Dr Alister MacKenzie
When Bobby Jones bought a former Georgia fruit plantation with designs on creating a golf course, he called on the architectural services of a doctor of medicine from the Yorkshire Dales – and the rest is history.
Peter Masters retells the glorious but ultimately tragic tale of Dr Alister MacKenzie.
Let us imagine turning the clock back to July 1931 to a meeting between two ‘friends’ at an old nursery in the countryside barely two miles from the Savannah River separating Georgia from South Carolina.
I say friends because these two are likely to have chatted a number of times over the previous few years and this meeting, perhaps more business than pleasure, was between two people who were now quite relaxed in each other’s company.
You can picture it clearly, the legendary amateur golfer Bobby Jones all smiles and warm handshakes, welcoming Dr Alister MacKenzie to a place that was to become a lasting legacy to both men.
Jones may well have known deep down what his Augusta National might become, but MacKenzie probably wasn’t aware of the significance as he turned into the drive. For a start it had been tricky to find, tucked away on Augusta’s north-west suburbs.
Two small pillars with not much around them marked an overgrown driveway. This was Fruitland Nurseries as was, but it had laid dormant for the best part of 10 years.
The 365-acre plot had originally been an indigo plantation in 1854, but three years on Belgian nobleman Louis Matheiu Edouard Berckmans grew exotic fruit trees and flowering shrubs there for export around the country.
The first person to think golf was Commodore J. Perry Stotz, who bought the land in 1925 with the idea of building a golf resort. But he went bankrupt before he could get started. Then, in 1931, Bobby Jones, Clifford Roberts and a group of investors purchased it for $70,000.
It’s impossible to know what MacKenzie really thought as he first set eyes on this heavily rolling landscape. As canvases go, it could have been better. Building a good course on the side of a hill is never easy, building a great one is asking for a touch of genius. But he also knew that Jones was a clever and creative man and if he saw potential, then potential there must be.
Jones probably wasted little time before giving the doctor a guided tour of the property. The eminent American writer Herbert Warren Wind tells us of the astonishment that greeted both men when they came to the foot of the long hill from the clubhouse and discovered the natural arcing amphitheatre that was to become the famous 13th hole.
There are those who claim that Jones had quite a lot of input regarding the overall layout, but in David Owen’s book The Making of the Masters he makes it clear that it was MacKenzie who came up with the routing, positioned and created the greens and placed bunkers.
The fact that, depending on pin placements, there are so many ‘no-go’ areas around the greens at Augusta is testament to that. Indeed every hole has a spot on the green where most of us would give ourselves a pat on the back for a three putt. It is though the routing that is the most ingenious aspect of Augusta.
No two holes head in the same direction and on the front nine every hole has a different par from the one that preceded it. It’s only 10 and 11 along with 17 and 18 that are consecutive pars.
The shot values required for ultimate success are high. By that we mean that great shots with perfect control are rewarded more than poorer shots are overtly punished. He who dares often wins at Augusta, but you do have to be good enough to take the risks to reap the rewards.
Each of the par 5s, with the possible exception of the 8th, tempt the golfer to take on high tariff approaches when they know that a more conservative game plan can still pay dividends. It’s a course that asks questions at every turn, where no single strategy is necessarily the right one. A strategist’s dream.
The greatest of them all
Being a doctor of medicine who served in the Boer War, it is quite unclear how MacKenzie got the Augusta commission. As is the question of how he first met Bobby Jones. On the second of those points, the wise money seems to be on St Andrews.
Jones first played there in 1921 and returned for the Walker Cup in 1926. There is a suggestion that he probably chatted with MacKenzie about Augusta then. Certainly, three weeks later as he played in the Open at Lytham, the doctor was in the gallery, walking with OB Keeler, a golf writer and close friend of Jones.
1926 was a big year for MacKenzie. He travelled to New York in January and was commissioned to build Cypress Point in February. He returned home in March but then sailed to Australia in September where he drew out plans for Royal Melbourne’s West Course.
You can probably see how this is coming together. Melbourne and Cypress Point were to become iconic landmarks in elite golf course design, featuring, along with Augusta, in the top 10 of most of the world’s top course listings.
When Jones played Cypress Point, having suffered a shock defeat in the matchplay section of the US Amateur down the road at Pebble, he was immediately besotted by the design. Soon afterwards he played at Pasatiempo, another MacKenzie creation getting rave reviews, and was hugely impressed again.
In 1927, Jones defended his Open title at St Andrews, under the watchful eye of his new friend, and MacKenzie then sent him a signed copy of his book Golf Architecture, published in 1920.
The pair discovered that they shared the same design philosophies so it’s pretty safe to assume that as far as Augusta was concerned the groundwork had pretty much been done.
From Medicine to Moortown
Alister MacKenzie had been a man of medicine in his 20s but the interruption of wars helped him realise that his future lay elsewhere.
His interest in course architecture had really been sparked by the formation of the Alwoodley club near Leeds in 1907. His plans for the layout were admired by consultant Harry Colt and the pair worked on the project together.
His first solo creation was Moortown which opened in 1910. Between then and the start of the Great War, MacKenzie became prolific around this corner of Yorkshire. He designed and dabbled at Harrogate, Headingley, Halifax, Horsford, Scarborough South Cliff, Darlington, Wakefield, Roundhay Park, Saddleworth, Reddish Vale, Leeds, Garforth, Dore & Totley and Oakdale.
His reputation was then expanded to a wider audience thanks to County Life magazine which, in 1914, carried a ‘design a hole’ competition which MacKenzie won. He drew up an imaginary 420-yard par 4 that could be played in five different ways depending on the skill of the golfer and the weather conditions of the day.
What makes a MacKenzie Course?
Most will refer to large undulating greens, while some talk about ornate bunker shapes with tongues of turf breaking up the symmetry of the sand. But in truth, it’s quite hard to grasp one thread and say ‘that’s classic MacKenzie’. That’s because he tends to work with what’s put before him, the land dictating the style.
He was one of the first designers to refrain from ‘ironing out’ large mounds on greens which is probably where the ‘MacKenzie greens’ reference comes from. He was on a train once and overheard a golfer from Hoylake tell his friends, “I think we’ve got some of those infernal MacKenzie greens.”
He quizzed him about it before adding: “Well, I’m Dr MacKenzie and I’ve never seen or even heard of your blasted course, so how I can be responsible for your greens I don’t know.”
Eddie Birchenough, the former club pro at Royal Lytham and a member at Cavendish, said this in defence of MacKenzie greens. “His designs are based on his green complexes. Some are built with severe slopes and borrows, others are flat. They are usually defended by mounds or slopes or bunkers with just one narrow entrance from a particular part of the fairway.”
“To make this feature from the tee, he built his fairways 40 or 50 yards wide, knowing full well that only 10 of those yards simplified the approach. For years, Augusta was criticised for the lack of rough, but only by those who did not understand the subtlety of the design. Even today the edges of the fairway are cut slightly less short, just long enough to take some spin off the ball.”
Every architect seems to have a list of rules or principles which govern their approach and MacKenzie is no different, listing 13 guidelines in his book. We can dispatch a lot of them as being predictable. Not too hilly, minimum of blind shots, as good in the winter as summer, every hole its own character and making everything look nature made.
More interesting perhaps was his assertion that the next tee should be a slight walk forward from the previous green so that there may be room for lengthening if required. Impressive forward thinking. He abhorred searching for a lost ball, so kept rough to a minimum, and would have been apoplectic if he’d seen Carnoustie in 1999.
MacKenzie liked the ‘two loops of nine’ routing scenario and felt that the majority of holes should be two-shooters and that there should always be at least four par-3 holes.
Then there was this: “The course should so be arranged that the high handicap player should be able to enjoy his round in spite of the fact that he is piling up a big score. In other words, the beginner should not be continually harassed by losing strokes from playing out of sand bunkers. The layout should be so arranged that he loses strokes because he is making wide detours to avoid hazards.”
In this way, the less skilled golfer is playing to his handicap rather than being humiliated. MacKenzie expected you to tackle a course with a game plan and felt that many amateurs viewed the challenge before them in the wrong way. “Most golfers,” he said, “have an entirely erroneous view of the real object of hazards. The majority simply look upon hazards as a means of punishing a bad shot, when their real object is to make the game more interesting.”
The doctor died following a heart attack during Hogmanay celebrations to see in 1934. He lasted until January 6 when it’s said that his second wife, Hilda, ‘brought him his lunch and sat chatting. As she was tidying his room, he suddenly gasped and died’.
MacKenzie’s demise was met with shock and dismay, but it did provide Augusta with a solution to a problem that was proving hard for them so solve. They hadn’t paid MacKenzie his $10,000 fee for the work that he’d done. The club had been opened shortly after the Great Depression had set in during 1929 and there were moments in the early ’30s that it faced financial ruin.
Augusta took just 76 days to shape and contour and the formal opening took place in January 1933. Jones had planned that the inaugural Masters would take place the following year.
Augusta barely had the resources to cover the $200 weekly wage bill of its staff let alone the more handsome sum invoiced by its designer. When his letters got no response, MacKenzie sliced his bill in half and then wrote these distraught words to the Georgia club.
“I am at the end of my tether, no-one has paid me a cent since last June, we have mortgaged everything. Can you possibly let me have five hundred dollars to keep us out of the poor house?”
It is thought that MacKenzie did eventually recover around $2,000 before he died but that doesn’t seem much when you consider the recognition that Augusta National receives today. It is arguably the most revered place where golf is played across the world with the possible exception of St Andrews, and who designed that? Nature with a few digs from Old Tom Morris’ spade.
So it’s MacKenzie versus Nature although many would say that nature was the greatest weapon in the medical man from the Yorkshire Dales’ armoury. He might have died unexpectedly and destitute, but his footprints in the world of golf have left the kind of indelible mark that will ensure that he’ll never be forgotten.
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