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.”
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.
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.