Dr Alister MacKenzie: The Master Behind Augusta National
April is a marvelous time to be alive, as the days lengthen, trees blossom and flowers bloom. For the golfing community, April also represents the start of the golf season. The Masters is once again upon us: armchair audiences around the world will gather round televisions, captivated by a golf course like no other. Amateur golfers among us become armchair members of one of golfs greatest masterpieces for four days, sitting back and absorbing the action. But where did such a majestic course, and tournament of such pedigree and untouchable status originate? We owe our enjoyment of Masters week to one man more than any other: Dr Alister MacKenzie.
Of all the famous golf course architects in history, it is perhaps MacKenzie who is most fascinating. Born in 1870 in Yorkshire, England to Scottish parents, he graduated from Cambridge University and practiced medicine until the outbreak of the Boer War in South Africa. It was his experience in the Boer War as a surgeon where he developed an interest for the principles of camouflage. In particular, he was deeply impressed with Boers ability to make artificial shelter look entirely natural. The use of camouflage would become central to MacKenzie’s design philosophy. He served again in World War 1, this time not as a surgeon but as a skilled camoufleur. By this time he was a highly respected camoufleur and was partly responsible for the creation of the first school of camouflage in the British Army. As early as 1915, MacKenzie released an article in which he relates military camouflage to golf course design: “The whole secret of successful golf course construction and concealment in trench making consists of making artificial features indistinguishable from natural ones”. His philosophy of concealment was not suggesting placing hidden pitfalls and hazards on a golf course; quite the opposite, MacKenzie hazards were rarely discreet. MacKenzie’s belief was that a golf course should always utilize existing natural features to their maximum whilst the construction of artificial features, where necessary, should be artfully blended into the natural landscape in which they are placed.
Following his military experiences MacKenzie left the medical profession in pursuit of becoming a golf course architect, eventually forming a partnership with Harry S. Colt. After much success in England, Scotland & Ireland with Colt, opportunities arose for MacKenzie to travel overseas to ply his trade. In the mid 1920’s he travelled to Australia to oversee a redesign of Royal Melbourne, a course that today receives international recognition for its quality. While in Australia and New Zealand, MacKenzie was involved in multiple design and re-design projects, before making his way to North America.
During his extensive travels in America, MacKenzie was commissioned to design Cypress Point in California after the unexpected death of first choice architect Seth Raynor. He also carried out partial work on Pebble Beach in the redesign of a number of putting surfaces. However it is the Augusta National in Georgia that remains MacKenzie’s greatest legacy.
In the early 1930s Bobby Jones, the finest golfer of the era, purchased a disused fruit farm in Augusta, 365 acres in size. Jones remembered his first experience of the land well: “it seemed like this land had been lying here for years waiting for someone to lay a golf course upon it… when I walked out on the grass terrace under the big trees and looked down over the property, the experience was unforgettable”. Jones and Mackenzie’s paths had crossed a few times in the 1920’s when they first discovered they shared similar philosophies on the principles of golf course design. However it was Jones’ visit to the newly opened Cypress Point in California that convinced him that MacKenzie was the man he needed to lay down the foundations for his world-class golf course.
The land was a golf architects heaven: rolling hills, fruit plants, beautiful flowers and towering pines all seemed custom designed for Mackenzie’s philosophy that land contours and natural beauty should provide the distinguishing features to a golf course, both of which remain a significant feature of The Augusta National. MacKenzie was also renowned for the quality of putting surfaces he was able to produce. The large and incredibly fast undulating greens, often angled away from the central line of the fairway, were also typical features of a MacKenzie design and remain a dominating feature of the course. The angle of his greens in relation to the direction of the fairway resulted in them becoming shallow from front to back meaning landing areas on greens could only be accessed from certain areas of the fairway, forcing the golfer to think strategically from the tee shot. Each of the large greens would have a number of different locations where a hole could be cut consequently influencing how the hole could and should be played on a particular day. His skill as a camofleur allowed him to make any necessary man made undulations on greens appear as if they were a natural part of the original landscape and topography.
Augusta National was MacKenzies last notable offering as a golf course architect, and he sadly died a few months before the first tournament was held in 1934, known as the Augusta National Invitational Open. Bobby Jones came out of retirement to support the launch of the tournament, which was won by American Horton Smith.
MacKenzie died without seeing Augusta National in its completed state. Despite this, he was quoted several times as saying it was his finest achievement in golf course architecture.
Although the course has been lengthened in recent years to counteract modern technology in golf equipment, the course still holds significant resemblance to the original design laid out by one of the greatest golf course architects in history, Dr Alister MacKenzie.