Benjamin Merrick, a local Grand Rapids lawyer, coined the name Crystal Downs. He likened the vista from atop the hill (where the clubhouse now stands) to the rolling chalk downland found in southern England.
Set delightfully on a headland wedged between Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake in America’s Midwest, a rudimentary 9-hole layout was first brought into play in 1927, but this course was transformed and extended to 18 holes by Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell over succeeding years.
Maxwell supervised course construction, returning each summer to live in a farmhouse beside what is now the 8th fairway, until the back nine was finally completed in 1933.
“MacKenzie, who was making his way back across America with the intention of returning home to Scotland, along with his then associate Maxwell, was talked into a trip to the wilds of Northern Michigan.” Wrote Mike Stachura in American Classic Courses. “What they saw once they got to this pristine golfing land set on a 100-foot-high sand-ridge overlooking both Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan was an opportunity to work a magical piece of property.
MacKenzie would draw up the holes in the late 1920s, not long after finishing his work at Cypress Point and his touch-up work at Pebble Beach, and only a few years before his collaboration with Bobby Jones at Augusta National. Clearly at the height of his game, he created at Crystal Downs a series of unconventional but spectacular holes (the kidney-shaped green on the seventh hole is unforgettable), all of them legitimate challenges for even players of the highest ability both then and now. The combination of the setting, the ever-present wind off Lake Michigan, the staggered, undulating, angled fairways and the adventurous greens make Crystal Downs a unique challenge.”
Writing in The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Tom Doak explains that until the mid-1980s, Crystal Downs was genuinely Michigan’s hidden gem:
“Most people who known me have heard of Crystal Downs, the Alister MacKenzie course that lured me to northern Michigan as a college student in 1982, so it’s hard to explain how unknown the course was back then. The only person on the GOLF Magazine rating panel to have played the course was Jack Nicklaus, who visited on a summer trip with his parents as a young teen; even in Detroit, the most that you could find anyone to say about it was that they’d heard it was very good. I decided to investigate and fell in love with the course and the region.”
Fittingly, Renaissance Golf Design was involved with restoration of the 13th green and 14th tee before expanding the 2nd green in 2017. Hole locations in the middle and back tiers of of the 11th green were then scheduled for extension the following year.
Tom Doak commented as follows in his January 2020 newsletter:
“I only got over to play the course where I pay to belong for a half-dozen rounds last year, but I was also there for several days with Brian Schneider in September to rebuild the diabolical green at the par-3 11th. Our friends at the PGA Tour tell us they won’t use a hole location that has more than 2% of slope; I wonder what they would have made of the middle and back tiers of the 11th, which each had 6% of slope, separated by a tier that was 9%? We wound up lowering the back of the green by more than two feet to make it all work, and I think we are right on the cusp of people thinking we didn’t do enough.”
Tucked away about 40 minutes west of Traverse City is undoubtedly one of the best golf courses in the world, Crystal Downs. I got the opportunity to play “the downs” as the members refer to it earlier this June and it was incredible. The minute you step on to the property you feel like you’ve been taken back in time to the golden age, everything from the log clubhouse to the members playing cards in the pro shop area before they tee off was memorable. To me the signature feature of the golf course is the green complex’s, every single one has subtle breaks you wouldn’t understand unless you have played their many times. I recall on the par 5 eighth one of my playing partners being above the hole to which he barely got the ball rolling past the cup, it ended up 75 yards below the green surface with an impossible chip. That’s what protects the golf course, if your striking the ball well you can get yourself in good positions but if your not you can find yourself with impossible recovery shots and a big score looming. The Maxwell influence is evident all over the course from the bunkering to the rolling fairways very much reminiscent of Southern Hills whilst still having the quirky features Mackenzie greens always have. Undoubtedly one of the best set of golf holes you will find anywhere in the world and if your ever given the opportunity to play Crystal Downs, jump on it immediately.
The answer is undoubtably Crystal Downs if you ask "What is the best course most golfers have never heard of?" Hidden in a N. Michigan nook, without much infrastructure around lies the perfect test of golf. Tough greens, beautiful terrain and Lake Michigan wind. The fifth hole is a masterpiece as is the 7th, 8th, and 11th. The course is smart, fun and tough. I hope you get to enjoy it one. day.
There's been plenty of comments about this golfing gem and for the most part I agree wholeheartedly.
The outward half is tour de force golf -- you're enthralled the moment you step onto the 1st tee. The land provides the canvass MacKenzie brilliantly captured with the fullest range of golf shots one must play. It also helps Perry Maxwell played an invaluable role in bringing to the forefront the myriad of fascinating details on the various putting surfaces.
My issue deals with the less than stellar inward half. Yes, there are sterling holes at various points -- the par-3 11th springs to mind, the short par-4's at the 15th and 17th.
But the back nine also contains fairly banal holes -- although using the word "dull" would be a bit too strong of an application. The par-4's at the 12th and 13th are not to be trifled with but both do go in the same direction and are not unique in their differentiation. The par-5 16th is simply fair but pales in comparison to the all-world 8th. The par-4 10th is also just OK for what it presents.
And the finishing hole, to be charitable, is hardly compelling as a closer. It almost seems as if Mackenzie followed the same playbook that he carried out at Cypress Point.
The star power of Crystal Downs is that it can be so thorough in its examination even with a total distance just under 6,600 yards. Credit the vagaries of Mother Nature because there are times when the wind velocities off Lake Michigan can wreak havoc on one's scorecard and with it one's golf ego. The greens are like razor-wire -- the slightest miscue inflicts some serious cuts. Part of that issue may be subjecting players to green speeds at times pushing the edge of sanity. There's also the tenacious rough -- when thick and wet and one's ball nestles within its devilish clutches you must take your medicine or the pain will only increase.
The earlier comments from Bill Vostinak and Steve MacQuarrie ring true for me. Yes, Crystal Downs for many years toiled in the shadows from the ignorance of others, but the flip side has happened now and the rush to provide anointed sainthood needs a bit more introspection and deeper dive analysis.
Crystal Downs is the Creme de la Creme of one of the best golf states. If you have a chance to play this Mackenzie/Maxwell masterpiece do not skip it. The course has no weaknesses and many strengths but most memorable are the rolling fairways and amazing green complexes. I’ve only had one loop at Crystal but remember it vividly started cold with 25 mph winds then it rained on a fall day. Despite the weather this was a walk to remember and sits as an easy #2 out of my 450+ courses played. It’s no wonder some of today’s best like Doak & Devries studied and rave of the genius of Crystal. If this course was on the lake or near an ocean it would be top 10 in the world. Due to its location many golf travelers do not know just how good it is. With the additions of Kingsley Club and Arcadia Bluffs bringing attention and golf tourism to the area I imagine that won’t last. Hard to say a course seen by most as top 20 in the world is underrated but it is. Look forward to my next chance to play this Gem!
Crystal Downs is regarded as one of the top 100 courses in the world by the leading rating agencies and has reached as high as #14 in Golf Magazine's top 100 courses in the world, and #11 with Golf Digest.
It is probably no coincidence that modern day architects MIke De Vries and Tom Doak became membersSo Heather and I were privileged to meet Tom Doak for a game at Crystal Downs some years ago
Tom acted as a playing companion, caddie, and golf historian as we explored Crystal Downs for the first time It was a surreal experience
There was no pressure from behind so we were able to take our time exploring some of the greens, learning where the different pin positions affected the playing lines We certainly gained an appreciation for those greens- slick, pure and turning...
Crystal Downs is a walking course, but there is some significant elevation change at times which can test your fitness and ability to carry the ball
The course plays firm and fast with a lot of undulating lies but flight trajectory is just as important as length for both tee shots and approaching greens
A shot into a ridge rather than over it will often leave blind shots from further out- or more undulating lies... It is a course that you need to plot your way around, rather than overpower
And it is a course that you need to play over in different conditions, with a variety of pin positions, before you have any hope of knowing HOW to do the plotting! The execution is a whole other matter..
There are some world class holes at Crystal Downs- I loved the tee shot on five, the kidney shaped green on the seventh, and the dangerous approach on the short par four seventeenth- it's a short finishing hole that will wreck so many scorecards...
Notable holes include:
hole 1, a strong par four starting hole regarded as one of the great par 4's in golf
- hole 5, a short tricky par 4 considered one of MacKenzie's great holes
- hole 7, a short par 4 with unique kidney shaped green. It's a brilliant hole
- the par 5 eighth hole is regarded by many as one of the better par fives going around- you just never get an even lie
- the par 3 ninth hole plays a lot longer than it's length- the green is a fortress way up above the tee
- hole 11 is a longer par 3 uphill through a dell. You gotta be up, but not long!
- the par 3 fourteenth hole is a delightful one shotter with views of Sleeping Bear dunes as a backdrop
- the short par 4 seventeenth hole is only a driver and short iron, so what can go wrong?. A tight tee shot is followed by a perilous approach to a green sitting up high and surrounded by trouble
Crystal Downs CC is a classic McKenzie course in a beautiful remote setting. The club will rarely host tournaments or be televised. It will likely remain relatively unknown by the masses- but the true believers will know all about it and seek it out. They won't be disappointed!
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
I can't imagine any golfer not loving CD. Had the luck of befriending a member, and enjoyed my 2nd visit immensely, though I didn't play well. Everybody recognizes the greens are especially difficult, but the undulations in the fairways are equally daunting. Condition at the end of September was close to perfect. I've played most everywhere worth a damn and I would play this again anytime. One of the most original of America's great tracks and worthy of comparison to St Andrews or North Berwick in originality. Deserves its pedestal.
To suggest Crystal Down is special is a gross understatement. Everything about this property is uniquely perfect. Greens are so pitched they can’t run at PGA Tour speeds or no one would be able to stay on the putting surface. A period course that time forgot- and that makes it fantastic. I would check myself out of the hospital to play here again.
Crystal Downs is consistently near the top of golf course rankings and it is well deserved. While there are no weaknesses to the course, the greatest highlight is the greens. They play fast and have a lot of slope in spots. It requires some shotmaking strategy to hit the right part of greens or miss in the right spots. The front of the green is a good bailout on most greens, but lag putting is still not easy.
The views are beautiful from the tee boxes and the terrain is perfectly suited for golf. There are some very unique holes, such as the famous split fairway 5th and the 17th. If you love golf architecture and fantastic greens, this is a must visit.
The terrain that Crystal Downs is built on is hilly. Very hilly. On a par with a better known hilly course: The Olympic Club. At times when walking Crystal Downs you feel like a Billy goat.
The course was co-designed by Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell, who also designed Southern Hills and Prairie Dunes. I also see a lot of similarities between the fairways at Prairie Dunes and those at Crystal Downs. It looks like Maxwell had a lot of influence on the fairways and MacKenzie had a greater influence on the greens.
The greens at Crystal Downs are difficult enough because the course is built among the hills. The undulations and contouring that Mackenzie and Maxwell added in make them very challenging indeed. One of the things you discover very quickly playing Crystal Downs is that there is a premium placed on putting well.
The seventh hole has a tree in front of the green in the middle of the fairway. A well struck tee shot in the fairway requires you to hit over the tree onto a small undulating green. At 335 yards, you only have a short iron to the green, so it's a fair shot and genuine fun. The next hole, the 8th, on the other hand is a patently unfair hole. Clearly the most difficult handicap hole on the course, and by a lot. Sometimes an architect can go too far and I feel that they did so on this hole. The hole is a 550-yard par five that plays uphill, uphill and then uphill with wild slopes throughout the fairway. The green slopes from back to front and is very difficult to hold. Once on the green, it is too fast to hold putts.
I experienced the MacKenzie camouflage effect at Crystal Downs. I didn't find that I hit into many of the bunkers, but their presence really causes you to aim your shots in the wrong direction in a subtle way. On the 12th hole the tree that appears to be in the middle-to-right side of the fairway from the tee is amazingly on the left side of the fairway when you get up to it. On the 4th, 5th and 6th tee shots you almost don't know where to aim off the tee, there is such a mix of trees, bunkers, severe hills and native grasses. Crystal Downs justly deserves its world ranking as one of the best golf courses in the world.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
Crystal Downs as best as I can assess requires serious study to be able to play well and understand all the intricacies of. It also requires a lot of talent to post a decent score. To offer up an idea as to the how challenging the greens are, I’m a mid single hcper and can easily say putting is my strength and one of my favorite parts of the game yet Crystal’s greens are still laughing at me and I could hear my playing partner thinking don’t say I didn’t warn you.