Dr Alister MacKenzie, most famous for his work at Augusta National, was also responsible for the design of an incredible selection of top courses in the UK and Ireland, Australia and the USA.
Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1870, MacKenzie attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Wakefield then Cambridge University from where he graduated with degrees in chemistry, medicine and natural science. He joined his father’s medical practice but was soon called away to serve in the second Boer War. During the posting MacKenzie developed an aptitude for camouflage – a skill he would go on to use with some aplomb as a golf course designer.
Upon returning from the trenches of southern Africa, MacKenzie briefly went back to his duties as a doctor before embarking on a career in golf course architecture. He was originally inspired to change tack because he was convinced of the benefits golf provided to patients.
“How frequently have I, with great difficulty, persuaded patients who were never off my doorstep to take up golf, and how rarely, if ever, have I seen them in my consulting rooms again.” He said.
MacKenzie cut his teeth as a course architect at The Alwoodley Golf Club in his native Yorkshire. In 1907 MacKenzie was one of the club’s founding members and, having already made outline sketches for a course, he was tasked with laying out 18-holes across the moorland.
Although this was his first project, the hallmarks of his later works are in full evidence. As he would explain in his book, “Golf Architecture,” MacKenzie believed emphasis should be on the natural beauty of the terrain rather than artificial features. At Alwoodley it’s predominantly the gorse, heather and trees providing protection for the course. The greens are also an early example of MacKenzie’s style – again making use of the natural terrain but sizeable and undulating, testing but fair.
The layout of Alwoodley is principally “out and back,” though not every hole follows this pattern, especially on the front side. Later MacKenzie courses tended to feature two nine-hole loops, to create different wind conditions through a round.
There’s an interesting feature around the turn at Alwoodley – from holes 7-11 (off the white and blue tees) you don’t play a par-4. The stretch certainly complies with MacKenzie’s principle that every hole should have a different character. The toughest section of the course is the run back towards the clubhouse. The last six holes play into a prevailing wind blowing off the moors. From the 13th to the 18th there are four par-4s over 400 yards.
After his success at The Alwoodley, MacKenzie didn’t have to look far to find his next commission. He was employed to design a course at Moortown GC, barely half a mile from his first project. He was struck by the land available and set about creating 18-holes that blended seamlessly into the surrounding heather, pines and birches. The course opened the following year.
The bunkering at Moortown provides an example of MacKenzie’s technique. The traps are links-like, making use of the land’s natural contouring. These may be artificial hazards but they appear to have been carved out of the terrain rather than clumsily thrown in as an afterthought.
The greens at Moortown are large and undulating, again echoing those to be found at seaside courses – a typical MacKenzie trait. He was a great admirer of the Old Course at St Andrews.
Although the term “MacKenzie green” is much used, it’s difficult to give a precise definition of the phrase. MacKenzie’s key philosophy when it came to green design was consistent with his approach to course design in general, ie. – each should appear natural by blending into its immediate surroundings (remember his skills in camouflage.) This meant each putting surface he created was unique. What can be said is, although some are plateaus and others two or three tier, his greens are generally undulating and feature testing borrows.