Alister MacKenzie (Architect)

1870 - 1934

Alister MacKenzie (30 August 1870 – 6 January 1934) was a British golf course architect whose course designs span four continents. Originally trained as a surgeon, MacKenzie served as a civilian doctor with the British army during the Boer War where he first became aware of the principles of camouflage. During World War I, MacKenzie made his own significant contributions to military camouflage, which he saw as closely related to golf course design.[1] He is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, with designs that include Augusta National Golf Club in the USA, the Moortown Golf Club in England, Lahinch Golf Club in Ireland, and St. Charles Country Club in Canada.

MacKenzie was born in Normanton, near Leeds in Yorkshire, England, to parents of Scottish extraction. His mother Mary Jane Smith MacKenzie had family roots in Glasgow. His father, William Scobie MacKenzie, a medical doctor, had been born and raised in the Scottish Highlands near Lochinver. Although christened after his paternal grandfather Alexander, he was called "Alister" (Gaelic for Alexander) from birth. As a youth, MacKenzie and his family spent summers near Lochinver, on what had been traditional Clan MacKenzie lands from 1670-1745. MacKenzie's strong identification with his Scottish roots featured prominently in many aspects of his later life.[2]

MacKenzie attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield, before heading for Cambridge University, where he initially trained as a medical doctor, graduating in 1891 with a B.A. (Natural Science Tripos Part 1), with Honours, Third Class, before the next year undertaking and passing 2nd MB (Bachelor of Medicine. Latin: Medicinae Baccalaureus) Anatomy. After a period working in Leeds, he returned to Cambridge in 1895 where he undertook the 3rd MB examination (Part 1) before passing the London Licentiate examinations for Royal College of Surgeons the same year. Finally, in 1897 he graduated from Cambridge University, with MB BacS (Bachelor of Surgery), and MA degrees. [1]

MacKenzie served as a surgeon with the Somerset Regiment in South Africa during the Boer War.[which?]

During his wartime service, MacKenzie became interested in camouflage, which was effectively used by the Boers. As a result, during World War I, when he once again served in the military, he worked not as a surgeon but as a camoufleur. In a lecture he gave on the subject,[when?] he said that "the brilliant successes of the Boers [during his service in South Africa] were due to great extent to their making the best use of natural cover and the construction of artificial cover indistinguishable from nature." [3]

MacKenzie had been a member of several golf clubs near Leeds, England dating back as far as the late 1890s. These included Ilkley between 1890 and 1900, and then Leeds Golf Club from 1900 to 1910.[2] In 1907, he was one of the founding members of The Alwoodley Golf Club, where he served as both Honorary Secretary (1907-1909) and Club Captain (1912-1913), and he remained on its Green Committee for many years, until 1930. As the course was MacKenzie's original design when Alwoodley was laid out, it was his first opportunity to put many of his design theories to practical test. However, the Committee at the time thought that some of his ideas were too expansive, so it called in Harry Colt for a second opinion. Colt was one of the leading golf course architects of the time and was also the Secretary of Sunningdale Golf Club. Colt came up on two occasions only: first on 31 July 1907, when he met MacKenzie for the very first time, and later on 6 October 1909. On the first occasion in 1907, four months after the course opened for play, having stayed at MacKenzie's house overnight, he realized that MacKenzie's ideas were very much an extension of his own, and he gave great support for MacKenzie's ideas at the meeting with the Committee. He did however mention the bunkering as MacKenzie's ideas had taken into account the new technology of the day, which was the Haskell wound ball (which bounced & rolled) and was now being used instead of the old gutta-percha golf ball. Some of MacKenzie's modern ideas under discussion included: undulating greens, long and narrow greens angled from the center of the fairway, fairly large and free-form bunker shapes, and substantial additional contouring. All of these would remain part of his "signature style" throughout his career.[4]

MacKenzie's winning design in Country Life's 1914 golf architecture competition.

In 1914, MacKenzie won a golf hole design competition organized by Country Life; the adjudicator was Bernard Darwin. MacKenzie then took an active interest in course improvements at his own clubs, gaining experience in the newly emerging discipline of golf course design. He charted the Old Course at St. Andrews in great detail; by 1915 he had become a member of the R&A. In March 1924 he produced a map which remains well-known to the present day.[5]

Following World War I, MacKenzie left medicine and began to work instead as a golf course designer in the United Kingdom, in association with Harry Colt and Charles Alison in 1919, with whom he formed the London firm of Colt, MacKenzie & Alison.(p. 56) Four years later, MacKenzie went his own way.

MacKenzie thought he had learned a lot about golf course planning from having designed camouflage. There are references to the latter in his first book on course design, called Golf Architecture (MacKenzie 1920), such as when he writes that "there is an extraordinary resemblance between what is now known as the camouflage of military earthworks and golf-course construction",[6] or later, when he states that there "are many other attributes in common between the successful golf architect and the camoufleur. Both, if not actually artists, must have an artistic temperament, and have had an education in science."[7] In that same book, he also writes that "the chief object of every golf course architect worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature [and presumably also the hazards] so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself."[8] His book was later included in Herbert Warren Wind's Classics of Golf Library.

MacKenzie worked in an era before large scale earth moving became a major factor in golf course construction, and his designs are notable for their sensitivity to the nature of the original site.[citation needed]