World Golf Hall of Fame Profile: Alister MacKenzie
Augusta National, Cypress Point, Royal Melbourne, Pasatiempo, and Crystal Downs all have two things in common - the golf courses were designed by Alister MacKenzie and have become veritable cathedrals of the game.
Former United States Golf Association President Sandy Tatum calls Cypress Point "the Sistine Chapel of Golf" and few would argue with him. Since opening in 1928, Cypress Point's 16th hole has been the most photogenic in the world. Initially, MacKenzie considered making 16 a do-or-die par 4, but he was convinced otherwise by U.S. Women's Amateur champion Marion Hollins.
"The amazing thrill of driving successfully over the ocean at the sixteenth hole at Cypress Point," he said, "more than compensates for the loss of a dozen balls."
Every April, the golf world descends on perhaps MacKenzie's best known course for The Masters. The greatest player of his generation, Bobby Jones, handpicked MacKenzie to design Augusta National. When Jones was upset in the first round of the 1929 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, he played Cypress Point and marveled at the layout. When they met, the pair realized their shared affection for the Old Course at St. Andrews, where Jones won 1920 British Amateur and the 1927 British Open. In 1923, MacKenzie was hired by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club to survey the Old Course. MacKenzie's map hangs in the Royal and Ancient clubhouse to this day.
A wonderful partnership was formed. "MacKenzie and I managed to work as a completely sympathetic team," Jones wrote in Golf is My Game. "Of course, there was never any question that he was the architect and I his advisor and consultant." With Jones hitting test shots at his side, MacKenzie created the perfect puzzle for the masters of the game. The hand of man is unobtrusive, the beauty of the course is ever-present, and despite the changes in the landscape wrought by the passing of time and efforts to stay current with technology, there is not jarring artificiality, only a serene naturalness. Sadly, MacKenzie never got to see the final product of his masterpiece. He died before the club opened in 1934.
Like the artist Vincent Van Gogh, MacKenzie's work has been better appreciated following his death. Royal Melbourne has been called the best course south of the equator. Routinely 10 of his courses are rated in the top 100 in the world by the major golf magazines.
MacKenzie's book, Golf Architecture, published in 1920, was the first to present and explain the fundamentals of golf course design. MacKenzie combined modest golf holes with more heroic challenges, always allowing room for the lesser player to enjoy the game.
MacKenzie's forte was his greens. He refrained from flattening natural undulations and contrived to create artificial undulations that were "indistinguishable from nature." MacKenzie practiced before the era of bulldozers, which left him little capacity to force golf holes where they didn't belong. His approach to providing fair and strategic golf without disrupting the site is a model for golf course design that lasts to this day.
Originally a surgeon in England, MacKenzie served in the Boer War and World War I. MacKenzie abandoned medicine and joined H.S. Colt, the first architect to devote a career solely to designing golf courses, and began working in the British Isles. His greatest work was to come after he immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1920s. By the end of his career MacKenzie had laid out some 400 golf courses.
MacKenzie died of heart failure on January 6, 1934 in Santa Cruz, Calif. His ashes were spread over the Pasatiempo golf course. He left behind a wonderful legacy of golf architecture. During his final years, he wrote a book The Spirit of St. Andrews, and it included a foreword by Bobby Jones. It was never published during his lifetime, but a copy was found by his step-grandson and was published in 1995. It gave those who admire his work one last treasure from a man whose golf courses will be treasured for generations to come.