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Year of Birth1870
Year of Death1934 aged 64
Place of BirthNormanton, Yorkshire, England

Educated at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield before commencing medical studies at Caius College, Cambridge in 1888, Alister MacKenzie graduated from university with a couple of degrees in 1897, by which time he was already working in his father’s general medical practice.

MacKenzie was born and bred in Yorkshire but both his parents were Scottish and the family holidayed every year in remote Lochinver, close to where his father was raised in the traditional Clan MacKenzie lands of Sutherland, so it’s true to say he was more than aware of his Scottish roots.

He served with the Somerset Regiment in South Africa during the Boer War, sailing to South Africa in 1900 and returning home 12 months later. His experience of dealing with concealed entrenchments in warfare made a big impression on him and he’d go on to use elements of camouflage in his course designs in later years.

A founding member of Alwoodley in 1907, MacKenzie also set out the new club’s course, which was his first attempt at golf design. Harry Colt was called in to appraise the layout and his seal of approval meant other commissions soon followed from clubs in the local Yorkshire area and further afield.

His profile as an up-and-coming designer was aided in no small way thanks to winning a Country Life magazine ‘design a golf hole’ competition in 1914 where he drew up an imaginary 420-yard par four that could be played in several different ways, depending upon the skill of the golfer and the prevalent playing conditions.

The architect’s putting surfaces were often angled away from the centre line of approach, meaning a drive to a certain point on the fairway would result in an easy shot to the green, with imprecise tee shots requiring a more difficult shot over trouble of some description.

“To complement these undulating and angled greens, MacKenzie created large flowing bunkers – often flanking the fairway – that were highly visible to the golfer,” wrote Henry Lord and Peter Pugh in Masters of Design – Great Courses of Colt, MacKenzie, Alison & Morrison. “Such a natural, conspicuous style created beautiful but fear-inducing hazards.”

MacKenzie joined Harry Colt and C. H. Alison as a partner in their design company in 1919 but the association lasted only four years before it was dissolved. It was a strange alliance in the first place, though at least one commentator has suggested it had been set up merely as a means of avoiding competition.

Golf Architecture was published in 1920 and in this book MacKenzie listed his thirteen design principles (see below) which he tried to keep to when laying out a golf course. Of course, the terrain of a particular location might prevent one or more of these rules being adhered to but they certainly formed a solid overall framework for his designs.

In 1926, MacKenzie embarked on the first of several overseas trips that would see him established as the first truly international golf course architect, travelling first to the United States to team up with his friend Robert Hunter and win the contract to design the course that Seth Raynor had originally been earmarked for at Cypress Point in California.

MacKenzie also teamed up with Perry Maxwell in the States and their decade-long collaboration resulted in the partnership producing highly regarded designs at venues such as Crystal Downs Country Club, the University of Michigan, Oklahoma City Country Club and Melrose Country Club in Pennsylania.

MacKenzie then spent a couple of months in Australia in 1926, where he advised a total of nineteen clubs, amassing fees in excess of £2,400 for his efforts in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. He appointed Alex Russell as his Australian design partner, with superintendent Mick Morcom acting as their construction superintendent. In 1930, he sailed to Beunos Aries via Bermuda and Rio de Janeiro, completing half a dozen projects in Argentina and a couple in Uruguay during a two month spell in South America.

In July of 1931, the doctor made his first appearance at Augusta National during a site inspection visit with Bobby Jones and the course that they would collaborate on was officially opened in January of 1933. Sadly, MacKenzie never did see the finished course at Augusta – but then the same could be said of many of his great works; from Royal Melbourne to the Jockey Club in Argentina or Crystal Downs in the United States.

By this time, MacKenzie was spending most of his time in California and it was on the Pasatiempo Estate in Santa Cruz where he died of a heart attack on 6th January 1934, with his second wife Hilda by his side. Although Augusta National had opened for play a year earlier, the club was struggling financially and MacKenzie only received a part payment of his design fee before he passed away.


World Golf Hall of Fame: “The amazing thrill of driving successfully over the ocean at the 16th hole at Cypress Point,” MacKenzie said, “more than compensates for the loss of a dozen balls.”

MacKenzie’s book The Spirit of St Andrews was published long after he passed away, in 1995 and it’s a fine read, emphasizing the importance of strategic, rather than penal golf course architecture. It also captures the feeling that golf is meant to be an exciting game, full of fun for players of all abilities, which is exactly what he tried to achieve with his designs: “Golf on a first class course is never monotonous...Every really good golf course should have some touches of subtlety.”


From the The Evolution of Golf Course Design, author Keith Cutten had this to say about the architect: “MacKenzie was a master of producing strategic, playable designs; and routings never followed a set formula. As perhaps best-showcased by his work at Cypress Point, he let the land dictate the order of holes.

MacKenzie green contours were often bold, and they sometimes bordered on the extreme; however, they always rewarded the player who approached from the appropriate angle. MacKenzie loved to present multiple options within a hole, and he valued variety in approach styles; leaving the player to choose from where to attack from, and how to execute the correct shot.”

From The Spirit of St. Andrews – Chapter 1 (The Evolution of Golf) under the heading “Some Qualifications of a Golf Architect” Alister MacKenzie commented as follows: “There are many and varied qualities required for the making of a successful golf architect. In the first place, he must have an intimate knowledge of the theory of playing the game, although it is not essential that he himself should be a good player… His knowledge of the game should be so intimate that he knows instinctively what is likely to produce good golf and good golfers.

He must have more than a passing acquaintance with the best courses and the best golfing holes. It is not only necessary that he should play them but he should also study them and analyse the features which make them what they are. He must have a sense of proportion and be able to differentiate between essentials and non-essentials… He must have judgement in the choice of features which can be readily and cheaply reproduced, and avoid those which are impossible to construct without an inordinate expenditure of labour.

The golf course architect must have the ‘sporting instinct,’ and if he has had a training in many and varied branches of sport and has analysed those characteristics which provide a maximum pleasurable excitement in them, so much the better. It is essential that he should eliminate his own game entirely, and look upon all constructional work in a purely impersonal manner. He should be able to put himself in the position of the best player that ever lived, and at the same time be extremely sympathetic toward the beginner and long handicap player.

He should not be unduly influenced by hostile criticism, but should give most sympathetic consideration to criticism of a constructive nature. Not infrequently a long handicap makes a brilliant suggestion which can often be utilized in a modified form. A knowledge of psychology gained in my medical training has ben of great service in estimating what is likely to give the greatest pleasure to the greatest number. It by no means follows that what appears to be attractive at first sight will be so permanently. A good golf course grows on one like a good painting, good music, or any other artistic creation.

A good golf course architect should have made a study, from a golfing point of view, of agricultural chemistry, botany and geology. He should also have some knowledge of map-reading, surveying and interpretation of aerial photographs. There are all sorts of details visible in an aerial photograph which are often overlooked after the most careful survey in the ordinary way. The exact position of every tree, hummock, natural bunker, tracks, hedges, ditches and so on is well defined. The exact areas occupied by permanent pasture, grass grown for hay, crops, clumps of whins, rushes, can all be distinguished in an aerial photograph.

These, combined with good ordinance and geological maps, are of inestimable value, and in many cases would assist even the most expert golf architect to make full use of all the natural features, that thousands of dollars might ultimately be saved in reducing the acreage required, and in mimimizing the cost of labour and upkeep… Golf architecture is a new art closely allied to that of the artist or sculptor, but also necessitating a scientific knowledge of many other subjects.”


The Life and Work of Dr. Alister MacKenzie by Tom Doak and Raymund M. Haddock (2001)

The Spirit of St. Andrews (1995)

The Spirit of Adventure by Robert Fletcher (2017)

MacKenzie’s thirteen golf course design principles:

  1. The course, where possible, should be arranged in two loops of nine holes.
  2. There should be a large proportion of good two-shot holes, and at least four one-shot holes.
  3. There should be little walking between the greens and tees, and the course should be arranged so that in the first instance there is always a slight walk forwards from the green to the next tee; then the holes are sufficiently elastic to be lengthened in the future if necessary.
  4. The greens and fairways should be sufficiently undulating, but there should be no hill climbing.
  5. Every hole should be different in character.
  6. There should be a minimum of blindness for the approach shots.
  7. The course should have beautiful surroundings, and all the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself.
  8. There should be a sufficient number of heroic carries from the tee, but the course should be arranged so that the weaker player with the loss of a stroke, or portion of a stroke, shall always have an alternate route open to him.
  9. There should be infinite variety in the strokes required to play the various holes – that is, interesting brassie shots, iron shots, pitch and run up shots.
  10. There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls.
  11. The course should be so interesting that even the scratch man is constantly stimulated to improve his game in attempting shots the has hitherto been unable to play.
  12. The course should so be arranged that the long handicap player or even the absolute beginner should be able to enjoy his round in spite of the fact that he is piling up a big score. In other words, the beginner should not be continually harassed by losing strokes from playing out of sand bunkers. The layout should be so arranged that he loses strokes because he is making wide detours to avoid hazards.
  13. The course should be equally good during winter and summer, the texture of the greens and fairways should be perfect and the approaches should have the same consistency as the greens.

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