Saturday, October 14, 2006

Crystal Downs Country Club

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The view from atop the opening hill at Crystal Downs

The architect that has designed the most courses on the top 100 list is Alister Mackenzie. Oddly enough, although I have played 54 courses I have not yet played a Mackenzie. Many of the courses he designed are in Australia and I have not yet made the journey. His other U.S. courses, Cypress Point, The Valley Club of Montecito and Augusta are on the difficult side to get on, shall we say?

My first exposure to Dr. Mackenzie is the Crystal Downs Country Club (ranked #24 in the world). Crystal Downs is located in Northern Michigan, not far from Traverse City in the town of Frankfort. The course was founded in 1927 and completed in 1929. Dr. Mackenzie worked with Perry Maxwell on the design and construction of the course.

The terrain that Crystal Downs is built on is hilly. Very hilly. The picture below can give you some appreciation for the terrain. I would say that thus far, the only other course I have played that compares to it in terms of the amount of hills is The Olympic Club. At times when walking Crystal Downs you feel like a billy goat. The course was co-designed by Perry Maxwell who also designed Southern Hills and Prairie Dunes, both of which I played within the last two months. I also see a lot of similarities between the fairways at Prairie Dunes and those at Crystal Downs. It looks like Maxwell had a lot of influence on the fairways and Mackenzie had a greater influence on the greens.

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The wild and crazy undulations at Crystal Downs up close

I have recently completed reading Dream Golf by Steve Goodwin which is about the building of the Bandon Dunes resort (I highly recommend the book). One of Goodwin's observations is that architects tend to design courses that favor their game. Nicklaus builds long courses, Charles Blair Macdonald built courses that favored a slicer and Mackenzie designed courses with challenging greens because he was a good putter. The greens at Crystal Downs are difficult enough because the course is built among the hills. The undulations and contouring that Mackenzie and Maxwell added in make them very challenging indeed. One of the things you discover very quickly playing Crystal Downs is that there is a premium placed on putting well. I had better sharpen up my putter for the other 10 Mackenzie courses on the list.
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The fifth hole features a blind shot to the green

Crystal Downs also reconfirmed what I have always felt, that blind shots are an integral part of the game and far from representing tricked up holes, are found throughout the top 100 courses, including several holes at Crystal Downs.

I found another hole to add to my list of unique and great golf holes in the world. The seventh hole pictured below has a tree in front of the green in the middle of the fairway. A well struck tee shot in the fairway requires you to hit over the tree onto a small undulating green. At 335 yards, you only have a short iron to the green, so it's a fair shot and genuine fun.
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The seventh hole approach to the green, behind the tree

The next hole, the 8th, on the other hand is a patently unfair hole. Clearly the most difficult handicap hole on the course, and by a lot. Sometimes an architect can go too far and I feel that they did so on this hole. The hole is a 550-yard par five that plays uphill, uphill and then uphill with wild slopes throughout the fairway. The green slopes from back to front and is very difficult to hold. Once on the green, it is too fast to hold putts. Every golfer in our group putted off the green. To me, this is too much.

After you complete the front nine you tee off on the tenth tee right next to the clubhouse with a large picture window near the grill area of the clubhouse. The land is built up so that you are standing slightly above the table level of the golfers sitting inside. They are about three feet away from you, but behind glass. You have a tee shot that is gloriously downhill. It is a unique and fine setup and unlike anything I've seen before.

Transported in space and time

Against the advice of the pro we walked the course. Almost everyone else on the course was riding. It turned out to be a very demanding course to walk. After playing the eleventh hole at Crystal Downs, you literally take a hike through the woods. It takes you several minutes to walk to the next tee box. The walk is uphill and idyllic and you are wonderfully isolated. I was not prepared for what we found on the twelfth tee box. We were winded when we reached the tee and sat on a bench on the tee box. It is one of the special places in the world of golf.

Walking through that forest could have been the equivalent of flying across the Atlantic Ocean. The next five holes may as well be at Sunningdale or Walton Heath. The character of the terrain completely changes, the course becomes relatively flat and the mix of plants and trees is reminiscent of the heathlands around London. Lots of silver birch trees, fescue, some heather, etc.

The next five holes are as good as it gets; peaceful and isolated. You can occasionally glimpse Lake Michigan through the trees. We became giddy with excitement as we played this stretch of holes. A fine mix of long and short holes with challenging greens. World class.


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The par three fourteenth from the tee

You re-emerge from the forest after walking off the sixteenth green and return to the real world. The seventeenth and eighteenth holes return to the hilly character that the first eleven holes had, making this unique stretch of holes (12-16) even more special.

I also experienced the Mackenzie camouflage effect at Crystal Downs. I didn't find that I hit into many of the bunkers, but their presence really causes you to aim your shots in the wrong direction in a subtle way. On the 12th hole the tree that appears to be in the middle-to-right side of the fairway from the tee is amazingly on the left side of the fairway when you get up to it. On the 4th, 5th and 6th tee shots you almost don't know where to aim off the tee, there is such a mix of trees, bunkers, severe hills and native grasses.

How is it that Dr. Mackenzie got a commission to design a golf course in Northern Michigan in the 1927? Tom Doak, a Michigan resident and member of Crystal Downs, by the way, in his excellent book The Life and Work of Dr. Alister Mackenzie, tells the story. The men that wanted to build a course wrote to Robert Hunter who had just written a book about golf course architecture. It turned out to be a prescient move. Hunter did design work with Mackenzie and recommended him for the job. In a stroke of luck we should all now be thankful for, it turns out Mackenzie was completing his design of Cypress Point and had to make the journey across the U.S. to make his way back to England. He met up with Perry Maxwell en route (Maxwell did a lot of work in the lower midwest) and they made the trip up to Michigan. Mackenzie first met Maxwell a tour of the British Isles in 1923 and Maxwell told him to look him up if he ever came over to the States. Once again, the stars seemed to align for the creation of this great golf course. Upon seeing the land, Mackenzie said that in England they would call this type of land "downs". Since the course overlooks Crystal Lake, the course was named Crystal Downs.

Apparently Mackenzie designed the front nine and then left Maxwell in charge of the construction. Mackenzie made Maxwell his partner "East of the Mississippi" according to his company's letterhead. In any event, the front nine is the clearly harder of the two nines with more difficult greens. Maxwell apparently designed and built the back nine two years later. It's no wonder Doak named his golf course design firm Renaissance. He is indeed a renaissance man, being both a world class designer and a fantastic author.

I have always found people from Michigan staunchly defend and love their home state, almost more so than any other state in the Union. They are hugely supportive of their sports teams, especially their college football teams. Many live there, vacation there and then retire there. It's nice to see such pride in a place. I am happy to report that their pride of place is completely justified at Crystal Downs. It justly deserves its world ranking as one of the best golf courses in the world.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

My companions never fail to remind me I still haven't finished the first hole on my only visit to Crystal Downs. My approach was above the hole and next putted off the green, my fourth shot chip again above the hole and once again my putt didn't stop until it was off the front and I have a single digit handicap...what a special place!

Anonymous said...

I have had the good fortune of playing Crystal Downs a dozen or so times and with each round I learn something new about the course. With any good course, that is part of its charm. And for my money you will be hardpressed to find a better collection of short par 4's.

I also could not agree with you more regarding your assessment of holes 12-16 (which are often criticized as rather pedestrian). They are one of the most enjoyable and serene stretches of holes I've ever played and find them anything but pedestrian. During my last round at Crystal (late May with the course nearly empty) a nearby homeowner was walking her Springer Spaniel off lead and the Springer ran over to us to survey the approach shots of my father and I into the 16th green. A moment that exemplifies Crystal Downs for me and not a moment I will soon forget (in fact the only way a round of golf with your father could ever be more enjoyable would be if your dog was walking by your side).

And as a Michigan native, I appreciate your apt description of my fellow "Michiganders," in fact my native Atlantan wife would be sure to echo those same sentiments!!

Anonymous said...

Have only played CD once and that was in the Fall, probably about 10 years ago. Weather was definitely a factor that day. Started out very nice and sunny but by the time we reached the back nine it had turned cold, windy and rainy (not that unusual for Northern Michigan). Not much fun for a 16 handicap at that point. But would certainly do it again if I ever get the opportunity. Having moved to Atlanta (Cumming) about three years ago from Michigan (East Lansing) after having lived there for more than 40 years, I really miss the great courses throughout the state, but CD is clearly the best I ever played there.

Clayton said...

With this being a private course, if anyone knows how I would be able to play at Crystal Downs, I would love to take my brother there. We love golf and wish we could play some of the more beautiful courses, but unfortunately with many of them being private, we have no way of even seeing them. If you do know of a way, please e-mail me at claytm@gmail.com. We have lived in Michigan all of our lives and have made mini-vacations across the state from Michigan's Thumb's (Bird Creek, Ubly Heights, Verona Hills) manicured and links-style courses to the resort courses in northern Michigan to random courses here and there (Forest Dunes, Buck's Run). We want to play Arcadia Bluff before we die (because it is public, and possible to golf on), but for Crystal Downs, we can't even plan it because as far as we know, it isn't possible.

Anonymous said...

Great write up my good sir. I found your blog late last night and ended up staying up all morning reading through it.

My grandparents own a summer home in a community that butts right up to Crystal Downs. It's breathtaking enough just driving past some of the holes on the winding roads that leave to town and I can't imagine how awe inspiring it would be to play such a marvelous course.

I walk the course at least a few times every summer (there's a secret entrance cut into a fence just a short walk from our family's cottage :-) ) and it's just as gorgeous as described. I find it tough to imagine a course with better scenery and more beautiful views, and knowing that there are makes me want to play the Top 100 even more.

I get a pit in my stomach every time I think about the fact that my grandparents were actually members back in the 1970's. They were never big into golf, but enjoyed the tennis facilities and clubhouse privileges. My uncle was the only golfer in the family and used to play the course a couple times a week and looking back on it, realizes just how fortunate he was.

The grandparents eventually left the Country Club in the early 1980's when membership fees reached exorbitant amounts and they felt that the $10,000 a year flat fee plus the thousands of dollars a month weren't worth it for some tennis courts. I'm the only golfer left in the immediate family and it makes me ill sometimes when I think I could have held membership to one of the best golf clubs in the world.

Anonymous said...

Crystal Downs has never been expensive for the members...the comments about it costing $10,000 a year plus "thousands of dollars per month" are so exaggerated it's actually pretty funny. It costs less than almost all other private clubs in the state.

It is one of golf's special venues and the members enjoy its laid-back, relaxed atmosphere. Your write-up is very nice and I'm glad you enjoyed your experience.

The springer spaniel mentioned is almost a nightly presence on the back nine...it's a cool thing.

Anonymous said...

Great Course...I was surprise on how relax the members are. The course is just great. The par 4 5 hole is just the best...I played after a rainny day and the grrens were slow...

Anonymous said...

As a member at the Downs, I can tell you it is simply not that expensive, it is a golfers club. The Downs is the best value in golf in the world, period. It is not that fact though that makes it so wonderful. When I golf with my guests, they are shocked when we pull up to the dirt parking lot, open the trunk to change our shoes while sitting on the bumper, and then carry our own bags up to the first tee, with no tee time. As we walk up the hill, Im sure they are thinking, wow, this is different than any other top 20 course. Then they reach the pro shop, and every guest I've ever had does the same thing. They turn 360 degrees, and they giggle. They see the most gorgeous course they have ever seen, surrounded by Crystal Lake, and Lake Michigan. Thats when they know they are about to experience something incredible. The Downs is the only course I have ever played where you can see the entire front nine from the pro shop and first tee. Crystal Downs is special not because of the amazing locker room, or the exclusive membership, it is amazing because every person you meet is genuine, and the scenery is stunning every time you play the course. I find myself giggling as well on the first tee, still surprised that I am able to experience something so incredible.

As for the single handicapper who putt the ball off the green twice on the first hole, and the comment about the 8th hole, as we say at the Downs, "Welcome to Dr. MacKenzie's Office".

Anonymous said...

As a member at the Downs, I can tell you it is simply not that expensive, it is a golfers club. The Downs is the best value in golf in the world, period. It is not that fact though that makes it so wonderful. When I golf with my guests, they are shocked when we pull up to the dirt parking lot, open the trunk to change our shoes while sitting on the bumper, and then carry our own bags up to the first tee, with no tee time. As we walk up the hill, Im sure they are thinking, wow, this is different than any other top 20 course. Then they reach the pro shop, and every guest I've ever had does the same thing. They turn 360 degrees, and they giggle. They see the most gorgeous course they have ever seen, surrounded by Crystal Lake, and Lake Michigan. Thats when they know they are about to experience something incredible. The Downs is the only course I have ever played where you can see the entire front nine from the pro shop and first tee. Crystal Downs is special not because of the amazing locker room, or the exclusive membership, it is amazing because every person you meet is genuine, and the scenery is stunning every time you play the course. I find myself giggling as well on the first tee, still surprised that I am able to experience something so incredible.

As for the single handicapper who putt the ball off the green twice on the first hole, and the comment about the 8th hole, as we say at the Downs, "Welcome to Dr. MacKenzie's Office".

Anonymous said...

I am very fortunate to have a wonderful friend and neighbor who has now invited me for the second year to play golf in heaven (CD). Day one last year resulted in 45 holes and a perfect dinner in the club house followed by 3 more days of at least 36.

It rained every day prior to my arrival, was perfect for 5 days and then more rain the morning I left. Maybe it was the California sunshine I brought along. Special date with Saint Ann’s Lace (the flowers with the steel stems that dent golf shafts...trust me...take the penalty an drop 2 club lengths.)

At any rate, the putting was unusual both in speed and direction. Can you say circumlocutious? Thinking August can't get here soon enough. Having played all the great UK courses it's a toss up as to where I want to play my last round of golf before they put me in a big divot. The 75 at CD was a better round of golf than the 72 at Royal Troone.
Legal92009@gmail.com

the famous grouse said...

I had the opportunity to play CD last summer and will be playing it again this year. This is without a doubt, the most unique golfing experience I have ever had.

I marvelled at the fact that I parked in a dirt lot, climbed some steep steps to get to a pro shop you would NEVER expect for one of the top courses in the world. I walked in intimidated, and walked out feeling like a friend.

I am a single handicap golfer who has been lucky enough to play a number of top courses in the US. The design was masterful... with many holes making me think, "I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like this before". I played quite well, but didn't score the way I normally do... it hardly mattered. I hope to play better this year as I will know the course, but even if I shoot the worst score of my life, I will cherish the opportunity to play such a unique and wonderful course.

Chuck said...

I have driven to the clubhouse twice in the hopes of finding a member changing his shoes in the parking lot who would not mind a single digit play along. Alas, I am 0 for 2 to date. I would love to play this course, and since every Labor Day holiday is spent on vacation in the area, I will keep trying until it becomes reality. The course looks amazing from the pro shop!

Anonymous said...

I was looking into the courses you played and did not find Pasa Tiempo in Santa Cruz CA; which was Alister Mackenzi's favourite (He lived on the course till he was planted).

Kevin E said...

I have been trying to get on Crystal Downs for years. Is there a trick to get on?

Anonymous said...

i played last fall. it was one of the greatest courses i have ever played. the greens where ridiculously challenging. i would say the 11th hole par 3 i believe, with a 3 tier green and a pin in the middle, is one of the hardest shots you will find on any course

Anonymous said...

I've had the good fortune to play four times now. Amazing! Have some friends who showed up at the clubhouse on a cool fall weekday and were allowed to play a round about 10 years ago for those that think it's impossible to get on. Also hear they allow nearby residents on one day a year.

Scott said...

I worked in the club house at The Downs for a summer in 2003. I was the last employee to leave the club house every night so I would grab a cart and turn the front nine into my play ground untill the sun went down. I never did get to play the course in its entirety, but I've played every hole. The down hill 10th hole is my favorite. I even hit a hole in one on it. Nobody belives me and it's not like it counts anyways, cause it was like my 20th attempt. Still, who can say they put the ball in the hole on a par 4?

It was a great place to work and a great expeirence. The members were some of the nicest people I've ever met. Definitely the best summer of my life and I will never forget it.

There is one day in the fall that a resident of Benzi county can call and book a tee time. You literally have about a 3 hour window to book it before it fills up for the day. You have to have a MI ID showing that you live in Benzi county or you will not be allowed to tee off.

Anonymous said...

I played CD yesterday and was humbled on the greens. From the first green where the putt broke 2 feet in the opposite direction from my read, to the 8th green where my 12 footer became a 30 foot come backer, I was clearly scared all day long. The only highlight was knocking it to 6 feet on 18 and finishing with a birdie.

Standing on the 14th green I looked at my playing partner and asked, "how do you break 80 on the fricken course?". He said, "quit after 15...if your playing well!"

We had a great day that finished with a beer outside the clubhouse overlooking Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake. It's a special place and a little local knowledge would go a long way to improving the score.

Charles Allen said...

I just played the CD yesterday, 9/28 for the first time. It is my intent to play all the top rated courses located in my home state of Michigan. I am a single handicapper that has played golf for 20 years in venues all over the world. I thought that the views from Valderama in Spain were unmatched until yesterday. The vistas from the various tee boxes at the CD are amazing. This course is something special! Though it is relatively average in number of yards, it is long by elevation and the greens are amazing. Thanks to our forecaddie were it not for him we would still be putting!

Anonymous said...

Scott, your friends don't believe you because you didn't make an ace on #10 - you may have on #3, which IS a downhill par three. Hole 10 starts on the east side of the golf shop and drops downhill only off the tee - you climb back up on the approach and it measures about 390 yards.

Anonymous said...

I have been lucky enough to have my grandparents as members. I can't even count how many times I have played CD. It's amazing! I actually learned how to play golf on this course when I was 10 also

Anonymous said...

Not even a pro could ace #10 nobody has that kind of distance. I am lucky enough to play it a couple times a year because my uncle is a member and lives on the downs. It is the best course i have ever played. The greens are crazy. I remember when i played #8 the pin was in the front making it virtually impossible to finish the hole. i was the only person in my group to finish the hole. Only because i pitched in for a 7 lol. Still my favorite place in the world. and as for 11 if that pin is in the front i suggest you just skip the hole.

Ghost of Seth Raynor said...

Just spent two days at Crystal and loved it. Great layout, a classic. Never played a course where, if you get out of position, it takes a miracle to still make par. Getting out of position brings an almost certain bogey and probably double.

We had a front pin on the Monday we played and of the 8 guys in our group there were 3 pars and the rest were doubles and triples...nasty pin placement.

100 year old courses are my favorites but I like a course I can walk am Crystal is too tough a walk.

Holes 1-5-7-8-10-13-17-18 were my favorites although there really isn't a bad one of the 18. Hole #12 I thought was just ok, the rest are stars.

Anonymous said...

I have never played CD. I do have a friend who did make 2 holes-in-one on #9. They were 32 years apart! He has played this course many times. "It is never easy, no matter how much you play it" he says.