6,560 yards, 143 slope from the Blues
There are these nodal high points about the course I swear reincarnated my golfing soul throughout the day. There’s the clubhouse, which looks down upon the front nine in its valley. We sat in it and watched the storm come in, darkness descending mid morning and relentless with its shreds of water. Many left certain the day was lost but for some reason, I was never worried. It would pass. And so it did. Then there’s the hilltop of the Seventeenth green and Eighteenth tee. I felt a resurgence and the game seemed so easy and full of life. Sign me up for a couple rounds more. And the higher up greens, where the lines seem to call to me as a friend. The sun and countryside and splendid summer solitude were at their height. It seemed the closer I got to the sun, the more I felt in tune with the game.
My friends, the height of summer was upon us and I was right where I needed to be.
There are three, maybe four courses I yearn to visit and they’re not likely the ones you may think. I would choose these course over many others, even some many would think I’m insane for passing up. But I have my reasons and am confident that those I have in mind are rich and enlightening in experience. Crystal Downs was one of these. There are very few courses where Mackenzie and Maxwell designed together, with Maxwell also crafting the greens but they are among the best American golf masterpieces one can take in. Among those, there are even fewer that have been left relatively preserved through the decades. In fact, Crystal Downs may be the only one in such a preserved condition, as there are only two others I can think of that have not fared so well. JC Melrose in Philadelphia fell victim to a road being constructed through it and while it’s still around and has some great features, the road has taken its toll. The other is Augusta National.
Both of these designers are among my favorite and their separate designs are likewise remarkable. Yet there is something I feel is extraordinary when they teamed up. It is rare when two colossal talents in one field or another decide to collaborate and they find a way to elevate their craft. Mackenzie and Maxwell found a way and Crystal Downs is one of those rare instances where a symphony of talent and wonderful natural setting orchestrated together for absolutely sublime golf.
Perhaps those nodal points reached out to them as well.
Starting as a nine hole course in 1927, Mackenzie and Maxwell were persuaded to come examine the site as Mackenzie was on his way back to England after finishing Cypress Point to transform it into an eighteen hole course. Upon seeing the land, the trip to England was delayed while they worked on the design and routing. Maxwell returned the next summer and headed up construction, which included the greens. He continued to return each summer in that capacity until the course was completed in 1933. The club and course remained essentially as designed for the ensuing decades. Content to remain a quiet, relaxing club for its small membership that resided nearby, Ben Crenshaw visited in the mid 1980’s, which is also around the time Tom Doak moved to the area. Doak has worked on some of the greens (Second, Eleventh, Thirteenth and Fourteenth) and there has been some tree work but the course remains very much as it was when Maxwell looked upon it that summer of 1933. That is an extreme rarity nowadays, a welcome one indeed.
The front nine is situated in a valley of sorts, all of which can be seen from the clubhouse. Exposed to the elements, its low profile with extraordinary fairway contours as the routing moves about the valley and makes use of a prominent ridge before climbing back up the hill to the clubhouse. The routing ensures each hole is distinct from the other and not just distinct but pleasantly memorable. The greens, however, the greens are among the best I have played, elevating things from memorable to immortal. Movement that is true and balanced while visuals playfully deceive, all without over doing it. The front has a heathland feel to it while the playing structure is almost four dimensional, as the holes can be played from almost any angle and the lack of unplayable terrain between the holes adds to this. The back nine is mostly an out and back affair, moving to the higher meadows. Parkland elements introduce themselves yet the wide, rise, fall and twisting of the fairways maintains similar elasticity as the front. The variety remains with its sequencing and the closing duo crescendos in drama by using one of the more severe ridges for the Seventeenth green and Eighteenth tee. The round finishes at the base of the hill upon which the clubhouses sit, which await as you make one final climb, the reward of the splendid lake views there, always.
The course is rich with romantic character. The golfer continuously comes across inspirational views and shots, then walks on to greens that are even more so. Yes there is challenge and strategy and excitement yet there’s this romanticism that pervades and makes the round exceptionally transcendent. I felt that it was how the beautiful forested setting and distinctive hills frolic with the craftsmanship of the design in the best symbiosis possible, so that one enhances the other and leaves us with one of the more treasured cathedrals of our game.
The plan was for 36 holes. Not even a rather large morning storm was enough to deter those plans, which then turned into playing a nine hole course with an 8:50 p.m. tee time. You have to love those long Summer days. After the storm, the sun came out with resurgence and the course drained almost instantaneously. Summer grace in spades.
The First is a 460 yard par 4 (from the Blues). The course is before you and we are to enter into it, head first, to the fairway below. The fairway rises, so the approach will likely be substantial no matter how sound the tee shot is, which the wind will likely batter around anyways. They say here that missing left is a bogey while missing right is a disaster, but I’m not sure they have a saying for the golfer who misses right, then left. Well, the 25 foot one putt helped shore that up, surely inspired from the outstanding green that sits above the fairway. It is deep and falls off on the left, running back to front and right to left in general. A remarkable opener. Golf Magazine has it as one of the best par 4’s in the world. No disagreements here.
The Second is a 425 yard par 4. We turn around but remain on lower ground than the First for the most part. Usually downwind yet a bit uphill, there are large yet shallow bunkers on either side the tee show must contend with. This bunker configuration is similar at the green, guarding each side at the front. The green moves back to front and has no hesitation with seeing your ball roll off its sides, particularly the front, so deftness with the putter is advisable.
The Third is a 191 yard par 3. Even with the trees in the background, we begin to realize just how much wind factors in with every shot. That backdrop actually gives the wind something to bounce off of, which leaves our tee shots in fits. There’s a merciful apron short of the green for those that can live with themselves for wimping out while the green runs at an angle some what perpendicular to the tee. The recovery shots were what amazed me, as the range of possibilities and situations seem to be endless. The green moves off of the hill on which it sits.
The Fourth is a 409 yard par 4. A dog leg right for the most part where the tee shot runs the risk of running through the fairway on the left side, so your can put some left to right movement on it or take on the bunker on the right. I actually prefer the latter as a tee shot landing high right will then fall left, all while getting closer to the hole. One must take a moment in this fairway to admire the swales and ripples that stretch to the green. It’s one of the memories that I come back to often when I think of this place, envisioning the ball bouncing along about it after that tee shot, then again and perhaps again as the golfer makes his way to the green. The green sits slightly above and with the hillside of the fairway, the right side is subject to the ground game while the left side is more raised and a pitch is more likely in order. The green has some delightful interior undulations while the overall right to left pull is likely in every roll.
The Fifth is a 353 yard par 4. Looking back on it, it was so fitting that the storm rolled in as we played this hole. Yet another that Golf Magazine regards as one of the best par 4’s in the world, the tee shot should leave little doubt of this. A ridge is before us with bunkers about its face (the trio of them in the center are known as the, “Three Sisters”) and our charge is to carry it, some where. That some where is up to the golfer, with the caveat being the more left you go, the longer your tee shot must be to clear the ridge and shorter your approach. We hit our tee shots and walked up to the ridge when the siren to come in sounded. The thunder ominously rumbling above, we were able to examine the green in the distance before we were saved with a couple carts picking us up. As we walked in to the clubhouse and I looked out the window, the course disappeared in darkness and moments later, the throngs of water and roars and flashes of light put on a furious display.
It was as if it never happened as I stood over my approach shot a couple hours later, my ball exactly where I left it. The ridge falls left to right so hides a little bit of the green on the left side because of that, yet this gives us a cue as to where to favor the approach and the direction within which to expect the ball to move upon landing. Indeed, there are bunkers off to the right to collect those that don’t mind that left to right movement. Another long putt made here. I was in tune with the greens, my golf psyche intuitively appreciating the craft it had the fortune of experiencing.
The Sixth is a 382 yard par 4. The ridge is used again for the tee shot here and like the hole prior, decisions must be made. Carrying the ridge means a nice short approach in yet the more adventurous among us may opt for the right side line, which confronts a steeper side of the ridge and requires a longer carry. Bunkers on the ridge face here should give everyone pause, as the “Scabs” will likely lead to a lost stroke unless the golfer receives a fortunate lie and can pull off the shot. The green is the largest on the course, moves right to left and is free of greenside bunkers.
The Seventh is a 335 yard par 4. We have been essentially switching back and forth in this valley but this only shows that switchbacks are not created equal and some times, yield the best holes. The prominent land features are used creatively yet a number of times, ensuring that the unique land gives its best. Here, we tee off at the end of the ridge ahead, which drops down to the lowest grounds of the course. The base of where the ridge and these hills meets formed a natural bowl of sorts, which made for a truly remarkable green site. The tee shot does not need to be driver but may result in a blind approach if not far enough out. Indeed, the view of the green depends on the position of the tee shot while a tree on the right adds to this visual equation. There is some rough before the green on the lower ground, so that the approach must come in high. The green boomerangs around the end of the ridge, which bowls at either end. Bowls at either end. Unbelievable. Leave me here with a putter and wedge and a couple balls for eternity.
The Eighth is a 550 yard par 5. It is time to make our way back up to the heights of the clubhouse and what better way to do so than with what has been regarded as one of the best par 5’s in the world by Golf Magazine, and me. It all starts with a blind tee shot over a rise of jagged undulations. This is just a preview of the fairway contours, which are some of the best one can lay their eyes on. The tee shot is subject to their inherent randomness, as is the second shot. Only pure experience can start to figure out the best areas and lines here but the goal is to climb the hill. The green is above and smaller than one hopes, so approaches in must be exact and account for the whims of the hillside. The hole can be played countless ways and presents a myriad of characteristics in full. The challenge of the lies and hill, the strategy of placement and using the terrain to one’s advantage, the drama and inspiration of its heights; the crescendo of the front nine is before us and it is legendary.
The Ninth is a 175 yard par 3. An uphill tee shot with the clubhouse looking on. The green actually moves from front to back, so a tee shot getting up the hill only finishes half the battle; it must do so without enough on it to send it off the back. The bunkers on the right are no where anyone wants to be, as the hillside looms and could send the ball back down the cliffside. Likewise, this is one of those greens where care with the putter is a good idea, as overly aggressive putts could go back down into the valley with ease.
The front nine moves about the valley exceptionally well and yields nine all world holes without a weak one in the bunch. I would rank them 4, 7, 6, 5, 1, 8, 3, 2, 9.
We arrive at the steps of the lower clubhouse. The views are unavoidable as we pause a few moments, then we descend back into the valley.
The back nine starts with the 395 yard par 4 Tenth. The tee shot drops down to the fairway and is generally inviting but it’s the approach we should focus on. The green is above and moves from left to right, back to front, fairly deliriously. The left side of the green is the mark, near the bunker on that side. The right side and front are liable to get slippery about the edges.
The Eleventh is a 196 yard par 3. The back to front movement of the green and its tiered nature can cause absolute terror, especially for those shots ending up above the hole. The bunkers above the hole follow this theme and the fact I was able to get out of one of them staying on the green and not going all the way down the hill was probably one of the better shots/luckier breaks I had all day.
The Twelfth is a 430 yard par 4. The longest green to tee walk is here, where we climb up the rest of the hill and the trees clear to the meadows that comprise most of the back nine. The fairway dog legs to the right off the tee and there used to be a Beech tree that was an aiming point but it is now gone. The trees on the right must be cleared for a look at the green on approach while the fairway runs right into the green, bunkers on either side and below grade. It’s a deceptively tough green to handle on the approach despite the room short and front. It’s a combination of the angle in and the direction the green runs as far as I can tell.
The Thirteenth is a 484 yard par 4. A similar left to right tee shot is ideal here to get around the trees and move the ball ever so closer to the green with the left to right cant of the fairway. Every yard matters, as the approach is one of the more challenging of the round. The green is tucked away at the far edge of a hill, with significant dip short of it and a bunker hiding on the high left side. Pin position determines the dynamics of the approach, with rear pins needing a hearty shot to that back side or a more surgical strike around the center that will fall correctly down to the rear half. Front pins will need to confront the left to right tilt on approach and with the flat stick, making it a bit tougher because of the movement. It’s a hell of a par 4 coming at the right time.
The Fourteenth is a 147 yard par 3. An uphill green with native grass between tee and green. There are seven bunkers lurking around the green, many of which cannot be seen from the tee. The rear ones and the sides above the pin bring the most concern, as the back to front movement can get complicated quickly.
The Fifteenth is a 327 yard par 4. We turn around for home at this point. The green prior gives glimpses of just how close we are to Lake Michigan, albeit high above. The course is situated on a narrower isthmus between Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake. The wooded terrain shrouds views of the water in most areas but every now then, especially when the wind is up, there are brief windows of just how resplendent the longer views of the area are.
As for the hole, the tee shot must carry native foliage as the fairway bends to the left a little. A bounding tee shot is very helpful and those that reach the swale can have to roll to the other side ideally, yielding a much shorter approach. The shorter the approach, the better, as the green is diabolical, moving right to left and generally doesn’t like golf balls on it. The bunker positioning keeps in this theme of diabolism, one at the lower left and the other high right and actually, the entire high side. Make the shot to this green a good one.
The Sixteenth is a 588 yard par 5. Long and a bend left, this hole takes us the rest of the way through the high meadows. The fairway is a bit narrower than we’ve grown accustomed and aside from the tree line on the right and native grass on the left, our charge here is to bellow the ball a long ways. It is not until we reach the green that the bunkers start, encasing the green that sits a little below the fairway. The green is on the smaller side and more deep than wide, falling back to front and left to right.
The Seventeenth is a 311 yard par 4. Transitioning from the high meadows into the hills, the closing duo is an impressive crescendo. The tee shot must be pondered. It will be to a right to left moving fairway that climbs abruptly to the green. The widest area seems to be at the start of the fairway, which leaves a longer approach but the green should be visible. A favorable wind could bring the green into play off the tee for some while others opting for a longer tee shot will likely have a blind short shot to the green. As for the green, it is deep yet narrow and no one would call it all that big. It falls off the sides into bunkers and the front, down the hill and likely further away than your approach. It’s a hole full of thrill and excitement, as well as strategy and grace under pressure. A great short par 4.
The Eighteenth is a 400 yard par 4. The fairway wraps around the hills to the right while the tee shot is elevated. One can see the clubhouse on top of another hill in line with the tee. The tee shot brings a lot of temptation to try and cut the fairway but the hillside is a lot larger than it looks so avoid the tempts. The fairway below moves uphill to the green, a gathering of bunkers guarding it all over. There’s also a lot of right to left movement that demands attention on approach. Learning my lesson from the first round, I gave it that attention and was able to close my time here with a par.
The ladies had just finished one of their tournaments and were making their way to the upper clubhouse. Music faintly reached us down the hill into the valley. The upper clubhouse yields the best views of the lakes and despite the spirited revelry, those views still imparted a good sense of calm. It seemed to be yet another nodal high point and as we lingered and finally came back down to the lower clubhouse, I realized the height of the summer came both figuratively and literally. The far side of the season was now upon us. The music plays on.
The back nine uses higher reaches of the property and continues with yet another series of outstanding par 4’s while the others are not far behind, all of it leading to a dramatic finish. I would rank them 17, 13, 15, 18, 10, 12, 11, 14, 16.
Generally, Crystal Downs is a wonderful golf course. It strikes a remarkable balance between its strategic, varied playing structure and beautiful setting, which evokes a pleasantly engaging experience. The fairways are its foundation with their contours and cants, which lead to infinitely interesting greens that have a spiritual fulfillment all their own. Its challenge is all encompassing but is presented so exquisitely that there is never any consternation, even when ensnared in some of its tougher chapters. This is largely due to its hazard placement and type, which always provides alternative avenues of recovery and those areas where there is no chance, the golfer intuitively understands his shot had no earthly reason for going near there in the first place and is fine accepting the consequence. It’s a splendid display of our game and the members have done well to preserve it in such a touching, simplistic manner that is rare to come across nowadays.
I only hope it stays as I left it for ages to come.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: The lower clubhouse houses the pro shop and is for more casual lunches and gatherings while the upper clubhouse is reserved for more formal occasions. Both show off the surrounding beauty upon which you happen to find yourself.
Practice Area: There’s a driving range down the hill with a short game area next to it. The putting green is just outside the lower clubhouse.