2005: Mackenzie left lasting impression

By John Steinbreder

Melbourne, Australia

Australia was a golf backwater in 1926, a young country with a youthful enthusiasm for the game, but sorely lacking sophistication and depth. Its layouts were excessively penal and hopelessly cramped. And the men designing courses did not possess the expertise and vision of the notable architects building highly acclaimed tracks throughout the United States and the British Isles.

But all that changed when a boat pulled into the Melbourne harbor that October and discharged a mustachioed English passenger named Alister Mackenzie.

At that time, Mackenzie was an accomplished designer – but not terribly well-known, which was odd considering he had laid out 50 courses in his homeland and written a well-received book called “Golf Architecture.” Then 56, he also had been consulting to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, and it was a suggestion from leaders of that association that prompted the president of the Royal Melbourne Golf Club to invite Mackenzie Down Under so he could make recommendations for a course members wanted to build.

Mackenzie accepted the offer, but did not limit himself to his work at Royal Melbourne. In the roughly eight weeks he spent on the island continent, he visited clubs and courses all over the country, advising on new layouts as well as redesigns. When he was finished, he produced plans for what would become the fabled West Course at Royal Melbourne and also provided various degrees of input to nearly a dozen other courses. In the process, Mackenzie brought golf course architecture here to a new level and set a standard for design that pervades to this day.

Mackenzie was the first Western representative of traditional links architecture to work Down Under. He entrusted local associates with overseeing the actual implementation of his work and never returned to Australia to see the fruits of his visions. But even though he did not spend a lot of time there, or actually turn over much in the way of dirt, he deserves credit for transforming a nascent nation into a serious golf society that boasts some of the best courses in the world.

Authors Tom Doak, Dr. James S. Scott and Raymond M. Haddock, who wrote the definitive biography “The Life and Times of Dr. Alister Mackenzie,” refer to his visit there as “two months that changed a continent,” and they say that without a hint of hyperbole. Australia was never the same after Mackenzie, and much as Charles Blair Macdonald led the United States out of golf wilderness with his visionary design work and high regard for tradition, Mackenzie did the same Down Under, almost single-handedly introducing a nation to the right way courses should be built, and to how the game should be played.

Quite an accomplishment for a man born half a world away in Leeds, England.

Though England was the nation of his birth, Mackenzie was a Scotsman through and through.

His parents hailed from that country, and the family returned there each summer to what was considered their spiritual home, a town called Lochinver in the western Highlands.

The eldest of five children, Mackenzie found pleasure in the outdoors as a youth, sailing, fishing and hunting whenever he could. He was particularly fond of stalking the red deer that roamed the Scottish forests of Assynt, and it was there that he began to study and understand the concepts of camouflage that mammals use to hide from human predators. Later on, they would become important parts of his philosophy in golf course design.

Mackenzie received his medical degree from Cambridge in 1887 and served as a Civil Surgeon during the Boer War in South Africa from 1899 to 1902. That’s when he became an expert in military camouflage, applying his skills during that conflict and later in Europe for part of World War I, when he became a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, and in Ireland during the “Troubles” in the early 1920s.

Mackenzie was an established golf course architect by the time he went to Ireland. A sturdy man of broad intellect, gracious charm and military bearing, he produced his first design in Leeds in 1907, with help from the great H.S. Colt, and built a formidable portfolio of work. Mackenzie favored wide fairways (so minimal time was wasted looking for balls), bold bunkering (that frequently featured wild and rugged growth around the hazards and often presented almost optical illusions in that they appeared to be more in play on certain shots than they actually were, a result of his work with military camouflage) and heavily sloped greens (that were built as much for proper surface drainage as for interesting putting contours). He always gave the higher handicap player a way to the hole as he tempted the better player to take risks in an effort to improve his score.

He arrived in Australia on Oct. 25, 1926, and it took him only 23 days to produce his plans for the new West Course at Royal Melbourne. He walked the property on which that track would be laid out, and spent five days in the South Australia capital of Adelaide. He also traveled to five other sites in what is known as the Sandbelt region outside Melbourne.

Fortunately for Mackenzie, he was able to hand his designs over to a pair of capable men affiliated with Royal Melbourne. One was a club member, Alex Russell, who had won the 1924 Australian Open as an amateur; he and Mackenzie became such fast friends that the doctor named him his design partner. (Interestingly, Russell had a background in military artillery, the perfect offensive counterpart to Mackenzie’s skill as a designer of ground defense.) The other was Michael “Mick” Morcom, the course superintendent at Royal Melbourne, who understood and could execute Mackenzie’s principles of camouflage.

Construction on the West did not start until five years after Mackenzie left Australia. And the finished product was nothing short of spectacular, a championship track that has served as the site of 15 Australian Opens as well as the 1998 Presidents Cup (as part of a composite 18 made with the excellent East Course it abuts in several places). It also is lauded as a superb members’ course and shows Mackenzie at his best.

His greens, some as large as 14,000 square feet, roll as true as any in the world. And while they are indeed built to accept a variety of shots, they are Augusta National-hard when it comes to discerning their many breaks and undulations. Then, there are the holes themselves, such as the par-4 fourth. Off the tee, golfers are faced with what appears to be a treacherous bunker complex that would be difficult to carry with anything but a perfect drive. In reality, however, the average golfer playing from the proper markers can clear those hazards with a reasonable shot. The illusion that those sandy wastelands are much closer makes hitting a drive on that hole more difficult than it might be otherwise.

And once you have cleared them, you are left to admire another trait of a Mackenzie design – after you walk beyond the bunkers and turn back toward the tee, you will see no evidence of those hazards. Which, of course, was exactly his intention.

Another attribute of the West is the obvious similarity to other Mackenzie gems. Standing over a shot in, say, the fairway bunker of No. 10, you very well could be at Augusta National, looking across fine white sand and over a well-sculpted face. It feels that way on several other parts of the course, and even though the West is nowhere near the water, it also conjures up imagines of Cypress Point, especially on the par-3 fifth, whose five greenside bunkers are reminiscent of the ones surrounding the 15th on that famous California track.

The West at Royal Melbourne is Mackenzie’s best and most complete work in Australia, but he left his mark in many other places, beginning with nearby Kingston Heath. Widely regarded as the second-best course Down Under, this Sandbelt layout was designed by Sydney golf professional Dan Souter and opened in 1925. As was frequently the case with new courses back then, the architect included only a few bunkers, the idea being that additions and subtractions could be made after observing play for a spell. That’s where Mackenzie came in, and he created what many golfers believe is some of the best bunkering anywhere – gnarly complexes with wild, windswept looks and torturously deceptive appearances that greatly enhanced the overall quality of the layout.

Equally as significant was the doctor’s work at Royal Adelaide, where he moved several holes of what was considered a first-rate golf course so they interacted more with the sand dunes in the center of the property. He also excavated large hollows, after which he filled only parts in with sand, creating the sense that the depressions were natural.

Mackenzie also traveled to Sydney and walked the finger of land known as La Perouse that overlooks Botany Bay, where Capt. James Cook sailed into Australia aboard the Endeavor in 1770 and made the European discovery of that continent. Mackenzie advised on a plan for a stunning seaside course with spectacular water views that came to be New South Wales Golf Club.

Col. Bertram of the Royal Sydney Golf Club supervised the work, and the course is often compared with Cypress Point, though it is less Mackenzie than many golfers might believe. A top Australian amateur player, Eric Apperly, made substantial changes to the design in 1937. Still, it is rightfully regarded as one of the finest layouts in the world and a must-play in Australia, running as it does along the sharp ridges on the property as well as the jagged coastline.

In his brief time in Australia, Mackenzie was also able to create designs for another Sandbelt classic, Yarra Yarra, in collaboration with Russell, and made design recommendations at two nearby layouts – Victoria and Metropolitan – while assisting Morcum and Russell in rerouting part of Royal Melbourne’s East Course. Mackenzie spent a week during his trip in Brisbane advising on a redesign of the Royal Queensland Golf Club track and revising some of the bunkering at Royal Sydney as well as the Manly Golf Club in New South Wales and Flinders Golf Club in Victoria.

That was a lot of work in just a couple of months. But it takes a lot to change a nation.

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