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 improvements to 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.
Doubtlessly, Crystal Downs is a national treasure.
Like most Mackenzie courses, Crystal Downs has diabolical, fast greens that add a significant defense against scoring well and most times make for very interesting U.S. Open like conditions. It is not uncommon on some greens for putts or approach shots to roll twenty yards off the green. Second, most days the wind is pretty breezy or howling off lake Michigan or Crystal Lake (the course is situated on a thin stretch of land between the two lakes) adding more difficulty. Other elements that cause difficulty are uneven lies and long Scottish like heather throughout the course.
Mackenzie also utilizes some interesting design elements not found on many courses. For instance, the tee shot on hole six must carry up a severely upward sloping fairway to the top of the hill to have a viewable approach shot to the green; if not, the ball will roll twenty to forty yards back down the fairway making for a longer blind approach shot. Hole seven at 290 yards is short but complicated by a horseshoe green that bends its way around a big bunker; a shot which catches the wrong portion of the green almost certainly guarantees a three putt. Hole eight, a long par five, requires players to position their second shot on the right side of the fairway to have a much flatter lie and then consequently hit an uphill shot to a small rolling green perched on top of a hill; if the shot does not carry to the green then the ball will catch the fairway and roll forty yards down the fairway.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that Crystal Downs is the one course that I can think of that requires a lot of course knowledge to play at your best; it’s a course that really requires players to be a student of. Overall, Crystal Downs is certainly one of the best.