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THE MIDWEST MACKENZIE – CRYSTAL DOWNS

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An in-depth look at the collaboration of Dr. Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell at Crystal Downs C.C.

Crystal Downs is not Dr. Alister MacKenzie’s only Midwest design, but it is certainly his most highly regarded work in the region. The greatness of the course can be linked to the interest and variety inherent in the land, and MacKenzie’s visionary ability to embrace what a site offered. He was fortunate to have as his collaborator Perry Maxwell who expertly translated ideas into reality on the ground, adding his own touches and creative flourishes as he went. For nearly a century, Crystal Downs has been challenging, delighting and inspiring its members, including architects Tom Doak and Mike DeVries. More recently and in spite of its remote location, pilgrims have eagerly followed in the footsteps of a young Ben Crenshaw, making the journey to little Frankfort, Michigan to get a taste of MacKenzie and Maxwell’s genius.

A Connection of Like Minds

It was a pilgrimage of sorts that led to the initial connection between Perry Maxwell and Dr. Alister MacKenzie. In his biography The Midwest Associate, author Christopher Clouser chronicles the journey that Maxwell took to his ancestral home in Scotland to explore his family roots. Additionally, he aimed to study the finest links in the home of golf, much as C.B. Macdonald had done before him. Naturally, he made his way to St. Andrews and it was there that he first met MacKenzie, a man who struck Maxwell as a kindred spirit. They had each entered golf course design as a second career. They both drew inspiration from the great courses they saw, most notably The Old Course. They shared a common belief that the best courses were not forcibly made—they were found on suitable land by making use of and accentuating natural features to present players with a series of strategic questions to answer. Upon Maxwell’s departure for the States, they agreed that a design partnership would be desirable were MacKenzie to ever make his way to America.

Although the collaboration of MacKenzie and Maxwell was not as prolific as that which The Good Doctor had with Robert Hunter in California, or Russell and Morcom in Australia, the pair did work together on several courses during the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. The mutual affinity felt in St. Andrews grew during their time working together, as evidenced by the letter that MacKenzie penned after visiting their first course collaboration, Melrose Country Club outside of Philadelphia. It read in part:

“My Dear Maxwell, When I originally asked you to come into partnership with me, I did so because I thought your work more closely harmonized with nature than any other American Golf Course Architect. The design and construction of the Melrose Golf Course has confirmed my previous impression. I feel that I cannot leave America without expressing my admiration for the excellence of your work…Few if any golfers will realize that Melrose has been constructed by the hand of man and not nature. This is the greatest tribute that can be paid to the work of a golf course architect.”

Crystal Downs Collaboration

Through Robert Hunter, the founders of Crystal Downs were able to convince MacKenzie and Maxwell to take a detour north on their cross-country trip east. Being unfamiliar with the Northern Michigan duneland topography, the architects did not bring high expectations for the project. What they did bring was a proven approach to creating compelling greens and beautiful bunkering, and a desire to find interesting land on which to practice their craft. Upon arriving at Crystal Downs, the men were immediately impressed. The site seemed to manifestation of the sentiment from MacKenzie’s writing found in The Spirit of St. Andrews:

“…there are few things more monotonous than playing every shot from a dead flat fairway. The unobservant player never seems to fully realize that one of the chief charms of the best seaside links is the undulating fairways such as those near the clubhouse at Deal, Sandwich, and, most of all, at the The Old Course at St. Andrews, where the ground is a continual roll from the first tee to the last green and where one never has the same shot to play twice over. On these fairways one hardly ever has a level stance or lie. It is this that makes the variety of the seaside course, and variety in golf is everything.”

The duo set to work laying out the course, and designing the greens and features. MacKenzie spent ten intensive days finalizing his vision and Maxwell worked diligently over the following three years to bring it to life. Stories of the course’s creation have become mythologized: MacKenzie getting intoxicated and only routing eight holes on the front nine; Maxwell having a lady friend in town; which of the two came up with the idea for a particular green site or feature. The veracity of these tales might be questionable, but this much is certain—the final product is a masterpiece of wildly varied strategic design and the collaboration clearly had a synergistic effect.

Although he is firmly in the camp of those who consider Crystal Downs to be an Alister MacKenzie design, Mike DeVries does not minimize Maxwell’s contributions. In the foreward to The Midwest Associate, he wrote:

“Maxwell’s respect for a landscape’s inherent qualities and use of those features in it is one of the great aspects of the golf course at Crystal Downs…he made the course better due to his recognition of the intricacies of the land.”

DeVries has spent decades at The Downs. He grew up playing the course with his grandfather, worked on the grounds crew, and now as a member, continues to study it for inspiration in his own design work. When asked what makes Crystal Downs so special, his answer was a chuckle and a question. “How much time do you have?” He continued, “The rhythm and flow are as good as any course in existence. It has a cadence, like a piece of music or drama.”

Drilling into the dramatic theme, DeVries went on to describe the different acts, each of which brings the player to a climactic high point. The prologue begins at the clubhouse with a walk down the stairs to the jaw-dropping reveal from the 1st tee. Act 1 takes place across the hillside and valley of the front nine, peaking at the 8th green and the par-3 9th, which runs perilously across a high ridge. Act 2 begins with the 10th and takes the player away from the clubhouse along the dune ridge that separates Lake Michigan from Crystal Lake, ending with the long view north from the 14th green. Act 3 is the return journey home with one final thrill at the 17th green. The closing hole is an understated epilogue, giving the player an opportunity to reflect and absorb the entirety of the drama, as well as the holes and shots within it.

DeVries’s romantic language speaks to his love of Crystal Downs, but also to his recognition that it is a true work of art born out of the trust that the artists felt for one another. “Every day I am at The Downs,” concludes DeVries, “I learn something new about architecture.”

The Course Today

The spirit of collaboration continues in the preservation and presentation of Crystal Downs. Tom Doak plays the dual role of happy member and consulting architect, working with long-time Superintendent Michael Morris and his team to present the course such that the greatness of the design and features shine through. The turf is fast and firm, the fescue gorgeous and the tree management darn near perfect. If MacKenzie and Maxwell came back today, they would approve.

DeVries, Doak and Morris are proof of the gravitational pull of Crystal Downs, which has had the same effect on Head Professional Fred Muller for forty years. Muller wrote the course guide and sums up The Downs:

“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.”

The outward half is intimately routed over the rolling duneland below the clubhouse. An argument could be made that it is among the best nines in all of golf.

The inward half shifts gears, taking players on an out-and-back adventure through a wooded area along a dune ridge. The difference in the two nines further adds to the wondrous variety of The Downs.

That tour that follows features the photography of Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) as well as a few of my own, complemented by Mr. Muller’s hole descriptions (in quotes). One more time, collaboration revealing just how special Crystal Downs is.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

The opener is no gentle handshake, from the undulating fairway through the severely sloped green, it tells players everything about the holes to come. “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.”

The next three holes are subtly brilliant, working off the side of the hill and requiring both well conceived and executed shots. “Avoid the bunkers left and right of the fairway on the 2nd 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. Downhill and into a swirling wind, the 3rd 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. Fade the drive on the 4th 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 set of three four-pars are incredibly creative and could be played on a continuous loop without ever getting remotely boring. Birdie is a real possibility on each, as is double. “The 5th 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 6th hole is 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 the 7th, 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.”

This outstanding par-5 is lay-of-the-land architecture and its finest. No need for fairway bunkers when nature has provided such heaving contours. “Crystal Downs’ first three-shot hole is rated as one of the world’s best par fives. Drive down the middle on the 8th, 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 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.”

The next three holes make the turn at the clubhouse hill, and then take the player out to the long dune ridge. Each requires precise judging of distance to avoid punishment. “The green on the 9th 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. The perfect tee ball on the 10th 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. You’ve heard those wonderful words of wisdom ‘stay below the hole’. Do that on the 11th.  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 pair of par-4s illustrates how MacKenzie and Maxwell were comfortable demanding shot-making from players. Fades and draws are optimal to navigate the bends, side-slopes and greens. “The magnificent beech tree straight ahead is on the left side of the fairway on the 12th. 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 13th 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 peace and beauty of being at this point on the property tend to distract from the task at hand—hitting a good shot with a short club to collect a safe par, rather than carding an other. In the vein of other great Golden Age short threes, the 14th adds an important component to the examination of a player’s game. “This beautiful little gem is a straightforward 139 yard shot. The green on the 14th 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.”

The next two holes, a short four and long five, turn and head back toward the clubhouse. In keeping with the theme of variety, they present very different challenges. “We call the 15th ‘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. Hit your tee shot hard on the 16th. 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.”

The 17th is the wildest and most polarizing hole on the course and the 18th one of the most benign. The two combine to give players one last set of thrills before making the walk back up the hill to the clubhouse. “The 17th is 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. Drive your tee ball straight on the 18th. Don’t cut the corner, 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.”

Crystal Downs cannot be muscled or overpowered. It not only encourages creative shot making, the course demands it. Players who like to have their minds engaged and who are willing to experiment will be hard pressed to find a more stimulating golf course in America. 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. The like minds of MacKenzie and Maxwell, working with exceptional land, created a midwest masterpiece.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf

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