Last year I received an invitation to attend the Senior PGA Championship at Harbor Shores Golf Course in Michigan. The invite stated that I would be watching the tournament in person and then on Monday morning I'd tee off before anyone else, playing the same tournament conditions. This was a no brainer for me as I love a good challenge. I was in!
My plan was to rent a car in NYC and play some select courses on my way to Michigan.
Upon looking at the map I realized I would be quite close to one of my bucket list courses: Crystal Downs in Frankfort, Michigan. After playing Pasatiempo golf course years ago in California and falling in love with the way Alister MacKenzie designed the course, I knew I had to try and find a way to play Crystal Downs, another MacKenzie masterpiece.
This was not going to be easy - very few outsiders get to play the course. Playing with a member is your only chance and I didn’t know any. I decided my best chance might be to just reach out to the club during the winter when things were slow, so I did just that. The answer was a quick and resounding no. I knew this was probably going to be the answer but you gotta start somewhere, right?!
My next move was to send my book, "Peaceful-Golf: A Journey Into The Unknown" to the Head Pro of 40+ years, Fred Muller, and express my keen interest in MacKenzie architecture as well as my interest in Perry Maxwell, the assistant architect on site during most of the Crystal Downs construction. Maxwell's Southern Hills, Oklahoma course blew me away when I first saw it at the 2001 U.S. Open. Dr. Alister MacKenzie only spent 10 days on site at Crystal Downs and never even saw the finished course! For me, Crystal Downs would be more than just a round of golf; this was an architectural history lesson. I love imagining the world during the 1920s and 30s and the obstacles these great architects encountered while building the true golf masterpieces around the world. Just getting to these tracks of land was a struggle. MacKenzie was putting the finishing touches on Cypress Point in California when he was approached about the land at Crystal Downs. It took some convincing because 1. he considered the relatively flat Michigan land to be unsuitable for a world class golf course, and 2. he was eager to return home to London after being in California for such a long time. But due to the prodding of Robert Hunter, golf architecture author, MacKenzie made his way up to this remote part of the Americas.
Immediately upon seeing the site he knew a great course was possible. The land sits on a small strip between Lake Michigan and the smaller Crystal Lake. The whole of the land essentially rests on a giant sand dune, providing perfect soil for creating a golf course.
A couple of months had passed and still no response from Fred Muller. I even mentioned in my original letter that playing wasn’t necessary and just walking the course would be enough. I wanted to see the course any way I could. But at this late stage my prospects of playing, or even viewing, the notorious Crystal Downs, looked bleak.
Finally, about a month before I hit the road, I received a surprise, but much welcomed, call from Fred Muller! He thanked me for my book and letter and told me he would be happy to have me as his guest for the day. He would organize a game for us with some members and would give me a firsthand tour of the course. This was beyond exciting and I couldn’t stop thanking him for the opportunity. I was on my way!
After my Monday round at Harbor Shores, that was beyond cool with the stands up and around the entire course, it was off to "The Downs", as the members call it.
I arrived at my modest hotel the night before my round so I could settle in and be completely rested for this once and a lifetime opportunity. The surrounding small country towns are full of summer folks looking to enjoy beautiful Michigan scenery.
I was tempted to do a quick drive-by at dusk and see if I could get a glimpse of the course. So I did just that! To my surprise, Crystal Downs is not enclosed by a big fence or any type of gate excluding anyone. I took a slow drive around the perimeter and snapped a few pics.
The next morning I awoke ready to go! I headed into town and found a small greasy spoon, The Lighthouse Cafe, which had some of the best pancakes I had on the entire trip. A huge lumberjack breakfast was under $10 - a far cry from NYC where $10 gets you a side of bacon. The whole vibe at Crystal Downs was that of relaxation and community. This wasn’t some high-scale, elite Hamptons vibe. This was a grassroots/folksy feel and it was just what I needed.
As I pulled up the driveway I saw what looked like an understated rustic home, reminding me of a modest lake house. It turns out that was the pro shop. I walked in and spotted three gentlemen sitting in the corner talking. I recognized Fred and introduced myself immediately. He shook my hand and introduced me to two members that we would be playing with, Brandt and Ken. After some short pleasantries he said we should all head to the range and warm up. I was so excited that I never even got a picture of the range. In fact, this was one of the few times I didn’t take enough pictures. I felt that as a guest it might be rude to be snapping nonstop photos. I did ask Fred and the members if it was ok that I take some pictures and they all said it was fine - just no talking on the phone or texting. This is never an issue for me as I have a self imposed rule of no electronics on the course...ever. The camera is the one exception. I want to fully immerse myself in the course and the people I play with. Golf is about connecting with so many aspects of life. Texting and talking on a phone ruins the experience for me.
After the range it was off to the first tee. This is where I met my caddie, Ben, who was not only a great young man but also the son of famed architect Mike DeVries, who designed numerous courses in Michigan with the Kingsley Club being his top design.
Fred would be playing his hickory sticks and being a 5x national hickory champion, it was going to be a blast to see the course played the way it was originally meant to be. Fred and I walked, giving us time to get to know each other and discuss the design and history of Crystal Downs.
The view from the first tee allows you to look out over the entire front 9. The tee shot is elevated and drops pretty severely. The landing area looked wide open so I gave the first swing a mighty lash, landing dead center in the fairway. As we walked down the first fairway, Fred was quick to point out that the real test at The Downs would be the greens. In fact, Fred, who has played all over the world, told me he considers the 18 greens at Crystal Downs to be the best MacKenzie greens in the world - even better than Augusta! This was a serious claim. I have yet to play Augusta (hopefully that day comes sooner than later) but if the Downs' greens are better than what I’ve seen on TV for 40+years, this was going to be quite the day.
Sure enough, after Fred instructed me to be left and below the hole on my approach (which I accomplished) I could see the severity of the greens. The greens have never been updated. They are the original shape and design and to say each has their own character would be an understatement. Each green has a unique pattern of humps and bumps. The false fronts and tabletop slants makes your approach shots extremely important.
Good greens are like lines and wrinkles on a person's face: the more weathered the more stories that person has to tell. The greens here resemble a hundred year old face with enough stories to fill an encyclopedia. I personally have never seen a set of greens that evokes such character and challenge. Period. Full stop!
The second hole heads back uphill to another challenging green. I listened to the group about the best area to land my approach after another great drive. I struck the ball perfectly, right where I was told, and thought I might have a 3 foot birdie putt because it was flying directly at the pin. Unfortunately, the ball hit the stick and rebounded off the green, leaving me a challenge to get up and down. Luckily I did just that.
The 3rd hole is in a word...sublime. The par 3 is slightly downhill with a green that sits sideways to the tee, making a front pin and a back pin a tough test to solve. I went back and forth on club selection and ended up choosing poorly with a 7 iron (an 8 would have been the best choice), leaving myself on the back edge putting downhill to a front pin. After a disappointing 3 putt I came to realize that my club selection was going to be critical if I was going to score here.
The 5th through the 8th hole might be the best stretch on the course, but that’s just my opinion. Nearly every hole out here is a signature hole. The thing I love about the 5th hole is the multiple options on the tee and approach. I decided to take driver and fade it over the hill. One must be careful though - a drive hit too far on this line will end up in the rough or woods due to the severity of the slope on the other side of the hill.
The second shot is no easy task either. Fortunately for me the flagstick was in one of the easier locations in a bowl on the right side. Any shot that hits left of the pin will funnel to the hole. I had about 10 feet for birdie and missed. Did I mention the greens are tough?
The 6th was the only fairway I missed on the day and I was still in the first cut on the left side. After a stellar approach shot to a tight back pin, I tapped in an easy par.
The 7th hole is a relatively simple driving hole, but the second shot will wow you. The green is a horseshoe style which can cause a real problem if you don’t hit the correct side. There are spots on the green that are inaccessible to putting if you're out of position. Can you say flop shot on the green? As a guest those words didn’t even enter my mind! I just made sure to hit it where I was told and took another disappointing par after missing a short birdie putt.
The 8th hole is a long uphill par 5 that has a ledge that will propel your ball into the right position to get home in 2 if you can reach it. With a slight breeze in our face and my high ball flight, I missed it by a few yards. As you can see here the ground is a rumpled mess of beautiful. In fact, this hole was selected a few years ago for Golf Digest's Top Par 5s In the US.
For my second shot I positioned myself perfectly around 100 yards out of the left side. I then proceeded to hit my wedge right at the stick. Being a novice to Crystal Downs cost me dearly. The members know all too well that hitting at this pin when its on the left is a huge mistake, and that's just what I unknowingly did. The left side is tilted back to front which means any wedge hit from the fairway will certainly have spin, as did mine. The proper play is about 15 feet right of the stick. Standing in the fairway asking Ben if the shot was good, only to see it then roll off the front about 20 yards, told me everything I needed to know. This one mistake really got in my head. I began mentally blaming the caddie and everything else in the world during the next 3 or 4 minutes, resulting in not only a duffed chip but also one of the worst 3 putts from 15 feet! After walking away with a double, I only had myself to blame for the loss of attention. It's not the number 1 handicap for no reason.
Walking to the 9th tee I settled down and quieted my mind. I then struck a perfect tee shot on the par 3, leaving myself with about 16 feet for birdie. A slippery down hiller sniffed the hole then decided it didn’t like the smell and left me with a testy 4 footer that I drained with ease.
We stopped by the pro shop for a quick hiatus for a glass of refreshing lemonade and a few more stories from Fred and the members.
Hearing Fred talk about playing years ago with the likes of Bobby Jones Jr and then later with Tom Doak, also a member, was beyond cool. HIs praise for Doak was high. Fred considers him to be the best designer alive today and highly respects his creativity. He had some harsher words for a few other designers but as my mom always says, if you don’t have something nice to say...
After listening to Fred, it's hard to argue that many of today's designers are repeatedly sticking with the same formula and not really pushing through to new realms.
The 10th hole looks easy enough but as are most holes at The Downs, looks are deceiving. The green is a true table-top and any shot not on the right area of the green will leave a treacherous putt. I hit my approach shot 6 inches too far, leaving me with a downhill chip that I was lucky to keep on the green. If my ball was 6 inches shorter I would have had a tap in birdie. That's the fine line you play when you come to Crystal Downs.
Make no mistake about it - you don’t come here for a leisurely stroll; you come here to test your game and see where it stacks up against one of the greatest designers in history. All this doesn’t mean Crystal Downs isn’t fun. It’s beyond enjoyable, even if your score is terrible! The topography and variety of challenges makes it one of the best walks in golf. I myself was given great insight into my short game and the improvement it requires. Living in the middle of NYC means the short game gets almost no work throughout the year as only a driving range is available inside the confines of Manhattan.
The 11th hole is a menacing short par 3. The pin was tucked on the front left corner. With no room to land the ball around the pin, I choose poorly and missed the green a few feet short. The chip was off a tight lie on an uphill side slope. I barely got the ball on the green about 6 feet from the pin. My putt did a full 360 and stayed out for another bogey.
The walk from the 11th to the 12th is the toughest between-holes walk. A straight uphill walk from the green to the 12th will certainly get your blood pumping and test your physicality.
The 12th is a deceptive par 4 straight off the tee. When you look out, you see a big tree on the right side of the fairway but this is an illusion. The tree is actually on the left side of the fairway- pictured here. The approach is challenging because the green slopes away from the player. Fred told me he thought a well struck running draw was a great play. I decided to take Fred’s advice and try the shot. I over cooked it a little left and ended up in the green side trap. My ball was near the lip and after a sand shot I was left with a 20 footer straight downhill. I drained the putt - one of only a few that found the bottom of the cup from beyond 5 feet. This was a great save and kept my score in reasonable standing.
The 13th is a fantastic hole. The tee shot asks you to fade the ball slightly around the corner using the natural slope to get a few extra yards. The one criticism I have of the course is the lack of forced draw shots. Not once was I forced to hit or draw to gain an advantage. I would have liked to see a shot or two like this off the tee, as testing a golfer means seeing different shot shapes.
The approach on 13 is tough. If the pin is in the back right, like the day I played, you had better know your yardages. The green runs away from you and is tilted from left to right. A baby fade about 10 feet left of the stick is your only chance to get it close. Without a doubt I consider this approach and green to be one of the best on the course.
The 14th is a par 3 that shines at The Downs. Reaching the furthest point away from the clubhouse, this short hole is anything but easy. It had a very intimidating infinity edge slope all along the back. Sometimes this effect is all show and no real danger. Not here. Hitting it long will leave you with an impossible up and down as the back is below the green by more than a couple feet.
The 15th is a short par 4 where the long hitters can reach in 1 shot. I am not a long hitter by tour standards so I decided to lay-up about 120 out. But once Brandt saw me reaching for my iron, he erupted, "You need to hit driver!" He was convinced that was the play for me - no question about it. With that, there was no going back. In contrast, Fred was quick to point out how that was not the safest choice. I took the chance anyway. I mean how many times am I going to play Crystal Downs in my life?! I striped it right down the middle between the two traps fronting the green, leaving me about 40 yards to the green. Definitely not the smart play but I was hitting it exceptionally well so why not go for it.
After missing another birdie putt it was off to the 16th tee. A beautiful par 5 that lets you grip it and rip it. I found the fairway and decided it was a bit far to make it in two so I laid up at 100 yards and made a nice par to a tricky pin position.
The 17th is a 300 yard par 4 that is the ultimate in risk reward. The risk far outweighs the gain in my opinion but once again, when the game is on, you need to challenge those risks. I went for it and was just short of the green.
I’m not so sure the layup is any easier as the sloping fairway means your shot will most certainly not end up anywhere near where it lands. I lipped out a birdie put and felt my chances for at least 1 birdie slipping away.
As we walked to the 18th, Fred gave me a truly great compliment. He said I was not a long hitter but certainly one of the most accurate drivers of the golf ball he had ever seen. This was beyond gratifying to hear. Years of hard work grinding on the tee, hitting millions of balls, had been acknowledged by one of the real ambassadors and teachers of the game. I was humbled.
The 18th is a dogleg right and after a perfect drive I had 150 left. A perfectly struck 9 iron left me with 4 inches for a tap in birdie!! As the saying goes, good things come to those who wait. A final round score of 75 on one of the most challenging courses in the world - I couldn’t be happier. Everyone in the group commented on what an exceptional round that was for my first time playing.
After the round we enjoyed a celebratory end-of-the-round drink on the back porch of the old post and beam style clubhouse. It might not have been the sub par round I dreamed of but it was a round at Crystal Downs and it was thrilling. My partners for the round were first class gentlemen and their welcoming nature was certainly evocative of the hospitality found in Michigan. If not for the goodwill of others I never would have had the chance to play this grand design set high on the dunes of North Michigan.For that I am most grateful.
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