Exploring Dr Alister MacKenzie’s North East connections
Golf courses designed, renovated, remodelled and enhanced by Dr Alister MacKenzie are renowned and respected around the world. His work in Yorkshire, where he was born and lived much of his early life before travelling the world and living in the US, is highly regarded while he also played a major part in forging the golfing landscape of the North East.
Born in Normanton, Yorkshire on August 30, 1870, MacKenzie studied and trained as a surgeon at Cambridge University and served in the British Army in South Africa during the Second Boer War in 1900 and 1901. He returned to Yorkshire and became involved in golf course design as a founding member and the first secretary of Alwoodley from 1907.
Working in golf course design from 1907 until his death in January 1934, MacKenzie’s designs and alterations are recognised as some of the world’s finest examples of golf course architecture today. The MacKenzie and Bobby Jones-designed Augusta National (2); MacKenzie and Robert Hunter-designed Cypress Point (3); MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell-designed Crystal Downs (14); MacKenzie and Hunter-designed Valley Club of Montecito (78); and MacKenzie-designed Pasatiempo (98) appear in Golf Digest’s America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses.
Meanwhile, MacKenzie-designed Royal Melbourne West (5) and New South Wales (33) feature in Golf Digest’s World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses alongside Lahinch (31), Victoria (73), Metropolitan (79) and Royal Adelaide (80) – where his revisions and alterations are significantly credited. MacKenzie also drew plans for bunkering at Kingston Heath, ranked 12th in the world list, though Des Soutar and Mick Morcom are credited as architects.
In England, MacKenzie’s first course architecture work at Alwoodley remains a fine example of his design philosophy. In his 1920 book, Golf Architecture, he discusses using the natural beauty of the terrain rather than artificial features. He writes: “…the chief object of every golf course architect worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself.” He also set out his 13 principles for course design in the book, including to offer an infinite variety in the strokes required to play the various holes; creating a minimum of four one-shot holes; minimal walking between holes; and a desire, where possible, to arrange holes in two loops of nine. His green complexes also feature natural shapes – large putting surfaces blending seamlessly into the immediate surroundings, reflecting his highly praised studies of The Old Course at St Andrews as a member of The R&A.
From 1910-1914, MacKenzie drew plans for, advised on changes to or worked on a number of courses including Blairgowrie, Doncaster, Garforth, Harrogate, Headingley, Ilkley, Oakdale, Pannal and Scarborough South Cliff.
Respected golf course architect Harry Colt had advised on MacKenzie’s original plans at Alwoodley and following MacKenzie’s service in the First World War as an expert in military camouflage, the pair launched the London-based firm Colt, MacKenzie & Alison with Charles Hugh Alison in 1919. MacKenzie went his own way in 1923.
Following the First World War, MacKenzie worked at courses including Ganton, Moor Allerton and Bolton Old Links. He also travelled extensively, advising on courses including Douglas (Isle of Man), Lahinch (Ireland), Royal Adelaide (Australia), Titirangi (New Zealand), The Jockey Club Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Club de Golf del Uruguay.
In 1926, MacKenzie travelled to California and worked alongside Robert Hunter to create Cypress Point, which opened in 1928. His other works in the US – notably the 8th and 13th holes at Pebble Beach, Pasatiempo, Crystal Downs, and Valley Club of Montecito – continue to top golf course rankings.
The crowning work of his career, Augusta National Golf Club, opened for play in 1933 – two years after MacKenzie met with Augusta founder Bobby Jones to discuss the project. The first tournament at the club, which would go on to be known as The Maters, was played in 1934 – two months after MacKenzie’s death.
Today, MacKenzie’s designs span four continents. In the North East of England, many of them remain much the way MacKenzie imagined them. Thanks to the extensive chronology created and maintained by The Alister MacKenzie Society, we are able to see when and where MacKenzie visited in the North East as well as play the courses he worked on.
MacKenzie’s first recorded visit to the North East was in late 1913 to South Shields Golf Club. He was appointed to extend the course and in February 1914, The Newcastle Journal reported: “…two new fields are to be taken in, and the creation of bunkering and other work will run the club into an expense of some hundreds of pounds. Dr MacKenzie of Leeds has recently been over the course planning hazards to test the skill of the player, and to improve the sporting character of some of the holes.”
Having been formed in 1893 with a James Braid-designed nine-hole course atop the northern most part of the Durham Magnesium Limestone Plateau, South Shields was extended to 18 holes in 1903-4. MacKenzie developed and remodelled several holes in 1913, emphasising the coastal heathland elements and further enhancing the rugged landscape’s golfing potential. Remodelled further in the late 1920s, today South Shields affords spectacular views over the Tyne estuary, Cheviot Hills and Cleveland Hills – particularly from the 13th tee, which is thought to be the highest point in South Tyneside. More greats of the game are immortalised at South Shields, which has hosted James Taylor and Harry Vardon as well as Christy O’Connor Jnr – who was an assistant professional at the club – and European Tour winner Doug McClelland.
Around the same time as he was working at South Shields, MacKenzie worked on recommendations for Seaham Golf Club – primarily new greens at the fifth and 10th holes – as well as changes to bunkers.
In 1914, MacKenzie visited Darlington Golf Club and spent a day laying out the routing for the new course. Opened for play in 1915, MacKenzie’s layout at Darlington replaced the original 1908 course. Today, the large, rolling greens which blend into the surroundings are a fine example of MacKenzie’s design philosophy. Tree-lined fairways demand accuracy from the tee while a unique set of short holes, including the 137-yard 12th, are a treat to play.
In July 1924, MacKenzie wrote to Seaton Carew enclosing his scale of fees and a copy of his book. He visited Seaton and submitted his report on his plans in December 1924.
in January 1925, before work began at Seaton, MacKenzie beat a proposal by Harry Colt to design Ravensworth Golf Club for the fee of £15.15.0. By February 1926, the works were completed and the company headed onto their next project – Seaton Carew.
At Seaton, England’s 10th oldest course, MacKenzie was engaged to make use of new land and enhance a course he had earlier described as a “fine piece of golfing country” on a visit during the First World War. While MacKenzie’s plans for Seaton Carew no longer exist, a copy of his report does. In it he notes: “a difference of opinion as to whether the inland holes should be retained; improved, and thoroughly drained; or new holes constructed nearer the sea on the ground which has within recent years become available owing to the sea having receded”. He recommended the latter option along with a series of other radical changes. There would be new tees and bunkers on most holes, others would be re-routed to existing greens, and five brand new holes would be created to replace the 11th, 12th, 13th 14th and 15th. Arguably his best piece of work came at the 17th, where he recommended, “altering the approach to the green, so that the tee shot be played to the right”.
Much of MacKenzie’s original design for Seaton Carew is still in play today as the Old Course, although many holes have been lengthened. The only major changes were made within a few years of the re-construction – removing MacKenzie’s 8th and replacing it with what is now the 12th; and the extension and re-routing of his 11th hole to become a new 13th. In the early 1970s, with the prospect of losing some of its land, the club added four Frank Pennink-designed holes, and today offers a set of routings using the 22 holes. Further enhancements are ongoing under the guidance of course manager Tom Coulson, with an extensive programme of works planned this autumn to open up views across the course by removing sea buckthorn and return the landscape to the one MacKenzie first saw.
In late 1925, MacKenzie’s final recorded work in the North East was his appointment to redesign the existing course at South Moor. A venue with championship pedigree, today the heathland layout presents a stern test among heather, bracken and gorse. Featuring many elements of MacKenzie’s natural design philosophy, greens transition beautifully from fairways and bunkers appear to sit naturally alongside green strips of fairway. While not the longest course, South Moor demands accuracy with penal rough and worse waiting to catch errant shots, while MacKenzie’s fascinating greens have to be played many times to begin to understand properly.
MacKenzie’s natural philosophy continues to inspire those who aspire to reduce the impact their designs have on the typography presented to the architect while his flowing green complexes remain tremendous fun to unpick and route your golf ball through, whether you’re in Yorkshire, Georgia, California, Australia or here in the North East.