Chris Pitman describes his renovation of Alister MacKenzie's Titirangi course in New Zealand.
In 1927 Dr Alister MacKenzie wrote that here, on the Fringe of Heaven, better known in Maori as Titirangi, the ground was "exceptionally well adapted for golf," adding, "it is undulating without being hilly and has many natural features such as ravines of a bold and impressive nature."
These attributes certainly shone through a decidedly rundown golf course when I inspected it in 1996. It had been fifty years since MacKenzie's intervention and almost thirty since, as a young greenkeeping apprentice, I subconsciously digested the Doctor's talent at West Herts in England. Having faithfully studied all I could about my mentor in the intervening years this restoration commission down under would be a suitable climax to a career in golf course creation. And what better opportunity than on this authentic tract of Kiwiana, rustic bush and ground movement, mixed with the legendary principles of Alister MacKenzie.
Inspired by his hardly precise, but conceptually explicit working sketches that were being treasured in the clubhouse, I had my first thoughts on the magnitude and important contribution, if done well, this project could be to the history of the game; initially a master plan and then to provide construction details as the drawn-out restoration programme dictated. Anyone who has been involved in successful upgrading knows, play disruption to the membership seems almost as important as a dip into the pockets.
The initial exercise was to not only convince the Board of Management of my accumulated MacKenzie knowledge but how exactly it should be applied to their precious course, to suit modern times. Once appointed there was an unanimous decision that the layout and incorporation of the abundant natural features could not be bettered, certainly not by creating any monuments, so it was left well alone. After all, the four par threes were rated as good as any in the country and to my mind with a little modification and some developments in the grass roots department will always remain so. Boy, could Alister pick a greensite.
In my presentation, working with the lines of nature for camouflage to mask mystery and charm figured highly. Through time they have most positively become my own ever-present guidelines. I have learnt that any feeling of success in trying to pass the pleasure on to golfing devotees, albeit usually only felt and hardly ever explained, was derived from an astute application or creation of natural detail. It was vital to echo MacKenzie's thoughts on the retention of interest and strategy by not totally eliminating unfairness.
As we first strode the site, bursting as it was with eye appeal in all quarters, standing water revealed a scary example of the dour Auckland clay belt. However I was reassured by how MacKenzie had transformed early venues in the north of England to match, in form at least, the better British heathlands with their admirable characteristic challenge, almost to linksland proportions. The extensive addition of bunker sand was the exemplary attest of his techniques and has always lead the application of this visual accent as it has continued through to the pristine styles of today. We were to make our mark with it at Titirangi.
As much a part of any MacKenzie challenge was surely to be the positioning and orientation of greensites. Patches of this prevailed as I began my acquaintance with the intricacies of the course. Putting surfaces set obliquely to the centrelines of play and high-faced bunkers placed sentinel-fashion to mask a certain amount of the green's pin positions would realise the Doctor's call for a constant installation of variety and subtlety. Of course many memorable instances, in a far less subtle mode, came to be linked with the famous name.
Encouraged by a plethora of material from the industrious pen, I and course superintendent Steve Hookway eventually were entreated with the highly enviable task of producing what MacKenzie himself might have achieved had he visited for more than a day or what would have resulted from such a lengthy tinkering period as occurred before his passing away at Pasatiempo in Santa Cruz, California. A study of opening day records of this well-known course would surely give an insight into the man's brain just as the clock was stopped.
Although the planning and a personal architectural journey had culminated in clear guidelines for this project, it was to be, as is always the story, the site interpretation that would provide any elevation of the project into the acceptance sphere of the Alister MacKenzie Society as they visit from all parts of the world later this year.
As I write we have only two greens to finish but already the club can display a comprehensive series of typically rolling putting surfaces where long, slightly concave slopes create the architecture as they descend and influence the play from high, narrow mounds supporting, more into their summits than below, the lighthouse bunkers. Plenty of sand depth and adequate subsoil drainage maintains the high faces while brushing rather than raking ensures a golf ball roll back to the more palatable recovery lies of the basins.
Just as my visits to Pasatiempo included work for Ron Fream and Peter Thomson with a tree reduction programme, Titirangi, like all courses of a similar age, especially in the humid northern reaches of New Zealand, demanded the removal of many tall and fragile pine trees. Most of the conglomeration had been introduced by the early settlers who had brought their clubs. The smaller sites of bygone sensible-playing-equipment-eras allowed eighteen holes only by solid and formal separation with lines of trees.
Now they had outgrown their usefulness and besides being dangerous, came to overwhelm the course architecture, relentlessly establishing a more penal game as the years passed.
If we were to add strategy while removing this ancient competition to the fine turfgrasses, other features such as bunkers would be required. Rambling lacy sand displays, notorious 'scabs' and all, began to punctuate the scene. With their crests shining like breaking waves, they caused a fairway meandering effect even on the straighter holes. I always presumed to think that the resulting hidden landing zones heralded a return to that old-fashioned commodity, local knowledge; with charm of course.
To replace hole separation and generally break up the site a concentrated programme of native tree planting was adopted in bush-type groupings. Certainly a return to reduced maintenance areas has become critical against the ever-escalating modern fuel bills of wall-to-wall mowing.
Such an exciting and golf-conducive picture framing has seen a spread of the prolific tea tree, the hardy coastal and colourful pohutukawa, the emblemic cabbage and exotic tall tree ferns, all plants in the rustic native category. In many instances they are tightly gathered on mounding to obtain some essential and instant security height. Tall fescues and bush species of grass have found their way from out-of-play rough to the tongues and noses of the bunker faces. While distinctly apprehensive at first, local golfers have learned to deal with this new but necessary rendezvous with Nature. Incidentally, we knew a limit had been reached when a family of plovers occupied a bunker island.
In sympathy with MacKenzie's wariness of the monotony of the normal pitch occurring too often in a round, we carefully respected the pitch and run with greens aprons receiving a similar sand veneer-overdrainage treatment as the putting surfaces themselves. In the matching vegetative cover these 20-30 metre areas of firm ground were propagated with the same poa annua grass that had been harvested by aeration tines from the other greens. Establishment was quick while presenting a mature green to match the others. Nothing grows better in this climate than this type of turf and annually with our budget we were able to lift one or two greens, do the necessary and return them to play within eight to ten weeks.
The tees were renovated in similar fashion while little fairway disturbance allowed the excellent browntop and fescue grasses to continue to defy their distinct lack of topsoil and be encouraged by the restricted use of a new irrigation system; to flourish beyond the seasonal extremes of mud and hardpan.
Of course, just as did our predecessor we managed a couple of controversial putting surfaces. I had always maintained that a tad here and there of good old MacKenzie 'spirit of antagonism' was in order in these days of megastandardisation. Although in a couple of places we agreed to the reluctant step back, it was gratifying to note the initial criticism turn, as the Doctor had predicted, into support and even, from the more adept players, to praise.
Maintaining my architect-on-site attitude I joined Steve, as he more than mastered the art of pointing the bulldozer in the right direction, for long hours of getting our shapes right. Living and breathing typical MacKenzie observations of nature such as, for example, valleys wider than the summits, we hoped that the great man would be pleased with each divine aerial panorama he must now be compiling.
We are constantly reminded that the two examples of Pasatiempo and Cypress Point received extended periods of his time and consequently show many designers are only as good as those who build their courses, and that hands-on creations with the time to tinker are of the highest value. There is no magic. Someone who knows has to be there.
A last word from Dr MacKenzie still applies: "Create artificial features so naturally authentic they usually escape all criticism."
Chris Pitman is a golf architect based in New Zealand.
This article first appeared in issue 13 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2008.