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THE MIDWEST MACKENZIE – CRYSTAL DOWNS

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. Act 1 begins at the clubhouse with a walk down the stairs to the jaw-dropping reveal from the 1st tee. Act 2 takes place across the hillside and valley of the front nine, peaking at the 8th green. Act 3 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 4 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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Old Town Club Tour by Jon Cavalier

OLD TOWN CLUB – A COURSE TOUR & APPRECIATION

Winston-Salem, NC – Perry Maxwell

Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, NC is a 1939 Perry Maxwell original bordering the campus of Wake Forest University.  I had the great pleasure of playing several rounds at OTC on a perfect early-November day.  And while I am a few months late in getting this tour together, OTC’s recent near-miss on garnering the threshold number of Golf Digest rater plays necessary for inclusion in the Top-100 make this a particularly appropriate time to shine a bit of a spotlight on this architectural gem.

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Old Town Club

When it became apparent that time had taken its toll on this old beauty, the members and their Golf Chairman, Dunlop White, chose Coore & Crenshaw to perform an extensive restoration of the property.  For a more detailed discussion of this process and the work performed by Coore & Crenshaw, be sure to check out the excellent profile at http://golfclubatlas.com/courses-by-country/usa/old-town-club/ .  Suffice it to say, the duo did a magnificent job.

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Late Afternoon at Old Town

Before we begin, a few notes about OTC and these photos.  I was told, on good authority, by members of OTC and by Dunlop White, that the absolute peak time of year to play the course is November/December.  I certainly cannot disagree.  OTC played firm and fast throughout, and given the exceptional green- and green-side features, this made for some very exciting golf.  OTC is not built for lush, soft, ultra-green conditions.  My first round of the day was played during a persistent light rain under continual cloud cover, and the course stayed firm as ever.  After a quick lunch, the sun came out, dried the course immediately and put an entirely new look on it.  So, while these photos were all taken on the same day, you may notice differences based on the time of day that a particular photo was taken.

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The Spectacular 8th/17th Double Green

I hope you enjoy the tour.

OLD TOWN CLUB

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At a macro level, Old Town Club has a few standout architectural features that demand mention at the outset.  The first thing that GCA aficionados seem to talk about when they talk about Old Town is Maxwell’s brilliant routing of the golf course.  To me, the routing of a golf course has always seemed equal parts engineering discipline, artistic ability and black magic — I’ve never quite been able to grasp how it’s done, much less done well.  But when it’s done well, I know it when I see it.  And OTC is it.  Maxwell’s routing begins a three hole loop to the south of the club house in a Par 4, Par 3, Par 4 arrangement.  The members must love this feature.  Beginning with the 4th hole, the course meanders up, over and around various landforms and features such that no two holes play similarly, no part of the walk is too steep, and never is there a hint of boredom.

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The 17th, 8th and 9th Holes

The second feature is the openness of the property and the manner in which the golf course uses that openness to bolster the way the course plays.  Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw and Dunlop White deserve great credit for this feature.  From the first tee, the player can view most of the three hole starting loop.  From the crest of the fourth fairway, more than half the course (and its wonderful landforms) are in full view.  And from the double green at 8/17, the player can look back and see four connected fairways — the 17th, the 8th, the 9th and the 18th — quite an amazing sight.  Coupled with the minimal use of encroaching rough, the openness of the course provides for a wide array of options on every hole (in fact, the rough is so minimal, it is possible to walk up 4, across 7, up 17, across 8, across 9 and up 10 back to the clubhouse without every stepping on a line of long grass).

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From the 4th Fairway

The Clubhouse

Old Town’s gorgeous brick clubhouse fits in perfectly with the rest of its surrounds. The fried chicken special on the lunch menu is spectacular.

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THE COURSE

Hole 1 – Par 4 – 407yds

A round at Old Town begins on the first tee in the shadow of the clubhouse, looking out at the generous first fairway, which disappears from view down into a valley before rising to meet the green.

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Often, players will face an uphill shot from a downhill lie into the first green.

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Though the first green looks inviting, it has serious teeth.  The false front is visible in this photo, as is the abrupt falloff to the left of the green.  Indifferent approaches can land on this green and still end up 15 yards from the putting surface.

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The view back down the 1st hole, illustrating the rolling terrain and the spaciousness of the first fairway.

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Hole 2 – Par 3 – 145yds

A short par 3 that has been beautifully reworked by Coore & Crenshaw, the second plays slightly downhill over the same small creek that bisects the first fairway.

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The second green is wide, shallow and full of undulation.

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This view from behind the second green reveals some of the terrific available pin positions on this hole.

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Hole 3 – Par 4 – 361yds

The third hole plays back toward the clubhouse and ends the opening three-hole loop.  From the tee, the player sees only the flagstick and the looming bunker planted high on the right shoulder of the fairway.

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Cresting the hill reveals the low-left bunker, which, due to the firm and fast conditions and the slope of the fairway, plays much larger than its actual footprint.

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This view from behind the third reveals the internal mounding and the importance of being on the proper tier of the green.

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Hole 4 – Par 5 – 520yards

A quick walk past the clubhouse and down a small pathway brings the golfer to the fourth tee.  The remaining 15 holes at Old Town are laid out on the northern side of the clubhouse.  The first par 5 on the course, the fourth hole becomes reachable with a well struck tee shot, as any ball that clears the crest of the hill will bound past the trees at the corner of the dogleg.  For longer hitters, however, this is one of the tighter tee shots on the golf course.

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After reaching the crest of the hill, the course opens up to the golfer.  The hole itself doglegs right and follows the tree line down the hill.

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Those who don’t (or, like me, can’t) reach the green in two face either a short, sharply downhill approach or a half-wedge from the bottom of the hill into the third green.

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This view from the right side of the fourth green reveals the wonderfully nuanced putting surface.

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This view from the right rear portion of the fourth green shows both the fairway’s long descent and the expansive nature of the property.

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Hole 5 – Par 4 – 354yds 

The fourth tee is carved into a sheltered nook on the side of a hill.  The sixth green is visible to the left.  A perfect draw will shorten this hole considerably, as it is possible to carry the bunkers set in the inside corner of the dogleg.  Another tee shot with a variety of options for the player.

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The fifth green is benched into a small hill at a far corner of the property.  This green slopes substantially from high left rear to low right front, making accuracy critical on this short approach.

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This view from behind the fifth green shows the contour of the fairway and the steepness of this green.  The sun is providing a helpful spotlight on the area from which you do not want to be putting at today’s hole.

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Hole 6 – Par 3 – 173 yards

The beautiful sixth hole plays back toward the fifth tee.  This hole offers a clinic in visual deception.  From the tee, the large bunker on the right looks to be greenside, but in fact there are forty-plus yards between its back edge and the putting surface.  Add to that a horizon green with no landmarks between it and the far hillside and a green that falls away dramatically on all sides and the player is confronted with a fun puzzle. Long or left is no picnic.

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The view from the sixth green is one of the prettiest on the golf course.  No fewer than half the holes on the golf course are at least partially in view from here.

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Hole 7 – Par 4 – 340yds

Once more, the player is confronted with options off the tee.  Challenge the bunkers on the left and have a better angle and a flatter lie into the tiny seventh green, or bail out to the ample fairway to the right and face a more uphill second from a less favorable angle?  A gorgeous, fun hole.

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The approach to the seventh green, seen here through the morning raindrops, presents one of the more difficult short shots on the golf course.  In addition to the small green, the player must contend with a long bunker running along the high side of the green (no easy task getting up and down from there) and more bunkers and a falloff to the right.

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The view back down the seventh hole.

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Hole 8 – Par 4 – 358yds

The tee shot on the eighth hole is blind to the player, as the fairway drops out of view past the first bunker.  Like Lanny Wadkins was fond of saying, the dome and steeple of the Wake Forest library provides an aiming point (barely visible in this photo at the tree line above the bunker).

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Reaching the crest of the eighth fairway provides one of the most thrilling views at Old Town – the downhill approach to the immense green shared by the eighth and seventeenth holes.  The eighth plays to the red flag on the left.  An absolutely exceptional use of a double green, and a truly special feature of this golf course.

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This view from the left side of the double green shows just how much contour this massive green contains. The two pins are about 200 feet apart.  The high point of the green is in the middle, and each side has plenty of interest of its own.  During our round, Will was faced with a nearly 100 foot putt from the high rear portion of this green — his picture perfect putt hit the hole and somehow lipped out.

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From behind the double green, the player is presented with a panoramic view of the seventeenth, eighth, ninth and eighteenth (out of frame to the right) fairways, each of which join together to create a swath of fairway several hundred yards wide.  Quite a sight.

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Hole 9 – Par 4 – 360yds

In sticking with the shared theme, the ninth and eighteenth holes share a tee box, with a directional stone pointing the golfer in the right direction.  Both holes play back toward the clubhouse.

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The refreshing openness of Old Town is felt during the walk up the shared eighth and ninth fairways.

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The ninth doglegs right around the trees, with the sharply banked fairway and firm conditions helping to scoot the well struck tee shot around the corner and into a position from where the green can be reached.  On the flip side, not many level lies are to be found on the ninth, making the approach to an elevated green more difficult.

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The view back down the beautifully natural ninth hole (one of my favorites at Old Town).

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Hole 10 – Par 4 – 389yds

Holes 10 through 13 play along the edge of the property at Old Town.  The tenth begins with a tee shot over a rise in the fairway that obscures the landing area from the player’s view.

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The approach to the tenth is one of the most enjoyable on the golf course.  While all golfers profess to love firm and fast conditions, it is only when a golf course takes advantage of such conditions to enhance the playing experience that a player really sees their true value.  Old Town’s tenth is such a hole.  The approach plays slightly downhill to a small green that slopes left to right.  Target golf is available here, but a miss right is deep trouble.  The golfer also has the option of playing a low running shot over the left bunker, which is far short of the green, and watching his ball take the natural contours of the land to bound down and to the right on to the putting surface.

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As this view from behind shows, the terrain and the seamless transition from fairway to green practically begs the player to show off his ground game.

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Hole 11 – Par 3 – 170yds

One of the prettiest holes at Old Town, the eleventh hole plays downhill to a green guarded up the right side by a small creek.

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Again, the player has the option of running the ball on to this rather well defended green.  This view from the left side of the eleventh also shows the shared fairway of the eighth and seventeenth holes.

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A gorgeous setting for golf.

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Hole 12 – Par 4 – 409yds

Options – there are many at Old Town.  At the twelfth, the player must navigate an alley of trees before reaching the wide, open fairway.  But before hitting the shot, the player must decide whether to play up the high left side of the fairway, leaving an approach that is slightly shorter but blind to the green and likely from a sidehill lie, or to play right to a lower, flatter part of the fairway from which the green is visible, but from which a longer approach is required.

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The twelfth green is benched nicely into a small hillside, and again, this green is receptive to a low, running shot.  The massive back left bunker provides visual interest and makes the green appear far smaller than it is.  The bunker is visible from many different parts of the golf course.

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The variety of the landforms and terrain at Old Town is staggering, as this view back up the twelfth hole shows.

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Hole 13 – Par 4 – 419yds

The thirteenth hole plays slightly uphill initially and over a small rise.  The ample fairway can be deceiving, as the approach from the left side is far preferable to the right.

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Some golfers will find the approach on 13 the longest of the day.  This green occupies the westernmost extreme of the property at Old Town, and once again, a low running shot is welcomed here . . .

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. . . as the fairway runs downhill and seamlessly into the green.

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Hole 14 – Par 4 – 354yds

The fourteenth hole at Old Town is, quite simply, one of the best short par four holes I’ve played.  The fairway slopes high right to low left, with the ideal position off the tee largely dependent on which way the player likes to work the ball on the approach.  A tee shot to the high right side leaves a perfect look at the green but presents a hook lie, while playing to the low right side off the tee leaves a flat lie but requires an uphill approach to a green largely out of sight.

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The right side of the fairway allows a full view of the green but increases the likelihood of the deadly left miss.

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The steep fall off short and left of the fourteenth green is severe.  The approach is complicated by the subtle false front – anything coming up short will roll all the way back down the slope, leaving a very difficult pitch back up to the green.

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Shots that miss long left run the risk of reaching the hazard.  It’s a short approach, but one rife with challenges.

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A spectacular hole.

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Hole 15 – Par 3 – 180yds

The last, and the longest, par three at Old Town, the fifteenth plays back along the creek bordering the previous hole.

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Though the fifteenth green is generous in size, the internal contours allow for pin placements that can change the dynamic of the hole considerably, as this picture from the fourteenth fairway shows.  Pins on the right side are particularly challenging.

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Hole 16 – Par 4 – 354yds

A short hole that plays longer due to the change in elevation, the sixteenth sits on some of the most “extreme” terrain at Old Town.  The tee shot plays uphill to a landing area canted from high left to low right, making the ideal aiming point farther left than it appears from the tee.  The righthand bunker is not in play but frames the tee shot nicely.

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The sixteenth fairway crests and then plunges downhill, where it flattens briefly before abruptly rising again to the green.  Longer hitters can reach the downslope, but must decide whether they prefer a shorter shot to a green far above them, or a longer shot to a green at the same elevation.  The sixteenth was one of my favorite holes at Old Town.

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This view from behind the sixteenth green shows both the varied slopes within the putting surface and the rolling terrain that must be negotiated to reach it.

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Hole 17 – Par 5 – 555yds

The seventeenth is a gorgeous par 5 that proudly displays the best of what Old Town has to offer.  From the elevated tee just steps from the sixteenth green, the player is afforded one of the best views on the golf course.  The small creek forces the player to a decision – to the left is an easier carry but will require the high route into the green, while to the right provides a better the approach shot along the low route.

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The large ridge that must be negotiated on the second shot.  The bunker in the center of the fairway breaks up the visual while providing a small but menacing hazard.

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After cresting the ridge, the player once more gets to play to the wonderful double green, this time from an oblique angle and to the right hand side.  The high left side allows a full view of the green . . .

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. . . while the low side allows a shorter third from a level position.

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This view from just behind the green illustrates how the seventeenth provides plenty of room but requires careful thought and solid decision-making for each shot.  A standout par 5.

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Hole 18 – Par 4 – 417yds

The finishing hole at Old Town plays parallel and to the right of the ninth hole.  The bunkers on the left side of the fairway gather everything in the vicinity, as the fairway slopes and feeds directly to them.

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The approach to the well-bunkered eighteenth green provides one final test for the golfer.

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The view from behind the day’s final pin shows the long, gentle climb up from the seventeenth to the eighteenth green.

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Old Town is a true gem with a wonderful vibe and is, most importantly, an extremely fun place to play golf.  The members here are a happy, welcoming, friendly bunch and with a golf course like this, it is easy to see why, as they must always be in a good mood.  Many thanks to Will Spivey, my excellent host and playing companion, who was kind enough not only to invite me for a round but generous enough to share his substantial knowledge about his course.  Many thanks also to Dunlop White, a great ambassador for Old Town and a true asset to the club, who was nice enough to chat with me at several points throughout the day about the course and the improvements made.

The beautiful home green and clubhouse as dusk approaches.

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Thanks for reading.  I hope you enjoyed the tour.


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Copyright 2017 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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One for the Ages – A Weekend at Prairie Dunes

Gunch: The epitome of everything dirty and nasty.

Gunch is the word that the staff and members use for the native areas that line the holes at Prairie Dunes.  The definition above is fitting.  The gunch is the sole aspect of Prairie Dunes that is not perfectly pleasurable.  The staff is welcoming, the land is beautiful, and the course is a work of Maxwell genius.

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My weekend visit to Prairie Dunes was not just a golf trip.  It was an immersion experience in everything that is great about the game.  A full photo tour is below with my commentary about the course and its architecture.  A few thoughts about the experience:

The first thing that made this trip great was the company.  I have mentioned this in previous posts about my trips to SE Michigan and Boston this year, but it’s worth saying again – golf adventures are infinitely better in the right company.  I was fortunate to spend my weekend at Prairie Dunes with my buddies Chuck, Derek, and Michael.  Not only are they genuinely good guys and fun to be around, but from my perspective, they get it.  They are well traveled, and they have had direct exposure to golf course architects and developers.  They have refined tastes and understand that there are reasons why a course like Prairie Dunes is great, beyond its inclusion on Top 100 lists.

The second thing that made this trip and all-timer was how we played.  From Saturday at 7:30am until Sunday at 2:30pm we played 90 holes (Michael tacked on an extra 18 after sunset on Saturday).  We had fun matches for small stakes, we played from almost every tee on the course, we took turns calling shots, we smiled, we laughed and we talked a lot of golf.  It doesn’t get geekier or more joyous.

And last but not least, the course made this trip one that I will never forget (and one that we are already planning to repeat).  Prairie Dunes is the total package of beauty, variety, strategy, art, and fun.  On to the tour…


PRAIRIE DUNES COURSE TOUR

(click on photos to enlarge)

PrairieDunes-Clock.jpegPrairie Dunes is the joint work of the father and son, Perry and Press Maxwell.  For more on the course history, I suggest the relevant chapter in Anthony Pioppi’s book To The Nines, and Ran Morrissett’s course profile on GolfClubAtlas.com.  Although they never worked on the course together, the holes they created work beautifully together.  There are noticeable style differences, but no weaknesses in either.  The consensus in our group, after much discussion, was that the course is stronger for the variety.

From the tee, the course is as strategic as any I have played.  Not so much because of the placement of hazards, although there are plenty of killer bunkers and gunch.  It is strategic because of the angular play.  On almost every hole, the player is confronted with a decision to make about how best to get in position to approach the green given the wind and pin position.

The greens at Prairie Dunes are in the conversation for the best set on the planet, and for good reason.  Michael referred to them as potato chips, which was perfect.  They are glorious, artful potato chips that provide endless fun in the approaches, the short game, and putting.

To bring it all together, the course is perfectly maintained to accentuate its attributes.  It is a role model for tree management.  Fairways are kept wide, firm and fast, and the first cut of rough is playable.  Green speeds are quick, but reasonable.  It is mint.

One can easily see how Prairie Dunes has influenced Bill Coore and other top modern architects, and players are lucky for that influence.

#1 – Par 4 – 435 yards – Perry Maxwell

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The opener is a solid dogleg left par-4 that gives a first taste of what’s to come throughout the course.  A variety of lines can be taken off the tee, and it is always best to know and account for the pin position when approaching the undulating green.

 

#2 – Par 3 – 161 yards – Perry Maxwell

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The second is the first of the world class set of one-shotters.  It plays uphill to a tiered green benched into a hill.

 

#3 – Par 4 – 315 yards – Press Maxwell

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The third is one of many great short 4-pars at Prairie Dunes.  It plays at an angle left off the tee, tempting the player to bite of more than they perhaps ought to – especially given the challenge in holding the green from awkward distances.

 

#4 – Par 4 – 168 yards – Press Maxwell

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The fourth is another wonderful short par-3.  It almost feels like the son’s homage to the father’s second hole.  Unlike the second though, the 4th will accept running shots on the left side that feed into the center of the green.  Judging distance in the wind is an especially fun test.

 

#5 – Par 4 – 418 yards – Press Maxwell

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The par-4 fifth plays uphill and into a prevailing wind to an elevated green.  It is much more stout than the yardage on the card.

 

#6 – Par 4 – 370 yards – Perry Maxwell

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The course returns to Perry’s holes with the sixth.  A devilish little downhill par-4 with a fantastic green.

 

#7 – Par 5 – 512 yards – Perry Maxwell

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The 7th features a semi-blind tee shot and plays back to a green set near the clubhouse.  The green is surrounded by some of the most beautiful bunkering on the entire course.

 

#8 – Par 4 – 440 yards – Perry Maxwell

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Prairie Dunes’s signature hole is a roller coast ride of a par-4 that plays up to the top of a hill, and then over a valley to an elevated green that you really don’t want to miss.

 

#9 – Par 4 – 426 yards – Perry Maxwell

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This straightaway two-shotter requires a carry over the gunch followed by an exacting approach to a green divided into sections by internal contours.  Being in the wrong section makes a two-putt a challenge.

 

#10 – Par 3 – 185 yards – Perry Maxwell

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Described by Maxwell as his finest par-3, the green is set among the dunes.  It is a sublime little hole that is perfectly capable of exacting punishment.

 

#11 – Par 4 – 453 yards – Press Maxwell

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The eleventh is a big, long par-4, but success or failure on the hole is determined by something little – a mound front and center of the green that can send a misplaced approach any which way.

 

#12 – Par 4 – 390 yards – Press Maxwell

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I have never enjoyed a hole where trees dictated strategy more than the 12th at Prairie Dunes.  Lay back and leave room to play over them, or take them on and leave a short approach?  There is no right decision, but whatever choice is made, the player better execute.

 

#13 – Par 4 – 395 yards – Press Maxwell

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Yet another angled fairway that forces the player to pick a distance and a line and make a confident swing.  Weak approaches are sent back by the false front on this elevated green.

 

#14 – Par 4 – 377 yards – Press Maxwell

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An elevated tee reveals the green, but not the landing area for the drive, which is obscured by a large hump.  To further confound the player, the green is tiered, with the lower tier hidden in back.

 

#15 – Par 3 – 200 yards – Press Maxwell

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The gap between the trees is bigger than it appears on this uphill par-3, but try telling that to your mind as you stand on the tee with a long iron in your hand and the wind blowing.

 

#16 – Par 4 – 408 yards – Press Maxwell

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The sixteenth plays uphill to a green guarded by bunkers front left and right, and a steep-sloped runoff back right.  The final Press hole begins the tough closing stretch.

 

#17 – Par 5 – 500 – Perry Maxwell

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This par-5 plays uphill over a rolling fairway to a green perched on a high point on the property.  It is simple, with just one bunker, but is plenty demanding with a green that propels weak approaches down a steep bank right.  My favorite hole on the course.

 

#18 – Par 4 – 382 yards – Perry Maxwell

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The home hole is the perfect culmination of the Prairie Dunes experience – an angled tee shot, playing downhill to a heaving fairway and then back up to one final genius green fronted my a mound left and surrounded by rugged bunkers.  The player is left wanting for nothing, except for a return trip right back over to the first tee.


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Copyright 2016 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf