The Itinerant Golfer

The Itinerant Golfer's Take on Crystal Downs Country Club


Crystal Downs Country Club

Architect: Dr. Alister Mackenzie & Perry Maxwell
Year: 1931

249 East Crystal Downs Drive , Frankfort, Michigan 49635
(231) 352-7979

driving range available
motorized golf carts and caddies available


Crystal Downs Country Club in Frankfort, Michigan is one of the courses that I had been dying to play since the first day of my Top 100 quest. As seems to be the usual, I found that my desire to play matched the difficultly in connecting with a member. Despite the fact that my college roommate lives in Grand Rapids and spends much of the summer at his lake cottage in Northern Michigan he only ever bumped into one member. Unfortunately it was a casual meeting and he never saw him again. As time wore on I was beginning to think that Crystal Downs may become my achilles heel on the list.

Fortunately, last year my luck took a turn for the good when I played a round with a fellow golf nut in Southern California who followed up after our game with an email offering to help with my quest. Right there in his email, shining like the North Star, was an offer to connect me with a member at Crystal Downs. What luck!!! I excitedly replied that I would be most appreciative and he immediately connected me with Ed who is a member at the club. Ed graciously agreed to help and we decided that we would try for sometime in the next year.

As the spring arrived and I began working on my schedule for the next several months I contacted Ed and began working on setting up something that would work for with his schedule. Unfortunately, the dates that I would be in the area were not going to work for Ed, but he again demonstrated his graciousness by offering to introduce me to his father who is also a member at the club. Luckily, his father Roy was available and sent me a text that said “Balls in the air at 9AM. See you then.” There are two things I loved about that text message. First, I was going to play Crystal Downs and second Roy is nearly 80 years old and his preferred method of communication is text message. How great is that!!

Crystal Downs Country Club was founded in 1927 and features a world renown golf course designed by Alister MacKenzie that opened for play in 1931. Some other courses here in the U.S. that were designed by the good doctor and may be familiar are Augusta National, Cypress Point, Pasatiempo and The Valley Club of Montecito. That’s a pretty outstanding group of courses to say the least.

What makes Crystal Downs even more interesting to me is that Perry Maxwell is credited as the co-designer of the golf course. I’m a big fan of the Perry/Press Maxwell designed Prairie Dunes so the idea of playing a MacKenzie and Maxwell collaboration had me giddy with anticipation. I couldn’t wait to get to northern Michigan!

After flying into Detroit where I met up with my friend Corey we made the four hour drive to Traverse City. Later that night we ran over to the Traverse City airport to pick up Fred who was coming from Philadelphia via Chicago. With our plan of teeing off at 9AM we would have to be on the road the next morning by 7AM. It’s roughly an hour drive from Traverse City to Crystal Downs and we wanted to make sure we were then in plenty of time not to be rushed.

The next morning we were up bright and early to hit the road for Crystal Downs. Once we arrived at the club we parked our car and headed over to the pro shop to meet Roy. When we checked in we learned that Roy was not feeling well and was not going to be able to play with us. In yet another display of graciousness, he had already arranged for us to play with his friend Dan. The assistant pro working the shop welcomed us to visit the practice range for a little warm up while we waited for Dan to arrive. After a bag of balls on the range we headed back to the pro shop were we met both Dan and Roy. Even though he was feeling under the weather Roy had come to club to welcome us and introduce us to Dan.

When it was our turn to tee off we made our way to the first tee where we decided to play the 6,302 yard white tees which play to a par of 70. The yardages below are all from the white tees, but there is a scorecard at the bottom of this profile that shows the details for the 6,518 blue tees. Lucky for us Roy ended up following along for the first three holes and shared his 30 years of “local knowledge” on those three holes. What an incredible display of hospitality from someone who was not feeling their best!

Hole 1 – 449 yards – Par 4
The opening hole at Crystal Downs plays downhill and features an elevated tee box which helps the tee ball pick up a little extra distance. The bunker on the right is in play for both the 1st and 2nd hole. Something in the short grass is the best plan here. The photo below was taken from the tee box.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
The approach shot, pictured below, into the green plays downhill and balls that land on the right side of the green may result in a very fast downhill putt depending on the hole location.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Below is a look at the green from the front left side.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Here is another look from the back left side.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 2 – 420 yards – Par 4
Here we have a solid par 4 that plays back up the hill that the 1st hole played down. The strategy off the tee is to avoid the bunkers on the left and right.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Here is a look at the approach shot into the green.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
And here is a view of the green that gives just a hint of the undulation on the putting surface.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
This view still doesn’t do justice to the movement on the green but does give a little better perspective.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 3 – 159 yards – Par 4
This great little one shot hole plays downhill and balls that go long may have to contend with the bunker at the back of the green. The best mishit here is going to be short.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
This hole has a very sneaky green. I’m embarrassed to say that I hit my first putt exactly how I wanted to and misread the green so badly that I was still left with a 15 footer for par. The photo below does no justice at all to the green, but it is a little closer look.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 4 – 397 yards – Par 4
Here we have another healthy par 4 that bends to the right and has a bunker tempting players to take a short cut to the with their tee balls.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Below is a look at the approach shot into the green. Note that the front of the green is open (like the 1st and 2nd holes) which allows for a low running shot.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Here is a look at the 4th green taken from the 5th tee.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 5 – 345 yards – Par 4
This short par 4 can be a real problem if the tee ball is not hit to the right spot. From these tees a driver is not necessary and the ideal line is between the cluster of 3 bunkers and the tree.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Below is a zoomed in look at the hole.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
I didn’t get a photo of the approach shot (maybe because I didn’t have a “traditional” one) but here is a look at the green taken from the front left side.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 6 – 351 yards – Par 4
The 6th hole played as another short par 4. From the tees that we played we were able to take our drives over or just to the right of the bunker and tree which left a very favorable approach shot.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Below is a look at the approach shot. As can be seen by the balls in the foreground we literally had half wedges into the green. As is typical of MacKenzie/Maxwell greens, hitting the putting surface does not guarantee par. There can still be much work to be done once the ball is on the putting surface.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Here is a view of the 6th green from the 7th tee. Note the different shades of green which are as good as my camera could capture of the undulations.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 7 – 330 yards – Par 4
This hole is a short par 4 no matter what tees its played from. The tips are a mere 5 yards more than the white tees that we played from. I feel fairly safe in saying that driver is not a great idea here as the hole falls downhill and too much club off the tee will leave a downhill lie for the approach shot. The best line is right down the middle splitting the middle of the fairway or maybe favoring the right side just a little.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Below is a look at the approach shot into the green from about 130 yards out. Note the way that the green wraps itself around the bunker at the back side of the front of the green.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Here is a closer look at the green that gives a little better perspective of the boomerang shaped green. We were lucky to have the hole location that we did as I would think the back hole locations make it play infinitely more difficult.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
And one more look at the green from very up close.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 8 – 542 yards – Par 5
The 8th hole at Crystal Downs is tough . . . very tough. It’s long, uphill and the the fairway has a lot of undulation in it. The photo below was taken from the tee box. Hit it hard and hit it long is the best advice here.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Below is a look at some of the movement in the fairway that can make for very difficult lies.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Here is a look back down the hole from the back of the green.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 9 – 159 yards – Par 3
I loved this hole. Although it plays the same distance as the 3rd hole this one plays straight uphill as opposed to the downhill shot at the 3rd. The preferred miss here seems to be short as the bunker in the back is sure to make for a tough up and down. I wish I had gotten a photo of the green as it has some interesting movement to it. The photo below was taken from the tee box.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 10 – 390 yards – Par 4
Here we have a view of the 10th hole from the elevated tee box. The hole plays shorter than it appears on the card as the elevation adds some extra distance to the tee ball. I snap hooked my drive and still had just 160 yards to the green.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Below is a look at the approach shot into the green.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
The green at the 10th hole is severely sloped from left to right and back to front. Approach shots that miss left of the green can make for a very tricky up and down. the photo below was taken from behind the green and shows some of the slope of the green.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Here is another look at the 10th green taken from the 18th tee.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Finally a bit of a zoomed in look at the 10th green.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 11 – 184 yards – Par 3
This tricky one shot hole is just a mid-iron shot , but can be incredibly tricky depending on the hole location. The bunkers on the left and rear are to be avoided at all costs.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Below is a look at the green from the back left side.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 12 – 420 yards – Par 4
Here we have a stout par 4 that bends just a bit to the right. A tee ball hit at the tree in the distance will leave a good angle for the approach shot into the green.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Below is a look back down the hole from the back of the green.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 13 – 435 yards – Par 4
This hole is my favorite of the long par 4s on the course. At 435 yards this one is no joke and a good drive is essential to hitting the green in regulation. The hole bends just a bit to the right. If a player can afford to give up a little distance a cut shot would be perfect for the tee ball.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Note in the photo below how much movement there is in the green. I continued to be astounded by how great each of the greens on the course were.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Here is a look back down the hole from the back of the green. I have to say that I love the old wooden flagsticks. Very cool.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 14 – 139 yards – Par 3
The par 3s at Crystal Downs are an excellent collection of one shot holes. I absolutely loved this one as well. The photo below was taken from the tee box.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Here is a little closer look
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
And here is a look from the bunker in the front of the green. This photo only gives a hint of the slope of the green.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 15 – 322 yards – Par 4
Here we have another short par 4 that doesn’t require a driver. A 200 yard shot with a utility club is all that is really needed. I suppose that driver is an option, but I don’t see the the real value of it when there are bunkers in the landing zone that could certainly cause problems. The photo below is of the approach shot into the green.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 16 – 577 yards – Par 5
This hole is a very lengthy par 5 that I don’t imagine gets reached in two strokes very often. The photo below was taken from the tee. A shot down the right side will set up a good angle for the second shot.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Here is a look at the green from the right side of the fairway.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 17 – 301 yards – Par 4
On a course with a number of excellent short par 4s the 17th hole is a real standout. Big hitters can take a driver right at the green and get pretty close, maybe even hit the green. I hit driver here as it didn’t seem prudent to lay back and have a huge uphill approach shot.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Below is look at the very short approach shot to the green.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Hole 18 – 382 yards – Par 4
The closing hole bends to the right and from the tees we played we were able to take our drives straight over the top of the trees.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
Below is a view of the 18th green which is surrounded by a number of bunkers. Again, note that the front of the green is open so a low running shot is an option here.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
When we finished our game Dan took us up to the clubhouse so we could get a look at the views of Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake. I’m really glad we made the trip up there because I now have a new favorite clubhouse. What a cool building this is. I loved the look and feel of the clubhouse. It fits perfectly with the Northern Michigan vibe.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
The views are not too shabby either. On one side you have Lake Michigan and looking out across the front nine holes is Crystal Lake in the distance. It is an amazing place to sit and soak up the Crystal Downs vibe after a great round of golf. The photo below is the view of Lake Michigan.
 
Crystal Downs Country Club
 
As we finished our visit to the clubhouse Dan mentioned that he needed to get on the road so that he could get back home to Detroit before it got too late. I couldn’t believe that he had delayed his trip home to hang around and play a round of golf with three strangers. I will never cease to be amazed at the kindness and willingness to share something special that I have seen in the golf community. It is truly amazing.

The danger of being as excited as I was to play Crystal Downs is the potential for being let down. I am very pleased to report that it did not disappoint in any way. Crystal Downs was everything I hoped it would be and then some. From the understated and low key club culture to the world class golf course and the incredible greens. Everything about the club and the golf course was, in my opinion, just perfection.

  • CBus Golfers

    this is one course and write up tht I’ve really been looking forward to…glad to see you play it. I hope to follow suit over the next couple summers. I think my favorites are holes 5, 10, and 17. fantastic write up and even better pics!

  • CBus Golfers

    So I’m looking at the score card and see the back tees are only 6500 yds. Granted there’s a lot of elevation here but i’m curious what the course and slope ratings are?

    • The Itinerant Golfer

      I’m out of town this week but I’ll check the scorecard when I get back home and let you know.

    • The Itinerant Golfer

      Blue tees: 72.3 / 138
      White tees: 71.3 / 135

      Par is 70 so both the blue and white tees are rated over par. As JB also commented, its all about the greens at Crystal Downs.

    • Chuck

      Blue tees: 73.6/138
      White Tees: 72.6/135

  • JB

    I don’t recall the rating, it’s not much over 72 from the tips. Length isn’t the issue at CD, the greens are. I think a 5 handicap could easily shoot 90 (yes, 20 over par) at CD when playing there for the first time and not knowing the greens well.

  • Gary Blair

    Played this course twice last week – what fun. I would like to play it several more times to figure out the greens. You feel you are leaving a lot of shots on the course and could do much better the next time.

  • Jim Goodson

    Wonderful photos and story about this gem. It has a very colorful design history – see Golf’s Grand Design by Bob Cupp and Ron Whitten. A new book that talks about the history of course design and is a companion to the PBS show of the same name. Thank you for playing and photographing this great course.

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  • Chuck

    Our trailer is on the other side of Crystal Lake and every time I am up there I have visions of playing the course. Some day hopefully….

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  • Chris

    I have played CD each summer for a number of years. Definitely one of the most unique courses that you’ll ever play. Length is not the issue at CD. The greens are diabolical and add a significant defense to scoring well – if you miss some greens on the wrong side, it is effectively a penalty stroke as it is almost impossible to keep the resulting chip shot on the green. I can’t think of many courses where the greens are the primary defense of the course – this seems a typical design hallmark of McKenzie courses (think Augusta National). Also add in typically breezy conditions off of Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake, uneven lies throughout the course and heather and this course at 6,500 yards will take most people to their knees on most days.

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  • Bob Burns

    Thanks for having this website. I played the course today and was well worth the wait. The greens definately lived up to their reputation