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Moorland Masterpiece

Courtesy of Alwoodley Golf Club Alwoodley Golf Club

Photo: Courtesy of Alwoodley Golf Club

The Alwoodley Golf Club, on the northern edge of the city of Leeds, celebrated its centenary in January. That fact in itself is unremarkable—hundreds of golf clubs were founded in the United Kingdom in the first decade of the twentieth century—but one aspect of the celebration is of special interest: Alwoodley was the first golf course designed by the great Alister Mac­Kenzie, and, more important, his original design remains very much intact today.

MacKenzie went on, of course, to create world-famous golf courses such as Augusta National and to redesign others, including Royal Melbourne West. Cypress Point, Pasatiempo, Crystal Downs, the Jockey Club in Argentina and Lahinch in Ireland are but a handful of the hundred or so original designs by this well-traveled man, whom Robert Trent Jones Sr. described as "the consummate architect."

But that is to jump the gun. In 1907 Mac­Kenzie had not yet designed a single golf course. He was a medical practitioner, and one of fourteen men who met at a gentlemen’s dining club in Leeds with the intention of founding a new golf club. It seems they were dissatisfied with their present clubs and with the rudimentary architecture of their courses. And although there is no formal record of how he maneuvered into a position of such influence, the task of designing a new and better course fell to MacKenzie.

Poor weather during the winter and spring of 1907 allowed the doctor to get on with the job unhindered by too much oversight, but when the rest of the committee finally saw what he was preparing, they were infuriated by his radical design. ("We nearly came to blows," MacKenzie recalled in his book The Spirit of St. Andrews.) Construction was halted, and the committee sent for Harry Colt, who as an established course architect was considered well qualified to adjudicate on MacKenzie’s work. Colt immediately recognized the quality of the design. He later wrote: "After dinner he took me into his consulting room, where, instead of finding myself surrounded by the weapons of his profession as a Doctor of Medicine, I sat in the midst of a collection of photographs of sand bunkers, putting greens, and golf courses, and many plans and designs of the Alwoodley Course. I found that I was staying with a real enthusiast, and one who had already given close attention to a subject in which I have always been interested."

MacKenzie’s design evolved as construction progressed, and although he had no previous experience building a golf course, he was wise enough to take the time to get everything right. One might say he was developing a principle that he would come to believe in passionately, so much so that he began his seminal 1920 book, Golf Architecture, with these words: "Economy in course construction consists in obtaining the best possible results at a minimum of cost. The more one sees of golf courses, the more one realises the importance of doing construction work really well, so that it is likely to be of a permanent character."

Indeed, so permanent was MacKenzie’s work at Alwoodley that if he were to come back tomorrow he would readily recognize the course as his handiwork. The routing is the same, with two small exceptions: The sixth green was moved back not long after the First World War, and a new tenth green was constructed (along the lines of a suggestion by MacKenzie) on land acquired around 1930, by which time the good doctor was living in America.

What was so radical about Macken-zie’s design?For a start, it was laid out with the Haskell ball in mind. The superior performance of this ball over the old gutta-percha had been demonstrated by Sandy Herd in winning the 1902 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. It was easier to get airborne and, unlike the guttie, which stopped dead on landing, the Haskell might roll up to forty yards. Whereas cross-bunkers had previously tested prowess at the lofted shot, now play was more concerned with the running shot.

Further, the greens were big, unusually so for the time. They offered a significant number of pin positions that considerably altered the playing strategy of the holes. By angling many of the greens and paying particular attention to the bunkering and shaping of their surrounds, MacKenzie also sought to punish the unthinking drive: The result of such a careless shot is a difficult approach from the wrong part of the fairway.

Perhaps the most fortuitous aspect of the Alwoodley’s development was that there was none—time seemed to freeze once it was completed. For the best part of a hundred years, the members have been perfectly happy with their course. They have not sought the hullabaloo of major international tournaments (though the club has held many prestigious amateur events over the years); as long as they could turn up when they wished and walk straight out onto the first tee, they were satisfied. Change was unnecessary and not contemplated.

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