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The Lost Mackenzie

Courtesy of Jamie Zuberbuhler The Lost Mackenzie

Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Zuberbuhler

Enrique Hernández is behind the wheel of his silver BMW and braking fast. The car is no more than two feet from the back bumper of a beat-up minivan, which is overloaded and listing to starboard. It is possible the driver has been unaware of our autobahn-style approach—he will not move out of the left-hand lane. Another car blocks our passage on the right, so we continue our high-speed tailgating. Hernández, a pro shop owner and former national junior golf champion, isn’t crazy; he’s just a typical Argentine driver who happens to have a faster car than most.

"This guy—he’s f---ing my balls," he says. In the back seat, I wonder if the Spanish-speaking world has been receiving questionable dubs of The Sopranos. We are on a highway somewhere between Buenos Aires and a coastal resort called Mar del Plata. The two cities are separated by 250 miles of blank-slate pampa, where only an occasional herd of black cattle or copse of trees hiding a farmhouse interrupts the grassland void. It is the dead of winter. The earth is yellow, the horizon charged by armadas of clouds on rapid maneuvers.

We eventually get around the minivan and arrive in Mar del Plata at midday, catching the final minutes of a rainstorm. Off the main thoroughfare, the roadway goes from asphalt to gravel to mud. The landscape transforms along with it as the pampa gives way to a Perthshire postcard: green-brown hills, open fields and old-growth forests. Hernández guns the engine and we fishtail up the rutted slope until a house comes into view. Then it’s through a high archway and into a courtyard, where a traditional Argentine asado awaits, the grill sizzling with chicken and chorizo, steak and pork.

It is a day of celebration: About fifteen people have gathered for the feast. For nearly eighty years, a priceless document has been tucked away, long forgotten on this vast and beautiful estancia at thirty-eight degrees south latitude. And today it will come back into the light.

We have reached El Boquerón—home of the lost MacKenzie.

In 1930, Alister MacKenzie, widely considered the greatest course architect in golf history, was in his creative prime, having recently completed a string of major successes in California, including Cypress Point, Pasatiempo and the Valley Club of Montecito. But the stock market crash of the previous fall had crippled his prospects for new commissions in the United States, so the Yorkshire-born doctor cast his gaze elsewhere. Although Argentina was also spiraling into the Depression, the country’s elite still possessed enough confident capital to invite the architect to design two courses for the Jockey Club, in what was at the time suburban Buenos Aires. MacKenzie made the two-week trip from the West Coast, sailing through the Panama Canal, and spent four or five months in South America.

His time there elevated the standard of design on the continent to new heights, much as his sojourn in Australia a few years earlier had transformed the game in that nation. He worked in his usual manner, laying out detailed plans for the site and then entrusting their execution after his departure to an associate, in this case an American engineer named Luther Koontz, a representative of the firm MacKenzie would later employ in the construction of Augusta National. The connection is worth noting, because his existing work in South America—the two courses at the Jockey Club, plus the excellent Golf Club of Uruguay in Montevideo, about 140 miles from Buenos Aires over the immense, shallow River Plate—can be seen as a proving ground for ideas that would reach their full potential at the home of the Masters.

During his stay in Argentina, MacKenzie made a side trip south to consult on a possible renovation of the Mar del Plata Golf Club, which had been laid out by Juan Dentone, an Argentine golf professional. That plan was never implemented, but the visit did allow MacKenzie to meet Enrique Anchorena, one of Argentina’s wealthiest men. A Buenos Aires businessman and land baron, Anchorena’s vacation home was the nearby estancia El Boquerón (named after an 1866 battle in the War of the Triple Alliance), and the family guest book he kept there bears MacKenzie’s signature, dated March 4, 1930. (Other pages include the signatures of Argentine presidents, the literary giants Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriela Mistral, and three-time British Open champion Henry Cotton, who was married to an Argentine woman and lived in Mar del Plata.)

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