Dr Alister MacKenzie’s first course is undergoing a five-year improvement programme. Toby Ingleton finds out more.
A Golden Age design is a major weapon in a club’s promotional armoury.
Alongside Harry Colt and Donald Ross, one of the big ticket names is Dr Alister MacKenzie. His legacy in the United States includes Augusta National, Cypress Point, Crystal Downs and Pasatiempo, all of which are extremely highly rated and none of which are backward in coming forward with the historical architectural importance of their courses.
But on this side of the Atlantic, clubs have been a little more reserved in such promotion. This may be a reflection of culture. In relative terms, American history is short and therefore buildings, places, people and items that are historically noteworthy are in shorter supply, and perhaps more revered.
But even us modest Brits realise that, commercial benefits aside, it’s important to celebrate and cherish our history. And that is exactly what is happening at the only club which can claim to be the first designed by MacKenzie.
It was at the Alwoodley Golf Club in the outskirts of Leeds, England’s fourth largest city, where MacKenzie developed his interest in golf architecture. His design here led to his association with Harry Colt twelve years later, who famously recollected a meeting with MacKenzie “in 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.”
Since that meeting, the course at Alwoodley has acquired the usual blemishes of time, particularly in relation to bunkering. The original high faces had been grassed down in many of the bunkers, reducing their visibility and the golfing drama they provide. Many of the original shapes were lost, the grass faces had become quite mossy and, in some cases, severe lips had formed behind the bunkers.
In planning to rectify these issues, the club also saw the opportunity to examine how well the course reflected MacKenzie’s original design intentions. Nick Leefe, club historian and secretary of the Alister MacKenzie Society, explains: “In addition to keeping the old man alive, we wanted to revive the old fashioned style and MacKenzie characteristics as best as we can, with today’s technology and budgets.”
The club turned to Creative Golf Design’s Ken Moodie, formerly president of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects, to conduct an appraisal of the course with a view to improving its strategy and aesthetics, while preserving and reinstating its special character and heritage.
Drawing heavily from the many reference points of Alwoodley’s past that were available, including a map drawn and annotated by MacKenzie, historic photographs and an aerial survey conducted by the Royal Air Force shortly after the Second World War, Moodie was able to piece together a compelling and detailed proposal that could faithfully inject MacKenzie’s original spirit back into the course.
With Moodie on hand to offer close supervision, work started in 2009 on two holes, the seventh and thirteenth. As often becomes the case, the first steps of a course improvement programme become something of a test run to gauge member satisfaction. The two reworked holes have much greater visual impact and these striking changes convinced the club it was heading in the right direction. MacKenzie advocated strong visibility of hazards on golf courses and the new bunkers succeed in this aim, being highly visual with irregular, natural shaping and areas of heather on the faces.
Changes to the four holes closest to the clubhouse – one, two, seventeen and eighteen – were completed in late 2010 and have delivered improvements on many levels. With an out and back style routing, the opening and closing holes lie adjacent to each other. Gorse bushes and some coarse rough that separated the holes have been removed, with contour and bunkering now providing the primary definition between the two. The vision of the club and professionalism of Moodie, who is also working at nearby Moortown, has led to great strides in visuals, strategy and playability.
“It was a little daunting at first to work on a course of such great historic significance to the development of golf course architecture, since I knew I was bound to be judged by my peers and other connoisseurs of the game, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It has been fascinating to discover MacKenzie’s original design features from old plans, photographs and site evidence while striving to restore the spirit of this classic masterpiece,” says Moodie.
Changes are expected to be completed throughout the course within the next three years. Like most clubs, Alwoodley wants to attract and retain visitor play. For those of us struggling for a tee time at Augusta National and Cypress Point, Alwoodley is a fine, accessible and arguably more important example of MacKenzie’s work!
This article appeared in issue 23 of GCA, published January 2011.