Thursday, October 26, 2006

Golf de Morfontaine - Vive la France?

The 3rd hole at Morfontaine

I am adding a new feature to the blog to help give some insight into how I go about trying to get access to play some of the more difficult courses on the top 100 list. When I set about this quest I figured that Augusta National would be the most difficult to get on and that's probably true, although I do have two outside chances that I continue to pursue, but not too aggressively because it's bad form to ask to get on. I have a couple of things cooking to get me on to Pine Valley and, god willing, I am tentatively scheduled for Cypress Point in 2007. When I complete all 100 I will reveal some of my secrets to gaining access and how I was able to get on to some of the more private courses. I already consider myself lucky to have gained access to some very exclusive and difficult courses to get on such as Fishers Island, Los Angeles Country Club and The National Golf Links of America.

As I started this quest I made up a list of courses and broke them down into various categories - 'easy to get on', 'possible', 'difficult' and 'no clue'. The private courses in Japan go into the 'no clue' category as do several private US courses that I don't even have the remotest contact at. Morfontaine also goes into this category.

In an occasional series I will keep you appraised of how I am doing trying to get access to the course. Ranked #47 in the world, Morfontaine Golf Club is located in the Chantilly region of France, about 30 miles north of Paris and 10 miles south of Senlis. It has a reputation as being a very private club that visitors cannot play without a member. Or as they say in the native tongue: Club privé exclusivement réservé aux membres. I have heard great things about Morfontaine. It was designed in 1927 by Tom Simpson. I am a great admirer of other courses that Simpson has had a hand in - namely Cruden Bay and Ballybunion, so I thought this would be a good one to pick and attempt to play sooner rather than later.

The clubhouse at Morfontaine

Finding Golf Club de Morfontaine is not an easy task. I was able to obtain a picture of the clubhouse, shown above, from Again, in the local venacular, there is pas de site web to go online and find out information about the club and no email address. The closest I have found is a picture of the course from satellite. Click to see the Google maps. The hybrid or satellite view works best. aerial image of Golf Club de Morfontaine. If you look carefully you will see 27 holes. Nine holes were created in 1910 and an additional 18 holes, the world ranked course, in 1927.

In any event, I was able to locate the club's phone number (0033 344 54 68 27) so I figured I would just phone them up and see if they would let me come out and play. Mind you, this is not a completely irrational thing to do. After all, even such esteemed European courses such as Muirfield and Royal County Down will take your call and respond to your email and explain their booking procedures. Since I don't speak French, I had a French speaking female associate call on my behalf and see if we could politely book a tee time. I wanted to approach them with the utmost respect, which we did, and was completely flexible as to the date and time I was available to play.

Well, let's just say her inquiries were met with what can best be described as a chilly reception. I'm not sure of the exact English translation of what they told her but it's the rough equivalent of something that I can't print here. We were somewhat put off as this stance is so much at odds with the founding tenets of the French Republic - liberté, égalité, fraternité. After all - all the world's golfers share a fraternité do they not?

Well, at least we know where we stand.

Not easily put off I thought I would enlist the help of the American Embassy in Paris. This one I could do myself since they speak English. Morfontaine has long had a tradition of offering the current US ambassador a membership so they could play golf in the spirit of good relations. I'm not sure whether this tradition continues to this day, but I thought it was worth a shot. The US Ambassador would not take my call and I was transferred to the American Citizen Services Office of the Consular section which provides information and assistance to U.S. citizens in France. While the gentleman that took my call didn't tell me to go 'F' myself directly, he made it clear that he could be of no assistance.

Having struck out on the first two attempts it confirmed that this one was indeed going to be difficult. How exactly does one go about finding a member of Morfontaine? Before pursuing that I have one or two other ideas to pursue to find a way on.

I will let you know how I make out...

Click here for my 2007 writeup after playing the course.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Crystal Downs Country Club

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.