2001: MacKenzie’s works examined by eclectic authors

Alister MacKenzie always has been an intriguing figure. While most of us are lucky to pursue one career successfully, he seems to have been gifted in three areas of endeavor. Physician, camoufler and golf course architect – the connections seem tenuous, and the measurements of success in each field are so different. Yet the narrative thread of a person’s life has a strange way of building linkages.

In MacKenzie’s case, the transitions were not at all abrupt. But they were marked by a degree of tragedy. As revealed in a new biography of MacKenzie, he wasn’t much of a doctor. His military work went virtually ignored. And he died without ever seeing his most enduring and widely respected golf courses.

The Life and Work of Dr. Alister MacKenzie is the product of an unusual collaboration involving golf course architect Tom Doak, English physician James S. Scott, and MacKenzie’s step-grandson, Raymund M. Haddock. I can’t imagine the flow of notes and manuscripts among them, but it’s obvious from the final product that Doak’s interpretations prevailed.

In the end, golf won out, not only in this book but also throughout MacKenzie’s life (1870-1934). English-born but self-identified as Scottish owing to family upbringing and a summer home in the Western Highlands, MacKenzie turns out to have been an indifferent physician. His pioneering work on camouflage, developed while practicing medicine in South Africa during the Boer War (1899-1902), led him to characteristically strong ideas about the need for natural-looking landscaping as a defensive tool. British military officials ignored his advice, but the lessons of such landscaping proved readily adaptive to golf course design, and so off he went into a new career.

A volatile personality who, according to the authors, seems to have claimed more design credit than he actually deserved, MacKenzie, nonetheless, cut an imposing path throughout England and into Scotland and Ireland before coming to the United States in the 1920s and then working in Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay and Buenos Aires. Among his greatest creations were courses that he never saw in their completed form – Royal Melbourne (West Course) in Australia, Crystal Downs in Michigan, Augusta National in Georgia, and the Ohio State University courses.

There’s too much hole-by-hole description in this book. And too many of the photographs of English and Irish courses are dark and overcast. The book shines, however, when it explains MacKenzie’s penchant for incorporating native land forms, such as the dunes at Cypress Point or Australia’s Royal Adelaide.

MacKenzie, who had little tolerance for green committees and the “pencil and scorecard types,” created stunning, even outrageously contoured putting surfaces. Along the way, as this book attests, he displayed a passionate love of the game and of its transformative power upon all who played it.

Thanks to this book, we know what made his design vision special.

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