Crystal Downs

HeadGolf Professional: Fred Muller
Green Keeper: Michael Morris

The 1st tee at Crystal Downs affords the golfer one of the game's great views. The green is straightahead, benched into the dune with three bunkers on it. As with every green complex here, the golfer must know where to miss it and in this case, that's short of the green in line with the green's length.

Crystal Downs offers the best of two worlds. Unlike many links courses (such as those that host the Open), the greens are its primary defense. Like many links courses (such as those that host the Open), its other defenses are the wind, the fesque rough, the imaginative bunkering that highlights the terrain, and the lumpy, bumpy fairways.

When the Maxwell/MacKenzie greens are combined with these other natural features, an unusually testing layout is the result, despite the scorecardshowing acourse that barely measures 6,500 yards.

To appreciate the challenge of the course, the golfer needs to start with the greens. Fred Muller, the long time professional at Crystal Downs, has seen someone putt off every green at least twice. The pitch on greens like the 2nd or 11th isalmost staggeringas there is in excess of six feet (!) of fall from back to front. The contouring of greens like the 5th and 16th holes is frightening, especially whenone seesthe first puttslide into agreenside bunker. Collectively, the greens at Crystal Downs surely rival those at Oakmont as the most intimidating in golf.

The back to front tilt of the 2nd green is evident as one walks past it to the 3rd green. Unfortunately, by then, it may be too late for a first time visitor to realize the importance of staying below the hole at the 2nd.

The double punchbowl 6th green takes some knowing. At 7,700 square feet, it is the largest on the course.

But the key to Crystal Downs’ appeal lies in the fact that the greens are not just an exercise in fear – they are plain fun. Take the ‘L’ shaped 7th green. Unlike virtually all such greens built since, this one works because of Maxwell’s attention to the contouring. From far back left the golfer can use the bank in front of the green to swing the ball toward the front right hole locations. The same applies to back left hole positions as well – from the front right, the knowing golfer can bank the ball off the contours for a satisfactory result.

Less dramatic but equally effective is 15th green. A subtle knoll in the left middle of the small green thwarts many birdie attempts on this short two shotter. This kind of sophistication in and around the green complexes only results when the architect lives on site and can take the time to get it right. And, of course, that is exactly what Maxwell did at Crystal Downs (and guess what? It is also what Henry and William Fownes did at Oakmont).

Even without the greens, Crystal Downs with its English style clubhouse perched on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan with viewsover to Crystal Lake is an inspiring place. The fescue coupled with the dramatic bunkering gives the course a rich texture generally not found in the United States where parkland courses dominate. The rough compliments the bunkering to form the strategy on a number of holes. For instance, if the golfer takes on the bunker in the crook of the dogleg right 4th hole, he has the optimal angle into agreen which best accepts a run up shot from its right front. However, if the golfer shies away from this bunker, his tee balleither goes through the fairway and into the tall stuff and/or his approach angle progressively gets tougher.

A fade off the 4th tee around the bunker cut into the ridge sets up the best approach angle.

Holes to Note

First hole, 460 yards; The stunning view helps the golfer not give up all hope. The hole looks and plays like a brute. The length, the green, the wind, nothing helps get the round off to a smooth start. The effect on a card and pencil golfer is immensely interesting. Like Wannamoisett, the golfer needs to hang on – allwill bewell if he doesn’t disintegrate after the first four holes. Even on theinfrequent occasionwhen the1st is downwind, a five is a fine start.

Fifth hole, 355 yards; There it is, you figure it out. Four golfers could well hit four different clubs off the tee. When an unconventional hole is done well, it remains forever ‘fresh’ as the golfer continually tries to unlock its secrets (see The Old Course at St. Andrews).

Does one go right of the tree, over the tree, over the Three Sisters bunkers, or lay up left of them? All options appear open to the golfer but the left to right tilt of the green dictates a play in from the right side of the fairway.

A closer look at the famous Three Sisters bunkering on the hillside of the 5th fairway.

Seventh hole, 330 yards; The four short two shot holes at Crystal Downs that measure under 360 yards (the 5th, here at the 7th, the 15th, and the 17th) have withstood theadvances of technology as well as any set of holes worldwide. In the case of the 7th, the fairway runs out 215 yards from the tee. The golfer can lay back and have a clear wedge approach to the green or he can blast his drive into the bottom of the gulley from where he will have a blind pitch. In this case, though, the boomerang green places emphasis on the golfer seeing the shot, and for that reason, the author can only imagine laying back off the tee many more times than not.

The unique boomerang 7th green functions quite well as the golfer who uses his imagination can get reasonably close from one part of the green to the other.

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