Alister MacKenzie delayed a trip home to spend more time walking the land to perfect the routing. Perry Maxwell returned for several years afterward to ensure construction went according to plan. Tom Doak moved there as a young man to make it his home course, and remains a member and its consulting architect. By every ranking system and expert review, Crystal Downs is a masterpiece, one of the greatest golf courses ever built.
Mike DeVries grew up there, working in the pro shop and with the maintenance crew. Its captivating intricacies inspired him to his own career in architecture, with Cape Wickham in Australia and the Kingsley Club in Michigan to his name. The fifth hole at Crystal Downs is considered one of the world’s best short par 4s, with No. 8 often cited as one of the great par 5s. But forgive DeVries if No. 6 has his heart: No other hole on this staggering property has its combination of architectural brilliance and a moment with his grandmother that he’ll never forget.
Obligation to the land
While the name of the club came easy, the course did not. Club founder Walkley Ewing knew the spit of sandy turf overlooking both Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake was special. Its undulating nature caused a friend of his to remark that the terrain would be called “downs” in England. Pairing that with the crystal-clear waters of both lakes made the name inevitable.
Ewing had Eugene Goebel, a park planner from his hometown of Grand Rapids, design a rudimentary nine-hole course, open for play by midsummer 1927. But, as Ewing admits in the club history, they needed a do-over:
By the time we were in our first full season of play on the original Crystal Downs course, I had come to realize that quite possibly we had exceptional topography for golf and equally possibly we had muffed a rare opportunity for a truly great golf course. I wrote a long letter to Robert Hunter, author of a current book on golf architecture [The Links] that had impressed me deeply. I described the Crystal Downs terrain in a way I hoped would stir his interest and asked him to recommend a golf architect. In his reply, he wrote that Dr. Alister MacKenzie was, in his opinion, the greatest of them all and that our timing was perfect if we wished to see him, because…MacKenzie was about to return to London and, if I wished, he would attempt to prevail on him to stop off and see us on his way.
MacKenzie was anxious to return to England, but he and his American associate, Perry Maxwell, were persuaded. Ewing met them in Grand Rapids in October 1928 and brought them north to Crystal Downs. According to the club history:
[The property] created in Dr. MacKenzie an instant impression of near perfection and his enthusiasm for its possibilities caused him to delay his sailing. He and Maxwell worked almost around the clock until they had laid down holes and torn them up and laid them down again, emerging finally with the eighteen hole layout that we know today. They did it largely in the spirit of an obligation to the land.
Maxwell returned in the spring of 1929 to begin building the course and had the front nine completed that year, just as the stock market crashed. It took two additional years to complete the back nine, but he persevered, and the course today remains largely intact and true to its original design, still a par 70 just north of 6,500 yards.
The Crenshaw effect
Ben Crenshaw’s architecture partnership with Bill Coore has produced a litany of beautiful, highly regarded golf courses. And even though he’s never touched a blade of grass in the design of Crystal Downs, its members give Crenshaw a huge amount of credit for bringing the club into the spotlight.
Due to its remote location and small membership, Crystal Downs was largely unknown to the wider golf world for decades after its opening. That remained the case until 1986, when Crenshaw—two years removed from his first Masters win and regarded as one of the biggest stars in the game—was in Michigan for the Buick Open at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club. He’d heard rumors of the MacKenzie gem up north, so, ever curious about great design, he took a private plane to play Crystal Downs during tournament week. He went on to win the Buick Open, then raved about Crystal Downs in several post-round interviews. Soon after, gushing headlines appeared and the pilgrimages to northern Michigan began.
Around the same time, Tom Doak, an East Coast native and Cornell grad, arrived in the area. Inspired by the land and the course, he later settled there, and his first design, High Pointe Golf Club, opened in nearby Williamsburg in 1989. Crystal Downs remains his north star in his work around the world. “It’s really not like any other golf course that I can think of,” he told Golf Channel in 2012.
The inspiration continued into the 1990s, when Crystal Downs hosted a three-day event with members of seven other MacKenzie-designed courses. They formed and incorporated the Alister MacKenzie Society, which has since worked to research and preserve all of his designs.
I’m so fortunate to have grown up around the Downs and have it be such a big part of my personal and professional life. My grandfather introduced me to the game, and I began working in the pro shop when I was 14. I joined the grounds crew full time when I was 17 and worked there through undergrad. By then I knew I wanted a career in golf design and construction, and I met Tom while he was finishing High Pointe. We bonded over our mutual affection for the Downs, and he let me help complete the High Pointe build. Then he got me started in the industry, taking me on his team for nearly three years.
A surprise choice
It’s often said that Crystal Downs is broken into two very different nines, with the front open and flowing down from the high perch of the first and 10th tees, where the pro shop sits. The 10th and 18th holes occupy similar terrain, while the upper holes, Nos. 12 through 16, are situated on a high bluff and connected by the wooded 11th and 17th holes that transition to and from the upper elevation. The back nine is more linear in routing than the front and surrounded on the edges by forest, but the holes are outstanding, without an indifferent one among them. All 18 feature fierce putting greens with steep slopes, well-placed bunkers, uneven lies throughout the fairways and a natural feel that comfortably blends them into the surrounding landscape.
The variety of the landforms on the Downs is remarkable, but, more importantly, the flow from one hole to the next is seamless. Most of the tees are adjacent to the previous greens, and in the few instances where they aren’t, such as the elevation of the middle back-nine holes, the change is worth it. Those holes do not disappoint.
Larger landscape features cut across the site and tie together holes in different ways. A peak occupied by the first and 10th tees along with the ninth green offers a crescendo moment: memorable views of Crystal Lake and the front nine holes, and tee shots that drop precipitously to the fairways below. The ridge in the middle of the front nine defines the eighth fairway, the first green and the second and seventh tees before melding softly into the sixth green and fourth fairway. Farther south on the front is the deep valley that cuts through the fifth, sixth and seventh fairways as well as the drive on No. 8. These types of defining landforms, along with constantly twisting and convoluting terrain, affect golfers’ shots in every imaginable way. It’s a major reason why members consider the Downs an enduring test for a lifetime.
While many believe No. 5 is one of the best short par 4s in the world, and I’ve heard so many compliments about No. 8, the sixth is my favorite hole for a variety of reasons. I believe it has the best fairway bunker complex in the world, and the best green in the world, and the contour of the land, combined with the varying winds, makes playing it interesting every day.
No. 6 is a short par 4 sandwiched between two other great short 4s, making for a run of holes that on first glance appear to be quite gettable, yet you rarely go through them in even par, let alone better. The variety in the three holes provides an endless amount of interest; you could play them in continuous succession without ever tiring.
From the sixth’s original tee at 351 yards, the regular player is asked to carry the deep valley that cuts across the fifth through eighth holes. The crest of the opposing hill requires a carry of 180 yards to safely stay up top, otherwise your ball will roll back down into the valley, leaving an approach of 190 to 230 yards from an awkward, uneven stance. Two large oaks border the left side, while a big maple on the right plays havoc with a pushed drive that tries to cut too much of the corner.
The sight line to the green is directly over the Scabs bunker complex, tiered into the hillside just to the right of the maple. The Scabs are narrow, sloping benches with rugged grass surrounding them and a small apple tree on the right. When caught within the Scabs’ clutches, most players are not lucky or sufficiently skilled enough to advance their ball into a decent position for a play at the hole. The Scabs extract a full stroke penalty—a real hazard in an age when golfers expect to be able to reach the green from any predicament.
From the back tee at 384 yards, better players must strike a good drive to safely reach the top of the hill and be in a position to attack the flagstick. The wind is ever present, and from here it blows hard either behind or against you. Driving with the wind would seem to be the easier task, but the added knowledge that you don’t have to press to reach the top of the hill sometimes lulls the golfer into a false sense of security and their drive leaves them with a very demanding second shot.
Big hitters have a distinct advantage, but are by no means safe. They can carry the hill, but beyond the crest is undulating ground that yields good lies just as often as awkward stances. From the left side—about 60 yards from the green—is a large ridge that can block the player’s view of the target. Also, a patch of long, difficult rough just past the Scabs snares its share of long, wayward drives. All together, these elements provide numerous playing challenges, and diversity, even in today’s technologically advanced game.
The green is the largest on the course and positioned a considerable distance from the two approach bunkers and rear bunker, giving ample room for difficult approaches and, sometimes, short-game magic. The contouring of the green is dominated by a large, central bump that will affect all approach shots and seemingly every putt. The back of the green is severely pitched to the middle. The left portion has a narrow shelf separated from the central bump by a tight valley that fans out and flattens near the front of the green. The right side of the green features a large plateau with many fine undulations that often confuse the golfer and turn the ball in the opposite direction. It is certainly one of the finest green surfaces in the world, and one that offers an endless variety of pin positions.
In addition to all of that, the final reason I love the sixth is purely personal: As a 12-year-old, I had my first birdie on the Downs here, playing with my grandmother from the forward tee. As if it were yesterday, I vividly recall hitting my drive to the top of the hill, then striking a 6-iron approach to 6 feet below the hole. The memory of draining that smooth putt into the heart of the cup remains so clear. And so does my grandmother’s response: “Well, that’s pretty good. Why don’t we call it a day?” And so we did.