“Crystal Downs is a thinking person’s golf 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.” – Fred Muller, Head Golf Professional
Crystal Downs is more than just a great golf course. It is a wonderful family club that has been delighting its membership for nearly a century as they make their summertime migrations north. It is also the origin point of a design lineage that began with MacKenzie, continued with the Maxwells, and reached all the way forward to inspire Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw, Mike DeVries, Tom Doak and the modern minimalist movement.
Paying homage to Crystal Downs feels like a worthy endeavor as winter arrives in Chicago and Michigan golf is but a daydream. I enlisted Jon Cavalier, also an admirer of The Downs, who graciously contributed a feature photo for each hole, and supplemented with my own (click on the square images to enlarge). The club provides a terrific course guide – those hole descriptions are included (in italics), along with my commentary.
For those who have been fortunate enough to play the course, we hope to bring back good memories. For those who have not, we hope to give a sense of what makes this place so special. Enjoy!
The club was founded in 1927 and the course, designed by Dr. Alister MacKenzie, opened for play in 1929. His associate Perry Maxwell carried out the construction and deserves much of the credit for the final result. The front nine, which is arguably the best outward half in America, plays across an open hillside below the clubhouse. The back nine is an out-and-back playing along a narrow stretch of land bounded by Sutter Road and a quiet neighborhood overlooking Lake Michigan.
The course is masterfully routed to maximize the movement of the land. The bunkering naturally fits the landscape, and has plenty of artistic flair. The greens elicit equal parts awe and terror, with their cant and subtle contour. The turf is fast and firm, the fescue gorgeous, and tree management is darn near perfect. The course doesn’t feel over-manicured but everything is just right. Superintendent Michael Morris and his team present The Downs such that the greatness of the design and features shine through.
Few courses are capable of producing such high levels of pleasure, with the occasional, acute pain.
HOLE #1 – Par 4 – 449 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.”
Emerging from the clubhouse, seeing the front nine spread across the land and Crystal Lake on the horizon, is nothing short of a spiritual experience. Like every good opener, the 1st foreshadows the adventure ahead. Playing downhill over rumpled ground with the severely sloped green extending from the bunker-gouged hillside, the elegant beauty of this green site distracts from its challenge. Hit the approach above the hole and leave your putter in the bag. Instead, kneel down and breathe on the ball – that puts you in the right position to pray that it doesn’t roll off the green.
HOLE #2 – Par 4 – 420 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.”
A stout uphill two-shotter, especially into the wind, the second is punctuated by a sneaky tough green. The first two at The Downs illustrate that the good Dr. felt that gentle handshakes are overrated.
HOLE #3 – Par 3 – 159 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.”
This one-shotter pays slightly downhill. The elevation change and the swirling wind in this corner of the property make judging line and distance tricky. The reward for guessing wrong on the tee shot is often having to grind out a two-putt on the canted, slick, difficult-to-read green.
HOLE #4 – Par 4 – 397 yards
“Fade the drive here or risk running through the fairway into the left hand rough. The long second shot will run up into the green only from the right front, however, pitching from the left front of the green is no disaster.”
This deceptively demanding hole is one of my favorites on the course. It requires a confident tee ball, ideally shaped left to right to hold the tilted fairway that runs away. The approach plays uphill to a green set against a hillside and surrounded by short grass runoffs that are chock full of awkward lies. A brilliant beginning to a stretch of four straight amazing four pars.
HOLE #5 – Par 4 – 345 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.”
The tee shot is easier than it looks, but it is so visually confounding that it takes several plays to get confident. Contrast this look with the seemingly straightforward approach, which is anything but. The green requires a precise shot to the left third. Miss on the high left side and you’re dead. Miss center or right and watch your ball trickle into the right side bunker. CD’s fifth can be gloriously exasperating.
HOLE #6 – Par 4 – 351 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.”
On a front nine packed with all-world holes, this is my favorite. Hit it at the house off the tee and hope to catch the speed slot just over the hill. The green is divided into distinct sections – find the right spot with the approach and birdie is in play. Miss your spot, and well, you know…
HOLE #7 – Par 4 – 330 yards
“A 210 yard tee shot leaves a 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.”
Those who have seen the iconic boomerang green can attest to how gloriously wild it is. Great architecture like this serves as a reminder to us all – sometimes, it’s best to let the architect chuck words like “fair” and “playable” right out the window.
HOLE #8 – Par 5 – 542 yards
“Crystal Downs’ first three-shot hole is rated as one of the world’s best par fives. Drive down the middle, fairway wood up the right side and a medium iron into the green. No problem…except you will encounter all kinds of uneven lies. You are 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.”
Considered by many to be among the greatest five pars on the planet, the eighth’s greatness is found in the ripples and rolls of the land that lead all the way uphill to the minuscule green set against a hilltop. If there is a level lie to be had here, I’ve yet to find it.
HOLE #9 – Par 3 – 159 yards
“The green is over 30 feet above the tee, which slopes from 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 a wedge.”
This little one-shotter plays up into the (literal) shadow of the clubhouse. From the uphill tee box, to the contrasting lines of the green and the hillside, to its position on the spine of the ridge, the 9th is a bundle of disorientation. A unique conclusion to what might be the best 9 holes in all of golf.
HOLE #10 – Par 4 – 390 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.”
Walk out the back door of the clubhouse, take a right, and you find yourself standing on one of my favorite tee boxes in all of golf. The thrilling challenge of the stout tenth lies before you, with nature’s beauty and Crystal Lake beckoning beyond. Magic.
HOLE #11 – Par 3 – 184 yards
“You’ve heard those wonderful 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.”
On this tiered green, there is only one place you cannot be – above the hole. Simple enough, right? If only…
HOLE #12 – Par 4 – 420 yards
“The magnificent beech tree straight ahead is on the left side 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.”
This dogleg right features a semi-blind, discomforting tee shot and an approach into a green that runs away front-to-back. It is also an example of CD’s solid management of its specimen trees, including those that are incorporated into hazards. The beginning of a wonderful stretch of holes.
HOLE #13 – Par 4 – 435 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. The green is very small, with a tiny front portion, dropping off to a larger rear portion of the green. Choose a club for your second shot that reaches just short of the green and then pitch it 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.”
The entire hole is pitched from high left to low right, requiring the player to either shape or position (or both) their shots, as if holding against a stiff crosswind.
HOLE #14 – Par 3 – 139 yards
“This beautiful little gem is a straightforward 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.”
Infinity is the theme of this little beauty. The gorgeous infinity view that has been recently restored through tree removal on the ridge behind. And infinity being the number of ways that a player can make a 5 or worse.
HOLE #15 – Par 4 – 322 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 short pitch. Not cresting the hill can leave an uphill blind shot. This green repels shots, so hit for the center of the green.”
Crystal Downs turns back toward home with the 15th. This short four plays over rolling ground to a smallish elevated green. The player must decide how to navigate the flanking fairway bunkers to get to their ideal distance for an attempt at holding this devilish little putting surface.
HOLE #16 – Par 5 – 577 yards
“Hit your tee shot hard. Hit it 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.”
This subtle, elegant three shotter gently bends and rolls over the land, finally arriving at a green surrounded by bunkers. Don’t let its simplicity lull you into complacency though. Getting out of position for the approach can change a birdie chance into a bogey in a heartbeat.
HOLE #17 – Par 4 – 301 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 bogey 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 seventeenth is polarizing – some think that it is a brilliant risk-reward short four, and others think that it’s an awkward connector hole. I’ll leave that debate to others. My experience has been that it gets more interesting with each play, and it’s good geeky fun to try and master.
HOLE #18 – Par 4 – 382 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.”
A lovely dogleg right that finishes in a prototypical MacKenzie/Maxwell green setting at the base of intersecting hills. The walk back up the hill to the clubhouse elicits the same mixed feelings one has after finishing all truly great courses – happy to have played it, sad to leave.
Crystal Downs is a course that cannot be muscled or overpowered. It does not just encourage creative shot making. The course demands it. Players who like to have their minds engaged, and who are willing to experiment will not find a more stimulating golf course anywhere. The Downs has its secrets, and those secrets must be teased out. That is what places it in such high favor, and what makes it a joy to revisit repeatedly.
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Copyright 2017 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf