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.”
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.
Crystal Downs is a schizophrenic experience. The front nine shows all of Alister MacKenzie’s skills at routing, bunker design and shaping undulating greens. Most of the back nine, however, is comparatively mundane.
While often included in the top ranks of MacKenzie courses, it does not fit at all in the company of Cypress, Royal Melbourne West, ANGC or New South Wales. Mackenzie arrived here on his way from California to England and local lore has it that he was quite sullen on the drive up from Grand Rapids. On seeing the land below the clubhouse, where a rudimentary nine hole course had been laid out by a local landscape architect, he brightened considerably.
There he built nine new holes taking superb advantage of the rather hilly ground to find excellent green sites and provide strategic alternatives for tee shots. Number 7 is the finest example of the latter with its unusual boomerang-shaped green. The tee shot on number 5 provides four different routes and there is little consensus among members as to which is the most advantageous. After completing detailed drawings, Mackenzie left the implementation to colleague Perry Maxwell.
Alas, the land allotted for the back nine did not offer MacKenzie the opportunities he found on the front. While there are strong holes at 11, 17 (a driveable par 4), and 18 (with its Cape hole drive), most of it is on comparatively featureless land. Moreover, the out and back routing contrasts greatly with sinuous layout on the front.
The greens are usually very quick, with 11-11.5 the Stimpmeter target when the weather allows. Combined with the Perry Maxwell "rolls", there are many opportunities to putt the ball right off the green. Needless to say, leaving approach shots below the hole is of paramount importance. The running game is on at almost every green site, which does helps with that challenge.
The front nine rates 6 balls on the Top100 scale, but the back only 4.
Finally I pulled up the entrance drive to the soaking wet, nearly deserted golf club on the shore of Lake Michigan. As I feasted my eyes on Crystal Downs, my thoughts of “beautiful day, beautiful drive, even if I don’t get to play” went right out the window. “This place looks awesome and I really want to play here,” I thought. The clubhouse is underwhelming, and the pro shop is simple and functional. Crystal Downs is all about the course, not opulent amenities, and it’s one of golf architecture’s relatively unheralded masterpieces. Larry Berle.