The Guy Behind It All
We were talking about golf designers and architects. Ever want to design a golf course? What features would you have. You can bet much of your thoughts are based upon two legendary designers, Donald Ross and Alister MacKenzie. You see those two names all the time. While the closest we can get to Mac’s work around here might be Crystal Downs near Frankfurt — and we’ll never get to play there — and Kingsley Club, designed by Mike DeVries — a huge fan of MacKenzie’s. We can get a look at Ross’ work at The Highlands. Lots of subtle things there — greens in particular.
Wherever there is golfing history and tradition, there tends to be a Scotsman close to hand, and the US Masters at Augusta National is no exception.
Nowadays, the myriad features of this wonderful setting, which so many of us take for granted – including the azaleas, the switchback greens and the dread prospect of “Amen Corner” with its rambling creek – have become etched in sporting folklore.
But they only came to fruition in the 1930s when Bobby Jones, the greatest golfer of his generation, sat down and discussed how to design the Masters course with Dr Alister MacKenzie, a former doctor and camouflage expert, who brought his talents to golf by creating some of the greatest courses throughout the world.
Remarkably, or perhaps not, Jones only considered two candidates for the job of architect in Augusta – the other was Donald Ross from Dornoch. He had developed a deep affection for the Caledonian links courses on his travels and considered it perfectly natural that a Scot should be in charge of constructing his fairway to heaven.
MacKenzie, who had served with the Somerset regiment during the Boer War, had been impressed by how his adversaries had adapted their campaign tactics to their terrain and his course design was built around the same precepts of working with nature.
By the time he came to Georgia and shook hands with Jones, he had fine-tuned his signature style and the list of global courses in which he had been involved was staggering: from Cypress Point in California, to the Royal Melbourne Club in Australia, and the Old Course at Lahinch in Ireland, to the Portland Course at Royal Troon in Scotland.
Augusta, though, was his masterpiece, or should that be Masters piece. As the late writer and broadcaster, Alistair Cooke, of Letter from America fame, wrote: “Jones knew more about shot-making than anybody else, but he did not see himself as a one-man school of golf architecture.
He at once brought in Dr Alister MacKenzie, the Scot who had sensibly forsaken medicine for golf, and whose incomparable links course at Cypress Point, on the coast of northern California, Jones greatly admired.
“Jones was firm on one point. He wanted to run against the current of the 1920s, which had multiplied courses with anything up to two hundred bunkers, which penalised shots, good, bad and indifferent. Jones wanted a strategic course, one which – while only having 44 bunkers, no rough to speak of, very wide fairways and fast, undulating greens – would offer a way round to the high-handicap golfer, a challenge to the middle man, yet also provide a supreme test of a great player’s ability to think out the placement of every shot. And MacKenzie was the man he chose to turn his dreams into reality. He chose correctly.”
By the good doctor’s own admission, he had learned the lessons from his war-time experiences and effectively combined camouflage and design to stunning effect. MacKenzie, a typical Scotsman of his generation, hard-working, not given to grand gestures, or blowing his own trumpet, toiled assidously to complete his grand vision and one of the minor tragedies of the Augusta Miracle was that he died three months before the inaugural US Masters in 1934, which was won by the American player, Horton Smith.
Yet, at least, MacKenzie bestowed his philosophy to future generations. “There is an extraordinary resemblance between what is known as the camouflage of military earthworks and golf-course construction,” he declared, before adding: “Indeed, there are many other attributes in common between the successful golf architect and the camofleur.
“Both, if not actually artists, must have an artistic temperament, and have had an education in science. The chief object of every course architect worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself.”
In short, he was an aesthete with a sensitivity for the surroundings and a capacity for designing holes which profferred an ideal balance of risk and reward. Jones was appreciative of the results, as one might have expected, and the Scottish connection to the Masters continued when the tournament officials established the custom in 1963 of commencing the Major event with an honorary opening tee shot, performed by some of the legends of the sport.
The original honorary starters – and the men who did the job from 1963 to 1973 – were Jock Hutchison, a native of St Andrews, who won two majors in 1920 and 1921 and Fred McLeod, a fellow born in North Berwick, who surged to victory at the US Open in 1908.
Both individuals were as much in thrall to MacKenzie as anybody else. And although there have been many modifications to Augusta in the intervening 77 years, this gorgeous slice of Georgia remains one of the enduring cathedrals of golfing drama, as we prepare for the 2011 competition to get underway on Thursday.
It wouldn’t have happened without Dr MacKenzie.