One of the greatest pleasures of this golfer's life is playing a fine course for the first time. I remember my first rounds at Pebble Beach, Winged Foot West, and St. Andrews Old Course as vividly as if they were yesterday. Add Crystal Downs to that list.
Never heard of it? I must confess Crystal Downs was just another name high on the Golf Digest Top 100 list to me. I never would have had the opportunity to experience it without the kind generosity of a member who happened to know one of the guys on the buddy trip I took to Northern Michigan this summer. I've always said I'd rather be lucky than good.
The course was designed by Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell and I venture to say Crystal Downs lives up to the pedigree. Crystal Downs is perched between Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan (with spectacular views of both) in Frankfort, Michigan, which is one reason you'll never see a PGA Tour event there. It's also the private domain of a couple hundred very lucky members, so you won't find it on any Northern Michigan tourism brochures.
In appearance, I liken Crystal Downs to a cross between Winged Foot and Bethpage, with varied and devilish green complexes, demanding elevation changes, and native grass rough that absolutely and completely swallows your ball if you're foolish enough to challenge it by trying to overpower the course. The layout is short (6518 from the tips), but no one is going to bomb their way around it without a few bruises to show for their effort.
There are so many holes worthy of note. Both the first and tenth are par fours with tee boxes set high above the fairways, offering the sublime pleasure of watching your drive sail forever against the brilliant blue sky. There are only two par fives, the eighth and the sixteenth, but both are man-sized three-shot tests, with the latter measuring 588 yards.
One of the more fascinating holes is the short (353 yard) fifth hole. MacKenzie used the undulating topography to build two alternative routes to the green from the tee. The lower fairway to the left and the higher one to the right are divided by the "Three Sisters," a bunker complex that lies in the straight line from the tee to the green, which you can't see from the tee box. Another large bunker sits in front of the green, which means you have to have perfect distance control to take the straight route to the putting surface. The right side route is a longer carry that brings a large tree and out of bounds into play but leaves a better angle to the green while the safer left route leaves a blind approach to a green sloping away from the player from that angle.
Whether you're a golf architecture devotee or just a regular hacker with champagne tastes, Crystal Downs is worth the trek.
Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a romantic thriller about blood diamonds in the Congo