From the châteaulike clubhouse, golfers are met with a stirring view of the first and second holes stretching into the distance and the long par-four eighteenth returning in parallel. Even in the wettest of winters the fairway turf is crisp; this is moorland, with an acidic soil growing fine grasses. But with plentiful heather and gorse as well as pine and silver birch, it almost feels like heathland. Trees planted around the course’s perimeter make golf at Alwoodley a private matter, but they are rarely part of the strategy: MacKenzie’s original sight lines are largely preserved.
If you want to play the course as the architect envisaged, dust off your hickories and Haskells and use the ladies’ tees. For those who are taking advantage of the latest equipment, the back tees provide a stern test even though the overall length seems modest at 6,785 yards, playing to a par of seventy-one. It’s an out-and-back course that gradually turns the screw until golfers are faced with the run in from the thirteenth: five par fours longer than four hundred yards and a stout par three of 206 yards, each played into the prevailing wind. The exception is the sixteenth, on which the usual crosswind complicates matters for all but the bravest drivers willing to aim at the trees and let the wind bring the ball back into play.
MacKenzie lived in an era before "signature holes," although it might be said that he created one or two of his own, not least the sixteenth at Cypress Point. Alwoodley has no signature hole; neither has it any weak ones. Ben Crenshaw, a perceptive student and practitioner of course architecture, takes a particular fancy to the second and eleventh holes. The second is a par four of a mere 305 yards, yet he who aspires to drive it takes awful risks with bunkers and trees on either side of the fairway. As for the eleventh, it is an attractive short hole, played across low ground to an elevated green. Here, the initial problem is stopping the ball on the putting surface, neither spinning it back off the green nor letting it career into the undergrowth beyond, and the tee shot must land on the right edge for it to finish in the center.
On every shot, the golfer is made to think. Take for instance the fifteenth, a par four of 409 yards usually played into the wind. The fairway doglegs right with out-of-bounds to that side, but a solid tee shot played too safely the other way is likely to roll away into deep rough, from which there is little prospect of finding the green. Yet the drive must still be hit strongly enough to give the player a view of the green for the approach, either a pitch-and-run or a high-flying, spinning shot. Much depends on where the pin is located, because the green has a low front and high rear, connected by a fearsome diagonally sweeping ridge. MacKenzie certainly had some ingenious ways of creating indecision in the golfer’s mind.
Alwoodley is no museum piece. But given its standing as the ancestor of so many legendary courses—and given how little it has changed compared with many of MacKenzie’s layouts—it is hard not to reflect on its unique place in the history of golf course architecture and on how differently events might have unfolded had its design not been so successful.
So permanent was MacKenzie’s work that he would recognize the course as his own were he to come back tomorrow.