The Pioneer: Dr Alister MacKenzie

Mark Rowlinson profiles the designer of Cypress Point, Royal Melbourne and Augusta National.

Alister MacKenzie is probably unique among great golf course architects in that he was not himself a first rate player.

We know little of his golfing pedigree other than the fact that he was a member of both Headingley and Leeds Golf Clubs when he attended a meeting in January 1907 at which The Alwoodley Golf Club was formed

MacKenzie, a Leeds doctor, was appointed the club’s first secretary and he seems to have been able to convince his fellow committee members that he could provide them with a far more interesting course than any then extant in the area. A course of some kind was in play by the summer of that year and in July Harry Colt visited the club as a consultant. Quite what input he may have had is not recorded other than a minute: “The proposed alteration of the Course was discussed with Mr Colt and it was unanimously resolved that it be adopted.”

Colt stayed with MacKenzie, later writing of their meeting, “After dinner he took me into his consulting room, where, instead of finding myself surrounded by the weapons of his profession as a Doctor of Medicine, I sat in the midst of a collection of photographs of sand bunkers, putting greens, and golf courses, and many plans and designs of the Alwoodley Course.”

Today’s Alwoodley is little different from that of MacKenzie and it provides a good summary of his design philosophies. It is less extreme than some of his later work, particularly overseas, but it clearly demonstrates the originality of his thinking. The fundamental difference between Alwoodley and almost every other inland course at that time was the greens. They were big and contoured to give a number of distinct areas in which the hole might be cut. Many of them were angled away from the centre line of the fairway. For the first time in inland golf in Britain it became imperative to hit the approach shot to a specific portion of the green and this would only be attainable from a designated area on the fairway.

Such greens meant that the golfer had to think back from green to tee in order to place the drive in the ideal spot. MacKenzie’s bunkers, too, took on aspects novel to inland golf. Their size and visibility confirmed their strategic importance, their placement emphasising the penalty awaiting an imperfectly struck approach shot played from the rough or the wrong part of the fairway. Free-form sculpturing and creative mound work tied the bunkers in to the other fairway and greenside features, resulting in an impression that everything was derived from the land itself (which, to a large extent, it was).

The immediate success of Alwoodley resulted in an invitation to design a course almost next door – Moortown. It shared many design concepts with Alwoodley, but one hole in particular, Gibraltar, brought considerable interest from far afield.MacKenzie used a rocky slope to construct a short hole with contours which would deflect the imperfectly struck shot into an army of bunkers scooped out of the edges of the putting surface.With a number of different pin positions, playing strategy could be varied daily.

Moortown’s instant fame brought a flood of invitations for MacKenzie to design new courses (mostly in the north of England) and redesign old ones. In due course he became a partner with Colt and Alison and gave up medicine for good.

It was in his capacity as consultant to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club that MacKenzie received an invitation to travel to Australia in 1926 to advise on improvements at Royal Melbourne. Here MacKenzie met Australian Open champion Alex Russell and greenkeeper ‘Mick’ Morcom. Not only did they assist him in the revisions to Royal Melbourne’s West Course but also they quickly assimilated MacKenzie’s concepts, translating his sketched ideas into greens, fairways and bunkers on site. MacKenzie visited a number of courses in his short visit and managed to design or redesign Kingston Heath, Victoria, Metropolitan, Yarra Yarra, New South Wales and other courses.

Importantly, Russell and Morcom were able to make use of much of the MacKenzie style in their later work.With the visit also extended to New Zealand for an expansion to Titirangi, it is clear why Tom Doak in his excellent book on MacKenzie (The Life and Work of Dr Alister MacKenzie, Wiley, 2001) described this period as “two months that changed a continent.”

It is apparent from the Australian visit just how much MacKenzie’s style had developed: the masterly routing of courses through optimal terrain, the blossoming of his bunker designs so that they were now works of art in themselves and his ever-growing confidence with handling extreme contouring of putting surfaces. He was now in the form which brought him to the attention of golf entrepreneur Robert Hunter, who was key to MacKenzie’s rapid establishment in America. MacKenzie and Hunter collaborated first on The Meadow Club, a comparatively restrained course high in the hills to the north of San Francisco.

Hunter, however, was sufficiently impressed to introduce MacKenzie to Marion Hollins, past US Women’s Amateur Champion and development agent for an opulent private club to be built on the Del Monte estate at Cypress Point, a dramatic oceanside canvas of giant sand dunes of enormous architectural potential.

MacKenzie missed no opportunity, creating a course which, even with today’s clubs and balls, leaves no golfer in doubt that MacKenzie’s genius was to use the given landscape  and its spectacular marine backcloths – to brilliant strategic as well as visual effect. Hollins then invited MacKenzie to lay out another course, Pasatiempo, alongside which MacKenzie chose to live. He invested more personal involvement in this project than anything since Alwoodley.

Fortuitously, when Bobby Jones visited California to play in the 1929 US Amateur and was surprisingly eliminated in the first round, he took the opportunity to play both Cypress Point and Pasatiempo. That Jones then selected MacKenzie, an immigrant Scotsman, to assist him in the design and construction of his pet project at Augusta was not only inspired but also done with serious consideration, for AW Tillinghast, William Flynn, Donald Ross, Perry Maxwell and the Canadian Stanley Thompson must surely have been more obvious (and more local) candidates at the time.

Augusta National has been heavily altered, especially in recent times, to protect – or Tiger-proof – it against the prodigious play of modern professionals and the technical advances of balls and clubs. Some would say (probably with good reason) that many of MacKenzie and Jones’s design parameters have been lost for good, but there is no denying the fact that the first major of the year is still played annually on a course designed by a mere middle-handicapper.

Mark Rowlinson is past editor of and principal contributor to the World Atlas of Golf (Hamlyn), compiler of The Times Guide to Golf Courses of Britain and Ireland (Hamlyn), author of A Place to Golf (Conran) and is currently writing the centenary books of The Alwoodley, Hartlepool, Stockport and Sandy Lodge Golf Clubs.

With thanks to: the Julian P Graham Historical Photographic Collection ( for the photography of Dr Alister MacKenzie; Joann Dost ( for the photograph of Cypress Point; and Jon Hall for the photograph of Moortown.

This article first appeared in issue 2 of Golf Course Architecture , published in October 2005


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