Holland, MI. I’ve been fortunate enough to golf a number of courses that have been consistently ranked in “Top 100” lists, and recently I had an opportunity to play Crystal Downs, a course consistently ranked in the top 10 in the country. Crystal Downs is perched on an isthmus separating Lake Michigan from Crystal Lake, just southwest of Traverse City. As I spent a day on these magnificent grounds, I reflected back to my experience playing another “Top 100” course: the Stadium Course at the Player’s Club at Sawgrass. I think the differences between those two courses tell us a lot about what has changed in this country in the fifty years separating their openings.
Crystal Downs is a product of the golden age of golf architecture, designed by Alistair Mackenzie, who completed the course in between his more famous designs at Cypress Point and Augusta National. Mackenzie’s designs are noted for their fidelity to the landscape, and for his belief that the course must interact seamlessly with its natural surroundings. Mackenzie also believed that any golf course should be enjoyable to golfers of all skill levels, and Crystal Downs embodies both these principles.
For a course as highly ranked as Crystal Downs, its most notable feature is its modesty. So unassuming is the entry gate to the course that I drove right past it. I turned around and drove down the long forested path leading up to the pro shop. That structure is a simple stone and cedar edifice measuring about 30 paces from front to back and another 10 across. The interior of the shop is white pine, Michigan’s state tree. Sale items hang off pegs nailed into the crossbeams holding the ceiling. The grill offers simple fare served in styrofoam containers. The clubhouse, a smallish Victorian stone building, is a short walk up a hill, and standing in front of it allows you to see Crystal Lake off to your right and Sleeping Bear dunes on Lake Michigan to your left.
1st Hole at Crystal Downs
Mackenzie’s design strategy is evident on the first tee. Sitting atop a windswept bluff, the terrain is hilly with many dramatic undulations. Mackenzie used mule teams and sledges to move earth, but moved as little as possible. The first hole has a dramatic drop of over 100 feet to a wide fairway that is defined on one side by native fescues and on the other by a large bunker filled with Lake Michigan sand. It played straight into a howling wind, which is one of the course’s main defenses. I neatly lifted a high drive that got knocked down to the center of the fairway, but too far back for me to seriously consider going for the green. I laid up with a 6-iron and pitched on to the green, whereupon I discovered the course’s second defense. I hit what I thought was a perfectly placed shot, about 6 feet to the right of the pin, saw it settle in place, and turned around to put my club back in my bag. When I turned back I was shocked to see my ball off the front left of the green. I managed a bogey, but saw part of what makes Crystal Downs such a treasure.
The course is indeed accessible to all levels of skill. High handicappers will find the generous fairways relatively easy to hit, and any golfer will be seriously punished if they miss the fairway and hit into the nasty fescue which lines every hole. The greens are all fairly large, but your odds for par or better improve significantly depending on the angle from which you hit your approach. Players who struggle to control the ball can still play the course, but better players will spend a lot of time thinking through all their options off the tee, calculating how distance and angle will play out over the remainder of the hole. They are encouraged to play from the green back. The open front nine allows for golfers to come at greens from almost all sides.
On the fifth hole, a remarkable shorter par 4 which drops down to a fairway with a severe right to left slope, and then back up to a flat spot that, if you can hit with a driver, will leave you with a sand wedge to the green, I played the hole straightforward and easily wedged my second shot onto the green. One of my playing partners hit an ugly hook that ended up on the eighth fairway. From there, however, he simply lifted his next shot over a dune and into a patch of weeds just off the green. I was already scribbling a four onto my card, but my gingerly tapped putt easily traveled the 30 feet to the hole, and then beyond and off the right side of the green. I made a good up and down from there, but was nonetheless forced to take a five. The par five 8th is honored as one of the greatest in the world of golf, and rightly so. The fairway shows all the earmarks of a Mackenzie design: using the natural lay of the land so the golfer has to factor the contours in hitting his shots and planning his way up to the elevated green.
The back nine takes you on a different path, away from the dunes and into an old orchard. The fairway on number 12 leads to the left side of a magnificent beech tree. Here you see one of the wonderful subtleties of Mackenzie’s design. The fairway crests at the tree, and your sight lines tell you to hit your tee shot to the left of the tree. Directly at the crest, however, Mackenzie shifts the fairway to the right and then angles it even further to the right. If you hit your tee shot left, as your eye tells you to, you will end up with an impossible lie in deep fescue – if you can find your ball. Hit to the right, and you have a straightforward shot to the green, but you will also have to aim your tee shot over fescue. It’s one of the easier pars on the course, in part because the green is manageable.
On the 184-yard par-3 11th I hit what I thought was a perfect tee shot 15 feet behind the flag. The club member in our group shook his head and said “You’re dead.” How could that be? I was right above the hole, and as I stood above my putt it looked fast with a little right to left break, but nothing unplayable. I was advised to hit my putt almost straight to my right, which meant I was putting with my back to the hole. Assuming the wisdom of his superior experience I did as I was told and was left with a 12 foot putt. Still skeptical that a more direct approach wouldn’t have gotten me closer I dropped a practice ball for fun and hit the putt I would have ordinarily hit. It rolled past the hole and off the green. The four of us took turns trying that putt, and none of us were able to get it any closer than the 12 feet I had hit my original putt. Virtually every attempt ended up rolling well off the front of the green, leaving a very difficult pitch. For the most part, however, the greens were fair. They were remarkably subtle, often misleading you to think the ball would break one way rather than the other. Sometimes you would swear you were hitting an uphill putt that turned out to be downhill, a typical feature of the rolling countryside of northern Michigan golf.
17th hole at Crystal Downs
This masterpiece of design reaches its apogee in what is quite simply the finest golf hole I have ever seen: the breathtaking par-4 17th. Again, the hole has a dramatic drop down to the fairway, and then rises sharply uphill again toward the green. It played dead into the wind and created difficulty off the tee. If it were a calm day, or if you had the wind behind you, shooting for the green would be an option. The wind made that impossible. The uphill movement back up to the green meant you had very few places you could shoot that would leave you with a relatively flat lie from which to hit your approach. Off the tee you thus have a small margin of error. Hit your tee shot 180 yards and you have no play to the green. Hit it 210 yards and you will have a blind shot from an uphill lie.
I tried to punch a 3-iron, which I came down on too steeply and got it too high into the wind. I landed just short of the flat landing area, and was left with 110 yards from an uphill lie with a ball sitting up in the rough. I saw one of my playing partners land his approach on the front of the green, only to see it roll fifty yards back down the fairway. Now I had a dilemma: hit it to the front of the green and I risk having it pushed by the wind and roll all the way back down the hill, leaving a difficult pitch back up. Hit it long and I land in one of the back bunkers, from which 5 would be a good score. I normally hit my 8-iron 160 yards, but in this instance – an uphill lie and into a punishing wind – I figured it was the right club. Indeed it was, and I left a towering shot about 12 feet short of the flag. Standing on the green, which sits at about the highest point on the course, and looking out over Crystal Lake to the east and Lake Michigan to the west, made me feel as if I had reached the pinnacle of golfing perfection. Afterwards the four of us celebrated our round by sitting on the grass in front of the clubhouse, looking out over Lake Michigan and drinking a few cold ones.
The entrance to the TPC at Sawgrass would be impossible to miss. The large pillars announce the road which leads back to the 77,000 square foot Mediterranean style clubhouse, replete with fountains and a marble interior. The ostentation of the clubhouse is matched by the brutality of the course. The architect Pete Dye is often known as the Marquis de Sod – not only for the difficulty of his designs, but also because he never met a bulldozer or a backhoe he didn’t like. He’s cruel to the land. Dye’s design strategy might be said to have two elements as well: one is to be spectacularly different and innovative, and the other is to extract the best shots out of the best players. Dye is often referred to as the father of modern golf course design, the main idea of which is to shift land around in such a way as to provide small targets at which the players can take aim.[i] Target golf takes options out of their hands and forces them to play holes in a particular fashion, thereby replacing the freedom and creativity of the golfer with the freedom of the architect to alter the land to suit his vision. It also makes a course that is unplayable for the average golfer.
Moguls at Sawgrass
I have seldom had a better day of ballstriking than I did at Sawgrass, but ended up shooting a score I’m too embarrassed to post. Even Jack Nicklaus believed the course was unsuited to his game, complaining that he “never was good at stopping a 5-iron on the hood of a car.” Part of Dye’s earthmoving, in addition to the little pot bunkers he strews around a course, involved the creation of artificial moguls which line the fairways and surround the greens. The average golfer facing a severe downhill lie in the gnarly Bermuda grass will find it nearly impossible to hit a clean shot onto the green, even from ten paces away. These ubiquitous moguls add nothing to the aesthetics of the course and seriously detract from its enjoyment.
17th hole at Sawgrass
The most famous hole on the course, the par-3 17th, is a result of Dye’s penchant for moving large amounts of earth. He had dug such a large hole in the middle of the property that he had no room for his concluding par-3. Under his wife’s advice he decided to turn the hole into a lake and place the green as an island in the middle of it. Despite its notoriety, it really isn’t that interesting a golf hole. The green is fairly large and not that difficult to hit, as even average golfers will have a 9-iron in their hands. If you are on the wrong tier you will do well to 3-putt the green, but because of its artificial nature there is no connection between hole and the surrounding terrain. Indeed, it was built to intimidate players and to provide an arena for spectators. No less an authority than Tiger Woods dismissed the hole as “gimmicky.” Most of the holes on the course are visually forgettable; if you remember them, you do so mostly for the pain they inflicted on you. The only hole I would consider ranking in the top 100 I have played is the par-5 16th, a really well-designed risk/reward hole.. Unlike Crystal Downs, however, which embodies the land and virtues of Northern Michigan, there is nothing about Sawgrass that gives you any sense of where you might be. It is homogenized golf.
The design of a golf course begins with identifying a piece of land which lends itself to golf design – the first rule of which is drainage. Crystal Downs succeeds for the same reason Scottish links courses do well: given their soil conditions and elevation related to the surrounding land, it is nearly impossible for water to gather. Indeed, we were greeted on the second tee by a cloudburst, but the hard rain left no trace of its presence. Conversely, the TPC at Sawgrass, built on a low-lying swamp, had such legendary drainage problems, despite the complex system that was originally put in place, the powers-that-be completely ripped the turf off the course in 2006, added 27,000 tons of sand, and installed Sub-Air drainage systems under the greens which suck 42,000 gallons of water an hour out of the soil. It’s a classic example of how forcing the land to do something it is not suited for will necessitate further interventions and greater expenses.
Advances in technology have not made golf less expensive, more enjoyable, more egalitarian, more accessible, or more respectful of the freedom and decision-making of the golfer. “Progress” hasn’t made courses more memorable or more beautiful. Like Frank Gehry’s building designs, Pete Dye’s courses are more a tribute to the ego of the architect than an attempt to provide a fitting place for human beings to live, work, and play. In contrast, the golden age of golf architecture – figures such as Mackenzie, Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast, Harry S. Colt – is defined by the creation of courses on pieces of land hospitable to such development, courses remarkable for their natural beauty and playability. Fortunately for people who love golf, we seem to be entering a renaissance of classic design. Michigan courses such as Arcadia Bluffs and Tullymore, and Ontario’s Cobble Beach reflect these old principles – courses made with nature and the golfer in mind first and foremost. Perhaps if such renewal is possible in the crusty world of golf we can experience it in other areas of our lives – areas now marked by planning, innovation, insensitivity to the soil of culture, and massive movement and dislocation. The restoration of par is sorely needed.
[i] One of the sad tragedies in contemporary golf is that, after Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes, the Men of the Masters in a fit of pride decided to transform Mackenzie’s masterpiece from a classic course to more of a target course. Worse than lengthening it, they eliminated a lot of the angles, and took options out of the player’s hands. In the process they made the course less interesting and robbed the tournament of much of its drama. The course doesn’t reward creativity, imagination, and risk-taking the way it once did.