Frankfort, Michigan is a soporific town set on the M-22 in the enviable location between Lakes Michigan, Crystal and Betsie. I guess the townís main claim to fame is being the self-proclaimed gateway to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Shoreline; hence tourism is a mainstay of the local economy. A few miles to the north is the home of Crystal Downs Country Club. Like the surrounding area, the club is a low-key affair. There is a community of sorts around the club, but traditionally Crystal Downs has been a summer club for Chicagoans, DetroitersÖfolks from well south of Frankfort. The club was founded in 1927 and a 9-hole course was quickly arranged and opened in the same year. A main driver of the club, Walkley Ewing, soon realized that the hilly property over-looking two lakes had potential to be something out of the ordinary. He decided to contact Robert Hunter who suggested Dr Alister MacKenzie was a good architect and that it would be possible for him to stop by enroute to the east coast. On the trip to Frankfort, it became apparent to MacKenzie and his associate, Perry Maxwell, that much of the landscape they were travelling through was sandy and therefore suitable for golf. After viewing the property, the Good Doctor delayed his Atlantic crossing and immediately began designing a new course. It was agreed that Maxwell would return the following spring to oversee construction. Maxwell spent four summers on property, MacKenzie spent about 10 daysÖand he would never see the finished product. Crystal Downs feels very much like a collaboration of parts. Much of the compact front nine has a MacKenzie feel, while the spread-out back nine feels more like Maxwellís work.
For many decades the course was benignly neglected, thus Crystal Downs was fairly well preserved over the years save for several new back tees (3, 6, 13 & 18). Although, in recent years T Doak has been tinkering here and there by expanding greens. Much like Pinehurst #2, in the past several decades topdressing has raised the height of greens perhaps as much as 12 inches. Therefore, the expanded green sections had to be raised to match the existing greens. Despite their reputation (rightfully earned I might add) as sometimes wildly sloped and contoured, there are only a few greens with more than five feet of fall from back to front. The 11th
is a different matter. It is this hole which demonstrates that modern green speeds are not suitable for some classic courses such as Crystal Downs. This uphill par three has a three-tier green that required surgery to make the surface even remotely reasonable. Doak lowered the back of the green which makes it possible to stop downhill putts on the tiers. Even with the work, I am not convinced the green works well at the speed we played, which I doubt stimped more than 10. The 11th
is the most obvious victim of overly speedy greens, but there are others. I reckon you must play to the front of 1 & 9 regardless of the hole location. There are a few other holes on the front nine where that strategy isnít a bad play. The bottom line for me is the greens roll too quickly to be properly enjoyed. Scanning my memory, Merion is the only other course I played for which I thought this may be the case.
The property is shaped like a pipe with the front nine simultaneously reminding one of the pipe bowl or a left hand. The back nine is the stem of the pipe. The entire property features dynamic land with sizable elevation changes, but it is the tightly bunched holes on the front which stick in the front of my mind. The variety of terrain and outstanding holes slammed into the first nine holes is dream-like golf and it is self-evident why many believe this to be one of the best nines in golf. Even with added tees the course measures less than 6600 yards, not that many should play that far back. I found the course plenty tough at 6300 yards. This difficulty is borne out on the opening hole, a 450 yard par 4 which I didn't reach with two good blows.
The green doesn't look unreceptive, but this is one of six (1, 5, 9, 11, 13 & 16) openly tiered greens which can wreak havoc on a score if one swallows the aggression pill. Stay left for the approach!
Just as on the first, one can blow a drive well right on 2. I wouldn't recommend this play, but a five can still be made from these areas.
Its sounds like a broken record, but this green is savage despite appearances. Sitting well above the fairway, it is easy to hit approaches too deep and therefore the possibility of putting off the green is very real.
Despite being upfront, the hole is in a thumbprint which is a relatively easy position on this section of the green.
More to follow.