the left edge of the giant oak, leaving a hanging lie 7 or 8 iron to a green that slopes dramatically from left to right. Or, "bite off" some more of the ridge on your tee shot to leave a pitch. Don't "bite off" too much. Always pitch to the left portion of the green or risk rolling into the right hand green side bunkers."
After rushing to finish the fourth hole, we joined our new group on the fifth tee. What a shame it would have been to not be able to get back out on the course after the rain delay...and right before one of the world's greatest holes. Since our new host happened to be the reigning club champion, we moved back to the Blue Tees for the remainder of the day. The radar said we'd have a 30 minute window or so before we might see another storm, so we played efficiently to get as much golf in as we could. For my money, the line on this hole is between the tree and the "Three Sisters" bunkers. While it doesn't really feel like it from the tee, this hole is actually a dogleg left, so a long draw on that line is a good play. As it says above, the green slope hard from left to right. I followed instructions to hit the left side of the green when the pin was on the right. However, I would get the "Crystal Downs experience" by sending my birdie putt past the hole and off the green. And that was with wet greens. I'm not sure you've really played Crystal Downs until you've putted off of a green :-)
Living in the State of Michigan, it is no mystery to me how exclusive Crystal Downs is. While I've heard it's a slightly easier nut to crack before Memorial Day, and after Labor Day, to be an invited guest during the peak golf season was going to be a tricky one. Luckily, this was another case where the greatness of the golf community came into play. I could not have been more surprised when I received the following email on June 17:
Not sure exactly where you are located, but if you can be in Frankfort, MI between July 3 – 11 or Aug 15 -22 I can get you out on the downs. Let me know if you are interested.
Needless to say, it didn't take much thought to decide whether I was interested. After trading a few emails with the sender of this email, we had a date on the calendar, and it looked like Crystal Downs would be added to my incredible golf season of 2015. Before I get to my experience at The Downs, we'll need to touch on its history, and why it's so special. Luckily, the club has a small booklet that they have available for guests that give some snippets about the course, as well as a hole-by-hole description in the words of the club's long time Head Professional, Fred Muller. From that book:
"Crystal Downs Country Club is located on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, three miles north of Frankfurt and forty miles west of Traverse City."
"The Course was designed to use the natural, hilly terrain as the basis for the layout, with no artificial features. Any earth-moving was accomplished by use of a pond sledge and a team of mules."
"Nestled on a narrow strip of land between Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan, the course site was discovered by Grand Rapids resident Walkley B. Ewing on a hiking trip up the east coast of Lake Michigan in 1926."
"The name Crystal Downs was bestowed on the course by Benjamin P. Merrick, a Grand Rapids lawyer who first visited the site in 1926 and, with Mr. Ewing, likened the view from the hilltop where the clubhouse now stands to an English "downs."
"An English style clubhouse graces one of the highest points of property, overlooking both Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan. The building was designed by Grand Rapids architect Alexander McColl, who also designed a number of unique homes on the club grounds. The club opened with a party on July 4, 1929."
"Through a combination of good fortune, occasional lack of funds and some wisdom, the golf course and clubhouse have remained essentially true to their original designs."
"In recent years, Crystal Downs has been ranked as high as #14 in Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses in the World and eighth in their Top 100 Courses in the U.S., #11 in Golf Digest's Top 100 U.S. Courses, #4 in Golf and Travel's 100 Best Classical (Built before 1960) Courses, and in the top 20 in Golf Connoisseur's Most Prestigious Golf Courses."
"Additionally, Golf Magazine recently ranked the first and fifth holes at Crystal Downs as two of the best par fours in the world and the eighth hole as one of the best par fives."
"Crystal Downs is a founding member of the Alister MacKenzie Society, an international organization whose purpose is the preservation of the course designs of Dr. MacKenzie."
"In 1991, Crystal Downs hosted 150 of the top senior amateur golfers in the United States at the United States Seniors Amateur tournament."
In addition to the club's history, the following mission statement is included:
"The golf philosophy of Crystal Downs is to sustain golf's oldest and best traditions. To challenge better golfers while at the same time offering a fair and enjoyable test to both news and older golfers. To maintain a true member's course, where high and low handicappers can enjoy the challenges and pleasures of golf in equal measures, if not always with equal scores."
And then a final summary:
"Crystal Downs is a thinking person's course, where long is good but not necessary...where the position you leave your ball is critical, and where the wind always blows. Crystal Downs is the coming together of golf's greatest architect, Dr. Alister MacKenzie, at the zenith of his career (after designing Cypress Point and just before Augusta National), with a marvelous piece of property."
After using quotes for the first chunk of this review, it's time to write some words of my own! It's clear from the words above that this is a club focused on its heritage, which has been careful not to ruin the fabulous course and club that was created by masters of golf course architecture. Notice that I said masters, not master. While much of the world credits Alister MacKenzie with the design of Crystal Downs, the golf course wouldn't be there without the work of his associate, Perry Maxwell, as well. Even the scorecard credits both MacKenzie and Maxwell as both being relevant to what stands today. According to the detailed timeline of MacKenzie's life that has been put together by the MacKenzie Foundation, the Doctor was present at Crystal Downs on or around October 15, 1928 to consult on a pre-existing nine hole course that stood on the property. It didn't take him long to create the routing that exists today, though part of the history of the club is that his routing was incomplete. The story goes that MacKenzie sent his associate, Maxwell, into town for provisions, and sat on the hill near the current first tee to work on the routing for the front nine. It's likely that he was enjoying some provisions of his own during this process, because when Maxwell returned, the good Doctor bragged that he was finished with the front nine...however, it was only a front eight!. Not concerned about his omission, he filled in the 9th hole by planning for a one-shotter with a green that finished right in front of him. Once the routing was complete, MacKenzie departed for England, and left Maxwell to handle the construction of the course. While MacKenzie definitely left a design map along with detailed plans for the greens, it's known that Maxwell took some liberties of his own once he started building the course. Among other things, it's known that the 17th and 18th holes were his own work, and departed from the original intentions of MacKenzie. Therefore, it would be factually incorrect to credit ALL of the work to MacKenzie at Crystal Downs without at least acknowledging Perry Maxwell for some of the work.
So, onto my day at Crystal Downs, which was a doozy. The alarm went off at my in-laws' house at 6:00 AM, and after a quick shower, my father-in-law and I were on the road from Grand Rapids to Frankfort. About two-and-a-half hours later (after a stop for some Tim Horton's coffee and Tim Bits, we would arrive at the club, ready to meet our host. There are two buildings at Crystal Downs for member use. The lower building is the pro shop, with a small snack bar and locker room. This is where we spent the majority of the time at the club. It's a no-frills gathering place with a laid back feel. There are some cool artifacts there and an incredible view over the front nine. We checked in with the pro shop, checked out the locker room, and rolled a few putts while we waited for our host to arrive.
Here is the roughly 20 x 20 locker room, with sinks and bathrooms behind the swinging doors:
#15, Par 4, 327 Yards
"We call this hole 'Little Poison.' The fairway is narrow, the green is tiny and elevated, and the wind is usually in your face. The key to this short par 4 is a long drive. It takes 225 yards to crest a hill that will leave a pitch. Not cresting the hill can leave an uphill blind shot. This green repels shots, so hit for the center of the green."
Not much to add to Mr. Muller's comments. For me, this is a driver hole. Risking not making it to the top of the hill is not worth it.
#14, Par 3, 147 Yards
"This beautiful little gem is a straight forward 139 yard shot. The green slopes less from back to front than it looks. Enjoy the view of Sleeping Bear from the back of the green and stay out of the sand."
Up-and-downs are not easy on this one, so hitting the green is the best bet. A lot of trees have been cleared out behind the green recently, which leaves the appearance of an infinity green from the tee. A gorgeous golf hole.
#10, Par 4, 395 Yards
"The perfect tee ball here, from an elevated tee is something inside the 150 yard mark in the right fairway. This leaves a middle iron shot over a pot bunker and straight up the slope of the green. Hit an extra club to carry the bunker yet avoid going long and left."
After our third weather delay of the day, we loosened up and got ready to take on the back nine. This is a tough place to hit any tee shot, not to mention a shot where your body has tightened up after a weather delay. What makes it intimidating is the large window right behind the tee with the grill on the other side of the glass. The tee pad is right on the opposite side of the window where onlookers have an unobstructed view of your drive. Where the first tee is hidden a bit from view, there is no hiding on the tenth. The shot goes downhill and then back uphill into the green. It seemed to play a lot longer than its stated yardage for my group.
#4, Par 4, 409 Yards
"Fade the drive here or risk running through the fairway into the left hand rough. The long second shot will run up onto the green only from the right front, however, pitching from the left front of the green is no disaster."
After finishing off our putts on the third hole, it was clear that we wouldn't have much longer before some weather arrived. We got back to our cart, and then the rains came. Even though we were very close to the pro shop after playing the third hole, we decided to press on, put the rain gear to good use, and keep playing. However, after hitting our tee balls and driving out to the fairway, the horns blew, and it was back to the pro shop for our first rain delay. The good news is that this gave us an opportunity to sample some of the famous Crystal Downs soups. A hot bowl of corn chowder hit the spot after coming in from the rain.
It got interesting as we were waiting out the storm. There was no certainty as far as how long the delay would last and then how much longer before another storm would hit. Our host had family obligations that day and wasn't able to hang around the club all day to wait for a window of good weather. However, that morning at Crystal Downs, I faced a situation that was too crazy to be true, in that I knew another guest that was playing in the group right in front of us. It turned out that my friend Tom, who invited me to join him at Shinnecock and Rich Harvest Farms, was also playing Crystal Downs for the first time that day. What a small world. So, when my host was starting to doubt that the radar would give us a good window to play, I talked with Tom to see if we could possibly join his host and him for the remainder of the day to let our host get back to his family. If Tom hadn't been there, and his host hadn't been willing to let us join, it probably would have been back to the car, and back to Grand Rapids after three holes and one tee shot. What a lucky break!
#2, Par 4, 425 Yards
"Avoid the bunkers left and right of the fairway and you'll face a medium iron or fairway wood to the green. Although generally downwind, the green is 25 feet above the tee. Take enough club. Golfers have putted off every green at Crystal Downs, and the front pin here is one where it happens often."
When looking at relatively short yardage on the scorecard at Crystal Downs, the last thing I would have expected is the opening two holes playing to 460 and 425 yards respectively, and both par fours. Wow, what a start. I liked the fairway bunker that I hit on the first hole so much that I decided I'd hit it again on the second hole. This large bunker sits in the landing area of both holes, and awaits a left to right fade in both cases. Wooden rakes with long tines are placed around all of the bunkers to rake the native sand. With wooden flagsticks too, where is a very classic and rustic feel once you're out on the course.
Looking from the green back up to the tee and the pro shop, you can see how far downhill this one plays. This picture also shows some of the natural wrinkles in the fairways. You'll see plenty of this during the round at Crystal. Especially on the front side.
#1, Par 4, 460 Yards
"Although downhill, this hole plays every bit as long as its 449 yards suggest. it is usually into the wind, and like many holes at Crystal Downs the tee shot lands into a rising fairway. Sneak up on a wildly undulating green with a shot that lands short and pitches on. A miss to the left is a bogie, a miss to the right is a disaster."
This has to be one of the hardest, if not THE hardest, opening hole I've ever played. Playing into a stiff wind, the right fairway bunker was definitely in play off of the tee, and I smacked my tee ball right into it. A well-struck 4 iron from there still left me with about 80 yards into the green, so getting onto this green in regulation is a major achievement. After you see the contour of the green, you'll realize it's an even bigger achievement than just navigating the 460 yards into the wind. The green slopes hard from back to front. My pitch shot landed and stuck about 2 feet past the hole....at least I thought it stuck. Little by little, it would roll its way all the way off the front left of the green. I learned from watching another ball into the green that the only way to keep it on the surface was to land it on the right side of the green and let it feed toward the middle. However, as Muller suggests above, landing it on the right side means you have to take on the more dangerous side of the hole and if you miss to the right, you've got problems. A fabulous opening hole, but not for the faint of heart. Nothing wrong with a bogey on this one. A par is a major success.
The weather forecast was very iffy on this Sunday in August, and it appeared unlikely that we would get the round in without some rain or storms. With rain gear in tow and our clubs loaded up on a cart, we would give it our best shot against Mother Nature.
When we arrived at the first tee, there was the typical debate over which tees to play. As suggested earlier, Crystal Downs isn't a course where length is critical--placement and putting acumen is much more critical to a good round. This is obvious when looking at the scorecard, which lists the back tees at only 6,518 yards, yet carrying a rating and slope of 72.3 and 138 while playing to a par of 70. Based on that rating, an expert player is expected to shoot higher than two-over-par on a course that plays at only 6,500 yards! There is barely a difference between the Blue Tees and the White Tees, which are next closest to the greens. The Whites measure 6,302 yards and really only present a meaningful difference from the Blue tees on a couple holes. The wind was blowing HARD from the South when we were ready to start our round, which meant that number one would play straight into the wind. Apparently, this is the most typical prevailing wind at The Down. With that in mind, we decided to tee off from the White Tees to start out. That would all change after a few holes...but more on that later. I'll quote the Blue Tees below, because I imagine many visitors play from there given their reasonable length. For each hole, I'll quote the descriptions from Fred Muller, the club's PGA Professional, in italics, before offering some remarks of my own:
The view from the putting green:
#18, Par 4, 400 Yards
"Drive your tee ball straight. Don't cut the corners, it won't work. Your target is the 150 yard mark. The beautifully bunkered green is well above the tee shot landing area. On your second shot, hit enough club and keep the shot to the right. Anything to the left will kick into the bunker."
The course doesn't let up with the 18th green. It's a bear. Finishing with a par is not an easy task. However, if you do, your refreshment up at the clubhouse will taste even better. With that said, even if you finish poorly, as I did, it's impossible not to enjoy that view from the clubhouse, with the view of Lake Michigan on one side and Crystal Lake on the other. What a special spot.
#12, Par 4, 430 Yards
"The magnificent beech tree straight ahead is on the left of the fairway. Your tee shot must be to the right of the tree. The green slopes from front to back, and unless you hit a large drive leaving a short iron, you should hit a low running hook shot that will bounce up and onto the green. A pitch back to the green from behind is no problem."
The next five holes at Crystal Downs occupy a corridor of land through which has more of a wooded feel and go mostly in an east and west direction--three holes out and two holes back. The land for these five holes is much flatter than the remainder of the property. I'd say it's the weaker section of the course as the holes are far less interesting than their 11 predecessors, but still present an interesting test, especially around the green. The massive beech tree that is mentioned above is worth a look. There are wires and other aides helping keep the branches in place. I have no clue how old the tree is, but I'd have to guess a few hundred years??? Other than the road that you need to hit over, the look off the tee on the 12th is pretty ordinary. It gets much more interesting on the second shot.
Looking back up the hill from the green. The tee box is on top of the stone wall, right in front of the pro shop building.
#6, Par 4, 384 Yards
"This hole and #5 are MacKenzie's idea of a "forced carry." If you make the crest of the hill, the short iron to the largest green on the course is fairly easy. If you fall short on the drive, a blind long iron or wood awaits. The famous "scabs" are the bunkers to the right off the tee. Don't even think about that route."
So, it turns out our window of dry weather didn't last very long. As the pictures show, we'd be playing the 6th in a monsoon, which made it a challenge to even get the carts up the steepest portions of the hill. For me, the ideal line on this hole was just to the left of the tree. The green is very undulating as the picture below attempts to show (taken from the 7th tee).
The famous "Three Sisters"
#3, Par 3, 191 Yards
"Downhill and into a swirling wind, this is a most difficult hole for club selection. Remember how much the wind was helping on #2, and that's how much the wind is hurting here. The green sits on an angle to the tee, one more club to the left side than the right."
I loved the bunkers on the right side of this green, and the way the green fits into the land. This is one of the holes where there is a meaningful difference between the White and Blue tees. The Whites measure 159 yards, and to a hole that often plays into the wind, as mentioned above, that can be a major difference.
#16, Par 5, 588 Yards
"Hit your tee shot hard. Hit is hard again. And if the wind is blowing, hit it hard again. This green slopes from back to front; don't putt it too hard."
A long and smoothly bending dogleg left with no trouble on either side of the fairway. Length is the primary hazard of this one until you get around the green and face the usual undulations of a Crystal Downs putting surface.
#11, Par 3, 196 Yards
"You've heard those words of wisdom "stay below the hole." Do that here. The green is some 20 feet above the tee so it plays long. With that in mind choose a club that will get you to the front level of this three level green. Putt or chip uphill to the pin. Now, change philosophy and get the ball to the hole or you'll be stepping aside as the ball rolls back past you, and maybe off the green."
This was a huge turning point in our round. First, it's the first hole that winds through the woods, rather than the open rolling terrain of the first 10 holes. The remainder of the course has a completely different feel. The other reason this was a turning point of our day, is that the sun came out right when we got to the tee box. Seeing my shadow on the tee box was definitely a good sign. Regarding this cool par three, staying below the hole is really all you need to know. If you don't follow that advice, good luck keeping your downhill putt on the green. Similar to the 3rd hole, green side bunkers are carved into the hill naturally. Very cool.
#8, Par 5, 550 Yards
"Crystal Downs' first three-shot hole is rated as one of the world's best par fives. Dive down the middle, fairway wood up the right side and a medium iron onto the green. No problem...except you will encounter all kinds of uneven lies. You are at the mercy of the fates. The 150 yard mark is one of the longest in golf, and the green's not very big either with lots of undulation."
Definitely a tricky shot here. Short of the green on the left side is a large depression that will send balls back down the hill and to a poor angle into the hole. That, the tricky green, plus all of the wrinkles in the land along the way to the hole make this a very difficult par. Bring at least one extra club on the approach into the hole as it plays pretty long up the hill and you sure don't want to be short. What do you know, halfway through this hole, it started raining again--after we were told the rain was past us!
#17, Par 4, 311 Yards
"Three hundred and one of the most frightening yards in golf. A 200 yard tee shot leaves a 9 iron or wedge. A 180 yard tee shot leaves an unplayable lie. A 215 yard tee shot leaves a blind, uphill, difficult pitch to the green. Now, if the wind is helping, you could drive the green. The greenside bunkers mean bogie or worse, and you don't want to putt off the front of this green, because it won't stop rolling for 50 yards."
The 17th at Crystal Downs is probably the most debated hole on the course. Some hate it. Some love it. Everyone remembers it. The hole is short, requiring a drive to land on a target the size of a bed sheet to have an easy approach into the green. Otherwise, your approach will be blind, sidehill, or worse....after a penalty shot for a lost ball. This is a really tricky hole, especially for one so short (with that said, it plays into the prevailing wind, so it typically plays longer than the scorecard would suggest). I thought it was fun, even though I made a mess of it. With two good shots, it can be conquered, but I've never seen a short par four with so much danger lurking.
Here's how close the grill is to the tee. It's almost like hitting from the first tee at Merion, except a window protects you from the conversations.
#7, Par 4, 335 Yards
"A 210 yard tee shot leaves a s short iron to a most unusual green - a kidney shaped "MacKenzie green" in a punch bowl. A 230 yard drive leaves a short pitch to the green, but it's a blind shot. It's your choice, but be sure to get your second shot on the proper lobe of the kidney."
My favorite hole on the course. MacKenzie designed a few L-shaped boomerang greens like the 7th at Crystal (#6 and #14 at University of Michigan are two examples). However, this green is far better than either of those. The boomerang is much more pronounced on this one, and contours make it possible to get from one section of the green to another if you end up on the wrong side. I'd suggest laying up on the drive to ensure that you have a view of what you're hitting to on your approach. A blind shot into the green could be dangerous. From the tee, the bunker on the right side of the green is a good target.
After finishing the 6th hole, the horns blew again. Our delay was shorter that time around, but once we got back out onto the course, our tee shot on #7 became our third opening shot of the day. We were told that we were in the clear this time around, though Mother Nature would betray us once more in 15 minutes or so.
My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
As I suggested before, after our round, we needed to check out the clubhouse at the top of the hill (a separate building from the pro shop). The small gathering place consists of one room for casual dining and another room for more formal dining (jacket required). Outside is one of the coolest vistas in the state of Michigan, with views of two lakes (panoramic picture below):