Augusta National was my first Alastair MacKenzie course. I thought the greens there were tough. Crystal Downs takes greens undulation and difficulty to a whole new level. The greens are fast and the undulation is furious. I came to Crystal Downs in the middle of September because Gordon, a friend from my club in Atlanta, told me that he and three other members from our club were planning to play at that time. I then called Fred, the head PGA Professional at Crystal Downs and asked him if I could also play on that same day. Fred was more than happy to accommodate me.
I was excited about playing Crystal Downs, I had heard a lot about the course. The owner of the resort property where I was staying had played there several times and was excited about becoming a member there. My caddie, David, from my round the previous day, had however warned me that the greens at Crystal Downs were very difficult. He said that at 6500 yards, the course had no other defense but the greens. Difficult was an understatement.
I’d played well from 6900 yards at Arcadia Bluffs and thought the 6500 yards at Crystal Downs would be a piece of cake. I could not have been more wrong.
I spent most of the morning visiting with Fred and his assistant pros, Elena and Jesse. Elena and Jesse were the first married couple that worked as assistant pros at the same club on my quest. Fred was very familiar with the country clubs in Atlanta. He had worked as an assistant pro at Capital Cities Country Club in the Brookhaven community in Atlanta. I appreciated very much when Elena was able to pair me up with a member and his guest. This is not a course to play for the first time without someone who has local knowledge. Had I not been paired with Brent and Bob, I’m certain that I would not have broken 100. I’ll cut to the chase. I shot a 45 on the front nine and a 50 on the back nine for a total score of 95.
I will spare you much of the stroke by stroke analysis from my round and provide pictures and highlights that should provide a good sense of the course and my play.
As I mentioned before, the back tees at Crystal Downs measure 6500 yards, but that's a little deceiving. The course plays to a par of 70 and has just one par five on each nine. The course has a 143 slope from the blue tees with a 71.2 rating.
The first hole looks like a straight forward par four. Its just long at 460 yards. The fairway is narrow, but it has a great deal of first cut rough on both sides. The only trouble is the fescue on the left beyond the first cut of rough and a bunker to the right.
I hit my drive 240 yards to the first cut of rough just off the right side of the fairway, leaving 215 yards to the pin.
I hit my five wood right at the flag. The ball landed just a couple of feet short of the green. I thought that I was in a great position. Everyone that talked to me about Crystal Down said that you needed to always leave the ball below the hole. Every green except the 12th, slopes from back to front. If you get past the hole, it would be hard to stop the ball from rolling of the front of the green. Brent reiterated this as we stood on the first tee box.
With my ball just a few feet off the from of the green, I figured I’d make an easy par with a two putt from there. To make a long story short, it took me four putts to get the ball into the hole from about 25 feet. My first putt didn’t make it to the hole. The rolled back to the front left side of the green. My second putt was past the hole. My third putt was short because I didn’t want to roll back to the front of the green. I made the fourth putt for a double bogey. Brent said, “Welcome to Crystal Down.” I said, “What da..”, then I remembered that I don’t use colorful metaphors and moved on to the second hole.
I faired no better on the second hole. At 425 yards, it is slightly shorter than the first hole but other than that, it’s similar. The fairway is long and narrow with generous short rough on either side. There are fairway bunkers to the left and right of the fairway in the landing zone. The fairway was being aerated as we hit our drives. I hit my drive to the middle of the fairway right in the middle of the aerated section. I took a drop after I hooked by approach shot into the fescue. I made a double bogey on the hole.
The third hole is a 190 yard par three. The green is well guarded by six bunkers, three on the right side and three on the left side. The flag was positioned on the back of the green behind the two bunkers on the left side, so the hole was playing 200 yards. I hit my tee shot right at the flag but failed to clear the bunker.
My sand shot flew the green. I left my third shot short of the green, chipped on to 3 feet and made the putt for my third double bogey in a row.
At this point, the only bad shot I’d hit was the hook on my approach shot on the second hole, yet I was six over par after just three holes. It got better after the third hole.
The fourth hole is just over 400 yards, it too has a straight and narrow fairway. There is a lot of room to miss to the left, but not much room to the right of the fairway as it is lined by close in trees. Only the right fairway bunker comes into play on the hole since the one the left is very far out and far to the left.
I hit my drive to the right fairway bunker and had to lay up with my second shot. I hit my third shot to six feet right of the hole. On any normal green, this would provide an excellent opportunity to save par. As previously stated, the greens on this Alastair MacKenzie course are anything but normal. I didn’t make the putt, but I did two putt for a bogey.
At 350 yards, the fifth hole is the first of the short par fours on the course. Every short par four on the course comes with a twist. I mean that figuratively and literally. The fifth hole has two trees, one the left and one on the right that stand as sentries at the start of the fairway. The fairway bends to the left, but slopes left to right. The trees on the left do not come into play and the one one the right should be easily carried.. There are bunkers to the left of the fairway.
My drive hit along the left of the fairway and rolled down the slope to the right side of the fairway. This left me with a blind shot to the green. I drove up to look at the pin and saw a tree behind the green that I could use to align my shot with the flag. I hit a high nine iron on line with the tree. The ball landed eight feet to the right of the flag.
I continued to struggle with my putts and missed the very makeable birdie and made the first of just four pars on the day.
The sixth hole is the second of a series of short par fours. It plays 380 yards. From the blue tees the hole has a forced carry over the fescue to a fairway that bends and slopes slightly to the right. Like the fifth hole, there are trees to the right and the left sides of the fairway that stand as sentries. In this case they are not at the start of the fairway, but are about 230 yards out from the tee box. You have to hit a drive past the trees to avoid a blind shot to the green. There is a bunker in the right rough just before the tree on the right. I think this is Crystal Downs’ version of the church pews of Oakmont. Instead of pews however, I at Crystal Downs they are called scabs. I hit my drive over the tree on the right side of the fairway and into the right rough.
I hit my approach shot right at the flag and onto the green. The ball rolled backed to the front of the green.
My birdie putt rolled four feet past the hole. I made the comeback putt for my second par.
The seventh hole is the last of the short par fours on the front nine. It is one of two holes on the course that I just considered to be weird. The hole is a mere 335 yards. The tee box aligns with a tree on the right that is about 30 yards short of the green. This is one of those holes where local knowledge is very helpful.
I hit my three hybrid off the tee to the left side of the fairway. I then had to hit over the tree to a green that is going to take a moment to describe, and I still probably won’t do it justice.
The green is shaped like those kidney beans that I was forced to eat as a kid. It's narrow and long. It bends around a bunker on the right. The undulation on the green is a thing to behold. Maybe you can get a better picture of it if you imagine a boomerang where both edges slope toward the middle and the middle is like a groove running the length of the boomerang. The pin was on the far tip of the boomerang.
It was easy to carry the tree with my approach since I was only 100 yards out. I couldn’t see my ball land, but I knew it had to be close because it was on a line directly at the flag. My only concern was whether I’d flown the flag and landed in the round behind the green. I was very disappointed when I approached the green and saw my ball near the front of the green.
I found my ball mark much farther up on the green. My ball had hit on the slope that was right in the inner curve of the kidney bean or boomerang, whichever you prefer. It then had rolled back toward the front of the green.
The putt looked impossible to me. Seeing my befuddlement, Brent said, “let me show you something.” He took three balls. He hit one along the left side of the green, one along the center of the green, and one along the right side of the green. All three balls ended up in a line directly in front of the hole. With the confidence gained with Brent’s demonstration, I hit a good putt, I just didn’t hit it hard enough. My ball stopped 18 feet short of the cup, but it was aligned directly in front of the cup.
I knew that my par putt was straight. Unfortunately, I left if four inches short of the cup and made a bogey on the hole.
The eight hole is the only par five on the front nine. It is long at 550 yards with a very narrow undulating fairway. There are no fairway bunkers, just rough and fescue along both the left and right sides. The last part of the fairway plays uphill to a small green. I hit my drive to the left side of the fairway.
I pulled my second shot into the heather on the left. I was surprised but happy to find my ball.
I hit my third shot back to the fairway just 50 yards short of the green. It was probably one of the best shots out of a bad lie that I’ve ever hit.
I pitched on to 6 feet left of the flag. My par putt went around the hole and ended up just behind the hole. I tapped in for a bogey.
The ninth hole is a 175 yard par three that plays longer because it’s uphill. The green has a bunker along the right side. This is a hole where you definitely don’t what to be past the flag. The green is sloped severely from back to front. I think this is the hole where Brent told me that he once advised a guest to hit a two foot putt when he was 20 feet from the hole. The guest hit the putt three feet and the ball rolled 30 yards off the front of the green. If reading about the greens at Crystal Downs frightens you, you should see how frightening it is to putt on them.
My tee shot missed the green short and to the left. My second shot hit on the green and rolled back off the front of the green. I was lucky to get my third shot to stop just right of the hole. I made the putt for a bogey.
After opening my round with three double bogeys, I didn’t have another through the last remaining six holes on the front nine. I ended up with a score of 45.
Put simply, the back nine was a disaster. While I didn’t score well on the front nine, I had several good shots, and hadn’t played that poorly. All that changed on the back nine. After playing 31 courses in my quest to in one year play the top 100 courses in the US as rated by Golf Digest, I had several double bogeys but rarely scored higher than that on a hole. That all changed on the back nine of Crystal Downs.
The back nine started out innocently enough with a beautiful 400 yard par four. The elevated tee looks outs at a narrow fairway with generous portion of rough to the left and right of the fairway. I hit my drive to the short rough on the left side of the fairway.
I hit the green with my approach shot and then some how managed to four putt the green. While I stayed calm on the outside, I was steaming on the inside. I was so frustrated that I stopped taking notes.
It then just got worse. I made triple bogeys on the next four holes. How I did it is all a blur now. I’ve tried to put it out of my mind like a bad dream. I will briefly describe the disaster as best as I can.
I hit my tee shot into the trees on the right on the 200 yard par three 11th hole. I chipped out, hit my third shot into the bunker on the left side of the green, hit my sand shot onto the green and two putted for my triple bogey.
On the 12th hole, which plays 430 yards with a fairway that bends slightly from left to right, I hit my drive to just right of the fairway. I lost my ball on my second shot. This led to my triple bogey on that hole.
The 13th hole is the longest par four on the course. It measures 484 yards from the blue tees. The fairway however is one of the widest on the course. There are two fairway bunkers on the hole. There is one on the right about 100 yards from the green and one on the left at about 70 yards from the green. Neither of the two bunkers are menacing. There is rough to the left of the fairway and dense woods that tightly hug the right side of the fairway. I hit my drive into the woods and had to hit a provisional. I couldn't find my first ball and so I played the provisional. I made a bogey with the provisional, but for scoring purposes, that's called a triple bogey.
I then played military golf on the short par three 14th hole. The hole plays 145 yards and has a green with six or seven bunkers around it. I used as many of them as I could. I hit my tee to the largest of the left bunkers, then hit my sand shot to the left side of the green. The ball rolled in to the second of the two bunkers on the right side of the green. My next sand shot ended up across the green in one of the small bunkers off the front of the green. My fourth shot landed on the green and stayed. It was left, right, left. That’s what I meant my military golf. After two putting for my triple bogey on the last par three on the course, I was a collective nine strokes over par on the par threes. Combined with the three double bogeys on the par threes at Arcadia Bluffs, I was a collective 15 over par on par threes in Michigan.
Are you noticing how few pictures I’m including at this point. Well I was taking so many shots with my clubs, that I didn’t have time to take shots with my camera.
The fifteenth hole looks like a simple and short par four, but it is more menacing than it appear. It plays 325 yards uphill to a very narrow fairway that has bunkers to the left and right in the landing zone. The landing zone is at the top of the fairway. I prefer hitting a three wood or three hybrid on holes less than 350 yards. On this hole to get up the hill to the top part of the fairway, I had to hit my driver.
I hit my drive up the hill to the fairway and then put my approach shot onto the postage stamp green with very subtle breaks. I two-putted for a par to stop the triple bogey madness. Brent told me that I was very lucky to two-putt this green. He said that he still has trouble reading it.
I thought the 8th hole had a long and narrow fairway. It had nothing on the par five sixteenth hole. The hole plays almost 600 yards. There is zero room on the right side of the fairway, there are dense woods. There is fescue and heather to the left. The green is surrounded by bunkers and has the perfunctory back to front slope.
I had rediscovered my swing on the fifteenth hole and it chose to stay with me through the end of the round. This is probably the biggest improvement in my game. No matter how poorly I play during a portion of the round, I can usually figure out a way to get my swing and finish strong. So, I guess the back nine wasn’t a total disaster after all.
I hit my drive to the fairway and reached the green in regulation. I just couldn’t hold it. My ball rolled off the front of the green. I putted back on and then two putted for a bogey.
The 17th hole was the second of the two holes that I called weird at Crystal Downs. As we stood on the tee box, Brent said that this hole is considered the most terrifying 310 yards in golf. There is a valley in the fairway just short of the green that Brent calls the trombone section because their is a sprinkler head at the bottom of it showing 76 yards to the middle of the green. He said this was the best area to hit your tee shot to. The other option is to hit to the flat area at about 200 yards off the tee. Good luck with that, there are very few flat areas in this fairway..
Like the other short par fours this hole has lots of twists and turns. The elevated tee box looks down on a fairway that is framed by thick woods on the left and right sides. The fairway bends from right to left and then back to the right as it rises and falls with the undulation. It also slopes steeply from right to left.
I didn’t quite get my drive to 76 yards, but I got darn close. I hit a high lob wedge from around 80 or so yards to 20 feet right of the pin.
I then four putted for a double bogey. This my friends is the legacy of Alastair Mackenzie! When you hit a shot that isn’t far off but turns out bad, the folks at Crystal Downs say that you got Alistered or Crystalized. I got Alistered AND Crystalized through out the round!
As I stood on the 18th tee box and looked out over the final hole, I don’t think I had ever been so happy to end a round of golf. I am so immensely grateful that Fred’s assistants matched me up with Brent and his guest, Bob. Brent’s knowledge of the course was the only thing that made this a bearable experience for me. Brent told me that he has friends from his hometown that refused to return to play at Crystal Downs. They say and I quote - “It’s too damn hard!”
The 18th hole was the perfect hole for my fade. The hole is shaped like a banana. It plays 400 yards. There are trees on the right not too far out from the tee box. The rest of the hole is wide open. The only bunkers are the multiple ones near and around the green. With that I relaxed, swung the club, and hit my best drive of the day. I hit the ball close to 300 yards to the left side of the fairway.
I put my approach shot onto the green and two putted for a round ending par. While I recovered and played the last four holes well, except for the four putt on the 17th hole, I still shot a 50 on the back nine for a total score of 95.
Following our round Brent invited me to join him and Bob at the club house for a drink. Of course, for me a drink means a Coca Cola. While we sat outside at the club and basked under the beautiful Michigan skies, I learned that Brent is a USGA committee member. I took advantage of the opportunity to ask him about a shot from my round at Cherry Hills Country Club. It was the shot on the seventeenth hole where I channeled my inner Ben Hogan and hit a shot out of the water from just off the green. I described the shot. He said that based upon the description it was likely a scoop rather than a stroke. I made a mental note, but did not go back and change my score. He did say likely, not absolutely.
Despite my struggles at Crystal Downs and the challenging nature of the greens, I want to be clear that I appreciated the hospitality of Fred and his staff. The members of the club were also very gracious, certainly Brent, but also the numerous other members that I had the opportunity to meet and chat with during my time there.
Now if I happen to one day meet Mr. MacKenzie on that great golf course in the sky, he and I are going to have a chat. I have two more of his courses to play on my quest, Cypress and the Valley Club of Montecito. I’m going to have to score well on both of those to get my average on his courses below 90.