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  • Neil White

Crystal Downs

“Sit, sit, sit… oh, no.” Mrs W’s ball had ascended to the top of Crystal Downs’ 11th green and taken a dramatic turn.

It funnelled down one tier, then another and just kept rolling until it was 40 yards down the fairway.

There were loud echoes from a few years ago when she putted from the side of the second hole at Cavendish in Derbyshire only to watch the ball skim the cup and shuffle down the fairway.

The connection is Dr Alister MacKenzie, designer of both and, more famously Augusta National.

His greens are notoriously fiendish and that was certainly the case on the banks of Lake Michigan where even seemingly tidy shots can end up way off target.

However, the brilliance of Crystal Downs is that, once one is in synch with the good doctor, decent scores can be made.

We deliberately arrived at the Downs (coined by a Grand Rapids lawyer because the hills reminded him of England) so we could soak in the pre-game atmosphere.

Thus, after a lovely welcome to its lovely wooden pro shop, we then moved on to its breakfast grill where I indulged in a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich… in a croissant.

Surely, it would be impossible to play a bad round after feasting on such a delight.

And so it proved. After hitting some complimentary balls on its range, we gave Crystal Downs our best despite never mastering those devilish greens.

Our friendly forecaddie joined us as we striped our openers down the middle of the first – a par-four for men, five for women, from an elevated tee which sees over many of the outward nine.

He advised to enter the green from the right-hand side because it falls away dramatically to the left and also meanders up towards the hole.

Inevitably, I found the big trap on the right but thought I had rescued myself when my escape struck the flag. However, it initially seemed to stop dead then trundled off, resting 40 feet away.

The second hole is another of 400+ yards, this time uphill between fairway bunkers and into a raised green.

But the first wow factor hole is the third – a par-three with a right-to-left sloping green whose entrance is between two substantial traps which we both found.

The sand at Crystal Downs is shell-based and took me a couple of experiences to acclimatise but Mrs W continued her impressive start by launching to about six feet.

Crystal Downs has many of the features of a links course with quirky holes, undulating terrain, steep run-offs and land which tempts the player into bump-and-runs.

All of the above is brought together on the remarkable fifth where an accurate drive is essential.

From the tee, the vista is of two huge bunkers leading up a steep hill. However, the danger is what the player can’t see – that the fairway quickly runs out into rough.

The pin placement is one of the harshest I have ever seen – just beyond a bunker in front of the hole while on a slope that tilts to a trap on its right.

I found the former with my approach and Mrs W nearly putted into the latter from the back of a treacherous green.

My sand save was one of the most pleasurable pars I have recorded.

The short par-four sixth turns back towards the pro’s shop, bending around a tree with sand awaiting those who cut the corner and try to enter from the right.

Then there is the spellbinding seventh hole.

This downhill short par-four demands a decision over whether to play an iron to leave the ball on a fairway shelf and be able to see the flag from the approach or to drive and have a blind second shot.

The conundrum is heightened by a tree, directly in the path to a green which bends around a bunker so sharply that it would be impossible to putt close from one end to the other.

I can testify that even if the stars align and the pitch is over the tree into the heart of the target the bamboozling borrows can prompt a three-putt.

It must be said that I love unconventional golf holes so I was in my element at Crystal Downs but I can see that purists might shudder at the seventh.

With heads potentially scrambled, comes the stroke index one – a par-five up the hill which can be reached comfortably in regulation if the ball is kept on the fairway.

However, it would be easy to misjudge the green’s false front and a putting surface which initially seems more benign than others but certainly is not.

“I don’t talk about that hole,” the genial lady had said in the pro shop as she told of her Crystal Downs favourites and then we looked out onto the ninth.

This is a heck of an ascending par-three with a huge flat bunker down the right of the green and fall-away rough on the left.

Anyone who finds their ball in the sand will have an almost impossible job of stopping the ball near the cup.

After a half-time snack, we adjourned to the elevated 10th tee looking down at what appears to be a straightforward par-four.

I knocked my drive down the middle and hit a firm fairway wood but it slid into the sand to the left of the hole. This is where the fun began.

“Try to keep it on the patch of rough to the left of the flag,” advised my caddie and I responded with one of my crispest bunker shots ever.

The ball pitched four feet off the green, fell towards a glorious finale and went on and on and on, leaving a fearsome put 30 feet uphill. I was lucky to score bogey.

“Don’t blame me,” said the member of the greenkeeping staff who had observed my agony with a smile.

As said, it was Mrs W’s turn to be tormented on the 11th – an epic par-three through forest, ascending to a multi-layered green.

I was rather surprised by holes 12 to 16 because it is as if Crystal Downs is a different course – relatively flat land with limited views.

The run begins with a bending 400-yard+ par-four with what seemed to be one of the widest fairways we have ever played, narrowing towards a green with bunkers on either side.

But the intensity ratchets up with the 13th, a much tighter 435-yard proposition with a tree line all the way down the right and an incline into a small target.

And the 139-yard 14th is a compelling par-three with an infinity green that prompts doubt into making a false shot into one of the traps that surround it.

In reality, the putting surface is long enough to take a fully committed strike. Obviously, we both found sand.

Crystal Downs has some excellent short par-fours which look easy at first glance but certainly are not.

This is true of the 15th, known as Little Poison to the locals because, at 322 yards, it seems a synch and yet stopping the ball near enough to the flag to score is a huge challenge.

Following the long par-five 16th comes one of the most memorable holes in golf.

The 17th, with its glorious backdrop of forest and lake, is just 301 yards long and has peril at every turn.

There are two options off the tee. To land the ball at 200 yards and have a pitch into the flag or go for the green.

A short drive will see the ball fall down a steep decline towards trees, a longer one will see it slip down into a valley, leaving a blind shot.

Those who can reach 300 yards are unlikely to see the ball stay on a green which is defended by bunkers and gradients to the front and rear.

And yet this was so nearly my moment of Crystal Downs glory. My drive landed perfectly, my pitch ended no more than five feet from the hole but I groaned in dismay as my putt ran feebly around the cup.

The Crystal Downs estate is very upmarket but I have never previously heard builders singing opera.

Those working on the roof of the 18th hole’s greenside home were belting out tunes like the three tenors as we chipped towards the flag of this trick curving par-four.

I felt like joining in with Nessun Dorma!

It was a wonderfully quirky way to complete a round at a course which is punctuated with unique features and where we were made to feel right at home.

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