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Architecture Glossary - Gibraltar

26 April, 2023
Ryan Book

The message of great, strategic golf course architecture is clear. The actual words used to describe those golf courses, however, are many. The Architecture Glossary column will examine more precise terms and concepts that one will find when exploring golf course architecture. Hopefully understanding these terms, and why certain architects employed them, will help you to better understand the golf courses you play…and maybe even improve your scores!

Today’s term is ‘Gibraltar’.

Few holes are as celebrated in the annals of golf like a fine, iconic par three. Some become so because of their roles in the world’s most prominent golf tournaments (No. 12 at Augusta National Golf Club). Some are simply so eye-catching that they cannot be denied (No. 16 at Cypress Point Club). Some, however, do not quite become household names but nonetheless have fascinated the small niche of golf course architecture aficionados and remain a cultural touchpoint for study. This is “Gibraltar,” the current No. 10 hole at Moortown Golf Club.

What do all three have in common? They were designed by Alister MacKenzie. The difference is that the first two came later in the doctor’s career, while the first may have been the first hole he designed as a solo performer. Therefore it deserves study, both for its historic relevance and strategic excellence.

Moortown: Even if you ignore the strategic design of the green at Moortown's now-tenth hole, MacKenzie gave potential members quite a look into the "Gibraltar" hole. (Photo credit: Moortown Golf Club)

MacKenzie had broken into golf course architecture by assisting Harry Colt at nearby Alwoodley Golf Club, the work at which so impressed locals in nearby Moortown that they inquired about building their own course. Their budget was small, but the clever MacKenzie suggested a plan: He would use the slight bankroll to create one exquisite hole, which would attract further investment from other prospective members.

Perhaps this stratagem encouraged MacKenzie to tackle one of the property’s bolder sections and, accordingly, produced a more stunning hole.

The green site sits atop a rocky rise, which earned the hole its name, a tribute to the jutting piece of rock that stabs out from the southwest corner of Iberia. MacKenzie dug from along the left of the natural slope to both create a hazard at the front-left edge of the green, and to supply soil to build up a bank along the back portion of the putting surface. He did not disturb the land at the very front of the green, as to allow a ground shot to roll on.

That putting surface was quite large by heathland standards. It rolls from front-to-back, at an angle from the right of the golfer to the left. In between those points were a number of undulations that would become MacKenzie’s signature in years to come. Surrounding the green were a series of six bunkers; five “small” hazards along the back to catch balls that attacked the slope too quickly, and one massive sandbox for those who came up short when approaching the flag directly. The scope and slope encouraged players to play a shot better suiting their own game.

The hole was a resounding success, bringing in further investors as MacKenzie had predicted, and allowing the whole of Moortown to be completed. Writers such as Bernard Darwin would later celebrate what remains the club’s signature hole.

Many have pondered the origin of the “Gibraltar” concept, and there’s little doubt that MacKenzie relied on the work of the architects who preceded him when hatching it. The exact origin, however, remains at least partially in question.

Those well-versed in the templates of C.B. Macdonald may have immediately sensed something familiar above when reading about the green’s design. Indeed, its movement, hazards, and allowance for the ground game certainly sounds like a Redan. In fact, golf writer and later MacKenzie associate Robert Hunter described the hole as one of the best “Redan-types” of holes.

The problem, however, is that MacKenzie says he intended no such thing. He refuted Hunter’s suggestion, admitting that at the time of Gibraltar’s design that he had not even heard of the Redan hole. Instead, he suggested the true source of inspiration was, as with many other elements across the architect’s career, at St. Andrews. Specifically, the Eden hole.

“The hole also shares with the eleventh at St. Andrews the necessity for an infinite variety of shots according to varying conditions of wind, position of flag, etc.” he wrote in Golf Architecture.

St. Andrews: MacKenzie attributed the influence behind "Gibraltar" to No. 11 at St. Andrews. Although this hole certainly reflects some similarities, there's more to be answered for! (Photo Credit: P.J. Koenig)

On one hand, although behaving quite like a Redan, the size of the putting surface does ring more true with an Eden, and there is a bunker far removed from thegreen on the right side of the fairway apron, which may correlate to that hole’s “Cockleshell” bunker at St. Andrews. Furthermore, the original Eden — “High-Hole-In” — measured 175 yards, while Gibraltar sits nearby at 170 yards.

On the other hand, there’s some suspicion regarding MacKenzie’s claims about the Redan. The North Berwick inspiration was already well-celebrated among those in-the-know, and Macdonald’s National Golf Links of America rendition had already been created by the time MacKenzie began at Moortown.

We may never know the full truth, but the fact remains: MacKenzie created a stunning hole that combined facets from two of the greatest short holes in history.

Unfortunately, he did not quite create a “template” of the concept by recreating it around the world. A few tributes exist, however.

The first comes from his own pen, at Kingston Heath Golf Club in Melbourne.

Kingston Heath: MacKenzie's visit to Kingston Heath didn't lead to many major routing changes. The exception was No. 15, which he switched from a blind par four to a par three in line with his "Gibraltar" concept. (Photo Credit: Kingston Heath Golf Club)

The architect was the second of note at Kingston. He followed the footsteps of Dan Soutar, and found much to his liking when he visited during a consultation. Although he altered the style of bunkering, the most dramatic suggestion he made after touring the grounds was to convert No. 15, which had been a blind par four, into an uphill par three. This uphill nature, combined with the positioning of bunkers, makes it a near dead ringer for what he had accomplished a decade-plus earlier at Moortown.

Other architects noticed the hole as well. C.H. Alison created a version with the same name, which lived up to both MacKenzie’s hole and the namesake “Gibraltar” rock. While working on Timber Point, he used part of its south shoreline to create a 200-yard par three that plays uphill, directly at Long Island Sound, with an inlet along the entirety of the left. Although the hole never featured quite the Redan symptoms that its predecessor did, the staging of its sandscape surrounds certainly encouraged a long draw from the tee.

Timber Point: C.H. Alison showed his admiration for MacKenzie's work by creating his own "Gibraltar" at Timber Point on the sandy shores of Long Island (Photo Credit: Daniel Wexler) 

The lack of further examples, relative to more popular template holes, leaves much to be known about the “Gibraltar” hole as a concept. What is known for sure is that the elevated par three served as a splendid jumping-off point for one of the greatest careers in golf course architecture.


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