A golfing Sphinx

  • Sphinx

    The untouched Alister MacKenzie sixteenth green at Worcestershire Golf Club as it is today

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    Golfers playing the green as in 1927

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    Harry Colt nearly designed the golf course, with the club ultimately electing for MacKenzie

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    The yellow circle on the above present-day satellite image shows the location of the green site on an unused area of land owned by the club

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    An image from 1946 that shows the green site remained untouched following a compulsory purchase order to build a hospital for casualties of World War II

David Thomas
By David Thomas

There cannot be many golf clubs that possess an original Dr Alister MacKenzie-designed green, one that retains its original contours and features, yet hasn’t been actively played on for 80 years. One such green does exist however, at the Worcestershire Golf Club in Malvern, UK.

Founded in 1879, the Worcestershire GC is the joint fifteenth oldest golf club in England. From its foundation until 1927, the club played over a variety of different course routings on Malvern Common. By the mid-1920s however, the Common, with its open access to the public, its animal grazing and ever more traffic on the roads crossing the lines of play, had become a less than satisfactory place to play golf.

The club therefore looked for another location and found one available at nearby Wood Farm (although it should be noted that some ladies and artisans continued to play golf on the Common until WWII). Dr Alister MacKenzie was hired to design the new course and by May 1927 the course, constructed by the British Golf Course Construction Company and overseen by Alister’s brother and partner in the BGCCC, Major Charles MacKenzie, was ready for play.

MacKenzie’s course was an open aspect parkland design of 6,200 yards and comprised two loops of nine returning to the former farmhouse that served as the clubhouse.

During WWII however, a huge change to the club and course occurred when the second nine of MacKenzie’s course was compulsory purchased in order to build a hospital, one of many constructed in the area, in this case the US Army 55th General Hospital, for anticipated D-Day and thereafter casualties.

At the end of the war, the club thus found itself with only a nine-hole golf course and it played as such until the mid-1970s when some of the hospital land was returned and nine further holes were built by Hawtree and Co. Although some of the new Hawtree holes were built on sections of the former hospital land, most were not, as various buildings and roadways now covered much of that area. One MacKenzie second-nine green located in a far corner of the property, however, did manage to escape destruction during the building and operation of the hospital, MacKenzie’s original sixteenth green.

This green, originally on the end of a circa 420-yard ‘bogey five’ that played uphill and into the prevailing wind, still exists, unused and unchanged for 80 years, original contours intact, although it should be noted that for a very short period in the 1970s it was used as a practice chipping green.

In his 1927 and 1939 booklets about the Worcestershire GC, golf writer Robert Browning described the hole and green as follows: “The run of the ground is slightly in favour of the drive, but the green is on a rising plateau that swings in toward the hole from the right, the face of the plateau in the direct line to the hole being heavily bunkered. It is a difficult approach even for a player who is content to reach the green with his third, but the long hitter finds himself faced with precisely the same problem as at the famous Redan in North Berwick. In both cases, the proper way to reach the hole is with a pull, so as to come in from the right, but at Malvern the shot is made all the more difficult by having to be played from the fairway instead of from the tee.”

He describes the 420-yard hole as “one of the best on the course”.

It would seem, and local anecdotes confirm it, that the sixteenth was once a very formidable hole, especially when played wearing a jacket and tie with an early generation wound ball and hickory shafted, wooden headed clubs.

Read about how Harry Colt nearly designed the course at Worcestershire GC

In 2015, I undertook a comprehensive review of the club’s history concentrating particularly on the history of the course. This unearthed many old course details, tidbits of information and photographs that had not been seen before or at least not seen for a considerable period of time.

One of these discoveries was Browning’s 1927 booklet and the photograph it contained of MacKenzie’s original sixteenth green, since WWII hidden and unloved in a corner of a field still owned by the club, yet only used by a local farmer for grazing sheep.

With the approval of the club’s board of directors and the chairman of greens, the farmer removed his sheep and the club’s course manager gradually started to remove vegetation from around the old green, a task made harder given the amount of vegetation that had grown up over the decades and the wetness in the area caused by a severely-blocked field drain and a spring seeping out of the immediately adjacent Malvern Hills.

During the last few years several prominent golf course architects, writers, historians and golf course architecture enthusiasts have visited the club and viewed the green in question, which is where the headline of this piece originated. Each was very generous and encouraging with comments and others who wish to visit and see what’s on the ground are very welcome. At the time of writing in late 2019, the green is still in an unrestored state with no work having been done on it for 18 months or so.

Worcestershire GC is a private members’ club, owned and financed by the membership and as such finances and projects at the club have different priorities at different times and currently restoring this old green, irrespective of how unique it may be in golf course design history, is not necessarily seen as a priority. Perhaps one day it may be although its remote location several hundred yards away from the other holes on the existing course mean it cannot easily be combined with the existing course routing. One possible option would be for it to become part of a separate short course, although this would require membership approval.

David Thomas is historian of the Worcestershire Golf Club. He would like to thank Neil Crafter and Adam Lawrence for their help with the research for this piece.

This article first appeared in the January 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.