Crystal Downs - Michigan - USA

Crystal Downs Country Club,
294 Crystal Downs Drive,
Frankfort,
Michigan (MI) 49635,
USA


  • +1 231 352 7979


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.”

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Reviews for Crystal Downs

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Description: Crystal Downs Country Club is set delightfully on a headland that is wedged between Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake in America’s Midwest. The course was designed by Alister MacKenzie and supervised by Perry Maxwell. Rating: 9.5 out of 10 Reviews: 18
TaylorMade
Steve MacQuarrie

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.

May 29, 2015
8 / 10
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steve smith
Maybe the best "short course" in the world. 1yr later and I still think about the 4th tee shot--"what should I hit off the tee?" and the 7th green---"are you kidding me?"The 8th is widely considered a great par 5, and the 11th is a green where you could have an uphill 4 footer and end up with a 40yrd pitch. I also love the 9th, both for it's uphillness, proximity to the clubhouse, and treacherous green and heather.Due to it's location, this course doesn't get it's due, but it's also part of the charm. Club pro Fred Mueller and his family are the gatekeepers for this quaint and world class golf course.
February 11, 2015
10 / 10
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10 people found this review helpful

Larry Berle
Alister MacKenzie, in my opinion, is the greatest golf architect to ever shape raw land into a golf course. He designed Augusta National, Cypress Point, Pasatiempo, Valley Club, and Crystal Downs, among others. He and Robert Trent Jones Sr., are the only two golf course architects to have been inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame… I had heard nothing but great things about Crystal Downs in Frankfort, Michigan, and I was looking forward to it with more anticipation than any other course on the Top 10 list.

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.
November 07, 2014
10 / 10
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9 people found this review helpful

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Keith Baxter
November 07, 2014
The above review is an edited extract from A Golfer’s Dream, which has been reproduced with the author’s kind permission. A Golfer’s Dream, by Larry Berle, tells the story of how a regular guy conquered America’s Top 100 Golf Courses (following Golf Digest’s 2001/2002 list). Larry has exclusively rated for us every course in the hundred, using our golf ball rating system. However, Larry did not rate the 100 courses against every golf course he has played, but instead he rated them in relation to each other within the hundred. Consequently, in some cases, his rating may seem rather low. A Golfer’s Dream is available in Kindle format and also on Kindle Unlimited via Amazon... click the link for more. 
Fergal O'Leary
Arguably the best front nine in all of golf. This is the most original MacKenzie course in existence with only 2 additions (not changes) to the golf course since its creation. The club added a back tee on the par 3 3rd hole and an alternate back tee on the par 4th hole. Downhill opener to a deep slither of a green lets you know that you’re in a big test right from the get-go. The prevailing wind is from the South, but if you’re unfortunate enough to be downwind on the 1st hole, you’ll quickly turn around and come back up to the 2nd hole into the wind which is not fun or easy. You just have to be brave on these greens as your patience will be taken to levels you didn’t think possible and your depth perception will go through a MacKenzie examination as soon as you step foot on the 1st tee. Holes 5 through 7 are all less than 380 yards but don’t let the yardage fool you. Any major winning pro would happily take par on this stretch. The 8th hole is an uphill par 5 and the local comment is “this is a 3 shotter, and each shot gets progressively harder”. Never have truer words been spoken. Like most top rated MacKenzie courses, par on any of his holes is a terrific score – so don’t come here with an attitude of superiority as you’ll be the one reaching into your wallet after 18 holes to pay off your debts. The only hole on the property which needs attention is number 13. It’s a par 4 with a forest on the right side, hitting to a green which severely slopes left to right with a over-sized mound on the left side of the green. This is not natural and not as MacKenzie designed it. Word on the street is that an architect is coming in to reduce/repair this green and return it to how it was supposed to be played. This green really doesn’t make sense and is not favoured by the members. Walking many of the greens, you’ll see red paint marks indicating the clubs plans to tweak the shape and scope of the greens to ensure they return to the original dimensions. The endless debate of which course has the best set of par 3s will go on forever, but on US turf, the par 3s at Crystal downs are epic. There are just world class holes everywhere the eye can see and this place will reset your interpretation of golf perfection. If I could play one course for the rest of my life, it would be Crystal Downs.
August 09, 2012
10 / 10
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John Petrovich
June 27, 2016
I could not agree more strongly with this reviewer's comments. I have played CD at least 70 wonderful times since 1990 always savoring the subtleties of the greens in every round. Although the course plays to a mere 6700 yards on any given day, be you not fooled about the course's need for distance and a gentle touch around the greens. I too, having only one golf course to play for eternity, would gladly choose old CD!
Lawson Gay
Crystal downs is quite simply a tough test of golf......the undulations used by Mackenzie and maxwell make the shotmaking on this course a must. The views from some of the higher tees are extraordinary. The fairways work both left and right and the greens roll true and fast. As a result you must place your shots in locations where u can attack the pin. And make sure that those placements are below the hole......2 of the 4 people I played with landed their ball near the hole on the 10th green and were welcomed with a chips shot from over 15 yards off the front of the green.....Some real memorable holes are the par 4 5th over a blind ridge to the fairway, the par 3 9th uphill to a small green that slopes back to the tee (bring an extra 2 clubs), the par 4 10th off a high tee then up the hill to a very difficult green to hold and the par 3 14th that looks out over the northern woods to lake Michigan........quite a viewIt is not an easy course to get to but well worth the trip....make it a must play.
February 19, 2012
10 / 10
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Brent
Well, there's not much else that needs to be said. I've played a lot of courses and The Downs is in that elite upper echelon. If you appreciate good architecture you simply must have a game there. MacKenzie and Maxwell were granted a wonderful canvas upon which to craft a layout. The front nine gets more praise but the back nine is subtly good. Pay attention to the details as you play the course. And one more thing, stay below the pin.
September 26, 2011
10 / 10
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Bill Vostinak
Crystal Downs is an enigmatic place as there is a spectacular piece of property utilized for the first nine (perhaps the story of the 9th being added as an after thought is true?!?!) holes which is utilized in such a way that there are so many fantastic play holes using natural terrain that one cannot wait for the second nine. Overall, I have to say that if one critically evaluates the golf course it has several flaws that often get swept aside in the flush of narcosis that envelops players on this course.

Many of the greens are spectacular in their designs but the contours combined with the modern agronomic advances have led to a disconnect of several of the greens from their complexes as a whole. Pin positions become unusable, entire greens (#11 in particular) become hazards unto themselves and it stops working as the club insists on extreme greens speeds. This has already led to wholesale changes at Mackenzie's Pasatiempo in California. Will Michigan follow California? Hopefully NOT! Also working against an extremely lofty (top 10 or 20) position for Crystal is the long disconnecting walk up from #11 to #12 and the relative banality of holes 12-16 compared to what has already come afore save some of their greens. After skillfully utilizing such fantastic land as holes 1-11 are built on, one walks straight up a paved path for far too long to reach nearly billiard-table land for a group of generally so-so holes. The par 5 16th is particularly disappointing as it has one of the less interesting green complexes following a virtual pasture of fairway deplete of any and all obstacles. #17 is either brilliant or brilliantly insane, but we do know that with tight fairways the hole will only play one or two ways in the end, sad for such a wonderful hilltop skyline greensite. Number eighteen is rather an ordinary hole with only a modicum of strategic thought required.

This certainly is a world-class course, but the mystery of how it remains so highly regarded with such flaws may perhaps be explained by its experiential and comforting qualities that one revels in imaging THIS among all others as one's home course. Never ever pass on an opportunity to play, but there are easily 20 better courses in the USA, perhaps 30.
August 18, 2007
8 / 10
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3 people found this review helpful

bsmith1080
I’ve been fortunate to play Crystal Downs several times over the years and it is simply one of the best hidden gems that one can find. A true Mackenzie masterpiece with a layout unlike any other course I’ve played. I’ve played a few other top ten courses in the world and Crystal Downs definitely holds its own against these courses. The front nine is laid out over more of an open parkland layout over tabletop terrain while the back nine winds its way more through the trees; however, trees do not really come into play on most holes.

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.
May 17, 2007
10 / 10
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Scott Moe
September 10, 2010
Outstanding golf course. Have been fortunate to play it a hand full of times. I am a college coach from Minnesota, in-laws live on the course, I have seen many of the best courses around the world, and this is my favorite! It is not very long, but it will eat you up if you are off line. It is a treat to play it, and I am fortunate to have had the chance.