The Alister MacKenzie Story
The world-famous designer who began his career at Alwoodley
Alister MacKenzie was born in Normanton, near Leeds, in 1870 to Scottish parents. After studying at Leeds and Cambridge Universities, he graduated with degrees in chemistry, medicine and science. A keen golfer, he was a member of Leeds Golf Club and joined his father’s medical practice as a GP. MacKenzie served in the Boer War (1900-01). It was here that he saw, first hand, the concealed trenches and camouflage techniques of the Boers that proved so effective.
The very first course designed by MacKenzie was Alwoodley in 1907, followed by Moortown in 1909. Both courses are found in North Leeds, with their respective clubhouses just half a mile apart.
MacKenzie was both a founder member of Alwoodley and also the first secretary until he resigned in May 1909. He was then immediately elected as a member of the green committee.
He became captain of Alwoodley in 1912. At the same time his wife Edith was continuing as lady captain for her second year in office.
In 1913, MacKenzie was also elected captain of Moortown.
The original course at nearby Moor Allerton was eventually sited alongside part of the Moortown course. In 1923 MacKenzie was also involved in re-designing Moor Allerton.
To complete the story, both Alister and brother Charles were involved in the design of another North Leeds course, Sand Moor, in 1926, where Alister became a vice president and also a very influential member of the green committee.
It has been reported many times that MacKenzie learned a great deal about the use of camouflage during his time serving in the Boer War (1899-1902). MacKenzie used this experience to add subtlety and disguise, and during the First World War he advised the Army at the School of Camouflage.
In 1919, after the end of the Great War, with little business around even for the very good golf course designers, MacKenzie ‘collaborated’ with Harry Shapland Colt, whom he had met for the very first time at Alwoodley in 1907.
Harry Colt, probably the best-known course designer at the time and also secretary of Sunningdale, had been called in by the Alwoodley committee to “reassure” themselves that the design by MacKenzie was acceptable.
Colt made very positive comments about the new course and also about MacKenzie’s enthusiasm and flair.
Various reports have suggested that this loose partnership arrangement was never highly successful, and it does seem MacKenzie, who was known to be quite a forceful character, concentrated on his work in the north, leaving Colt and his other partner Charles Hugh Alison, to work more in the south of England.
MacKenzie eventually left the Colt partnership in 1923 after about four years. In a promotional sales leaflet he created in 1923, he claims to have ‘advised’ the Royal & Ancient, St Andrews, Troon and Prestwick and over 300 other clubs. If this was indeed the case, then one has to believe MacKenzie was a very busy man.
“How frequently have I, with great difficulty, persuaded patients who were never off my doorstep to take up golf, and how rarely, if ever, have I seen them in my consulting rooms again!” – Dr Alister MacKenzie
He had the knack of using expert working partners to build his courses, complementing his great skill and flair in both visualising and designing. Pasatiempo, one of his favourite courses in California, in 1928 is a good case in point.
MacKenzie eventually settled in a house by the 6th fairway with his second wife, Hilda, in 1930. The garden is easily reached with a decent hooked second shot.
The period after his move away from Colt in 1923 gave MacKenzie time to design or re-design the following courses: Moor Allerton, Lilley Brook, Pitreavie, Shipley, South Moor, Temple Newsam, Duff House Royal, Littlestone, Pollok, Seaton Carew, Teignmouth, Worcester, Cavendish, Cork, Crowborough Beacon, Low Laithes, Douglas, Sutton Coldfield, Willingdon, Sand Moor and Walsall.
This period also gave MacKenzie time to reconsider his future. There was no doubt he was busy and frequently away from home in Leeds. Alister and his first wife, Edith, had no children, and in hindsight it has been confirmed there were some difficulties within the marriage.
In 1924, MacKenzie, a seven-handicapper, suggested to the R&A at St Andrews that he should survey and depict a map of the Old Course, which by now he had grown to respect even more. His now world-famous Map of the Old Course is dated March 1924.
MacKenzie soon had the chance to work abroad. In 1925 Royal Melbourne contacted the R&A seeking advice about whom to consult concerning the re-design of their course.
The R&A recommended him and his Grand Tour, with journeys to California and then Australia in 1926, kick-started his international career.
He set off to California describing himself as a “surgeon” and started using his full title ‘Dr Alister MacKenzie’ as part of his PR and sales promotion.
Note the ‘K’ is upper case (now the universally recognised spelling) despite records at Alwoodley using ‘Mackenzie’.
In February 1926, MacKenzie received the commission for the design of Cypress Point.
In June, he was at St Andrews for the Walker Cup, won by the USA. In the singles, one Mr RT Jones beat Mr CJH Tolley 12 & 11.
July saw him back in California where, together with his partner, Robert Hunter, they re-designed the 8th and 13th holes at Pebble Beach.
He sailed to Australia that September and was involved in many Australian courses, the best known of which is Royal Melbourne, rated one of the top 10 courses in the world.
Cypress Point opened for play in 1928 and the following year, after working at Pasatiempo, he was back in the UK for the Ryder Cup at Moortown, the course he had designed in 1909.
During the 1929 Ryder Cup, the American team practised at Alwoodley in preparation (but they were not permitted to use the course on the Saturday or Sunday).
It was very flattering to Alister MacKenzie once again that in 1932 they requested through the PGA that the 1933 Ryder Cup be played at Alwoodley.
The club records simply state: “This proposal was given much consideration, but declined due to lack of accommodation in the clubhouse.” These years away from the UK made MacKenzie particularly famous for Royal Melbourne, Cypress Point and Augusta National, not to mention the likes of Crystal Downs (in Michigan) and Pasatiempo.
Of course, MacKenzie is best known for his work at Augusta National, where the Masters is played every year. The course was jointly designed MacKenzie and Bobby Jones, the legendary amateur.
The two always shared a great love of the Old Course at St Andrews and were members of the R&A in the 1920s.
They met at St Andrews at the 1926 Walker Cup and also the 1927 Open, when Jones retained his title, having won the previous year at Lytham. Jones was the 1927 and 1928 US Amateur winner and also the 1928 US Open Champion.
In 1929, though, with the US Amateur being played at Pebble Beach for the first time, Jones was knocked out in the opening round by the relatively unknown Johnny Goodman.
This free time allowed Jones to play as planned in an exhibition match at the opening of Pasatiempo near Santa Cruz, but also to play the newly created course at Cypress Point, both of which impressed him greatly.
The latter he described as nearly perfect. Both of these courses were designed by MacKenzie, hence the start of their famous partnership.
In 1930 MacKenzie’s divorce from Edith was finalised. This caused a split with his brother Charles and created inevitable social problems back at Alwoodley.
In late January, with little work in the USA because of the stock market crash of the previous fall, he took the time to go down to Argentina, as he had been invited to design two courses for the Jockey Club in suburban Buenos Aires.
In May 1930, MacKenzie was back in the UK in good time for his marriage to the Leeds widow (and his former girlfriend) Mrs Hilda Haddock. MacKenzie broke into the news again in 1994, when Ray Haddock, the grandson of Hilda, found the missing book written by MacKenzie before he died in January 1934. The book had been written over several years by MacKenzie but was finally compiled in 1933 by Ray’s father Tony Haddock, the stepson of Alister MacKenzie.
Just a few months after his death, the first Masters took place at Augusta. What a shame the good doctor did not live the see the birth of what has become most iconic tournament in golf.
MacKenzie’s decision to swap medicine for golf course architecture can be linked to his strong conviction that golf had very real benefits for patients. He famously said: “How frequently have I, with great difficulty, persuaded patients who were never off my doorstep to take up golf, and how rarely, if ever, have I seen them in my consulting rooms again!”
All golfers can raise a glass to MacKenzie’s legacy.
• With thanks to Nick Leefe, Alwoodley’s club historian and the honorary secretary of the Alister Mackenzie Society of Great Britain & Ireland, for his assistance.