Dr. Alister MacKenzie is synonymous with Augusta National. It’s his most famous golf course design for an obvious reason: The architect’s work is beamed to hundreds of millions of golf fans every April during the Masters.
But Augusta National is not alone in standing out among MacKenzie courses.
The man from Normanton, England was a prolific designer, creating masterpieces around the world.
After earning degrees in medicine, chemistry and natural science, MacKenzie served as a civil surgeon in the Boer War that lasted from 1899 to 1902 in Africa. It was in South Africa that he developed an interest in using natural terrain as camouflage and led to him being appointed to the British School of Camouflage during World War I. He used that expertise to good effect in his course design.
MacKenzie’s design ethos is summed up in “The Spirit of St. Andrews,” in which he outlines 13 principles of course design. Principle seven is arguably the most important: “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.”
MacKenzie’s first design was Alwoodley Golf Club in Leeds, England. He created numerous other English courses before graduating to Australia and the United States. His Cypress Point design on California’s Monterey Peninsula so impressed Bobby Jones that the 13-time major winner enlisted the doctor to help create Augusta National.
Cypress Point ranks second on Golfweek’s Best Top 100 Classic American course list, second only to Pine Valley, with Augusta fourth behind Shinnecock Hills. Six of MacKenzie’s courses feature in that Top 100, all within the first 40. Alwoodley and other international courses such as Royal Melbourne, New South Wales and Royal Adelaide rank high on other lists.
Golfweek has been ranking golf courses for more than 20 years. Currently, a team of 750 raters judge courses based on 10 criteria, creating arguably the most comprehensive course-rating system in golf.
With so many experts, it seemed natural to use them to describe MacKenzie’s courses aside from Augusta. We selected raters for each course based on those who had most recently played a MacKenzie course or those with intimate knowledge of the layouts to provide a MacKenzie top-10 list that excludes Augusta.
The response was overwhelming, with each rater providing succinct insight into MacKenzie’s work. Gregg Newmark’s view of the Meadow Club in Fairfax, Calif., which just misses the top 10 despite a 6.8 rating, is indicative of the esteem with which Golfweek raters hold the architect.
“MacKenzie emphasizes the attributes and beauty of the native land, rather than moving it to create a landscape,” Newmark said.
Here are Golfweek’s top 10 courses on which MacKenzie worked to some extent, excluding Augusta. MacKenzie is credited with the full design of some of these courses, and his work on others was of a much more limited scope on existing layouts. And his work around the world went far beyond this list, including courses such as Lahinch in Ireland and Kingston Heath in Australia at which he did not do full layouts.
10. Palmetto Golf Club
Where: Aiken, S.C.
Golfweek rating: 6.87
Co-designers: Thomas Hitchcock, Herbert Leeds, James Mackrell
The Buzz: “Great green complexes and surrounds make Palmetto so enjoyable. There is a lack of trees around the greens that, combined with locations often on ledges and plateaus, combine to make club selection interesting. The bunkers really help disguise elevation changes. Palmetto plays much longer than the card’s yardage, but it is a real pleasure to play.” – Golfweek rater Eric Carrier, Pinehurst, N.C.
9. Alwoodley Golf Club
Where: Leeds, England
Golfweek rating: 7.37
The Buzz: “Alwoodley features masterful routing using the land available to provide a diverse selection of holes that blend into the surroundings and that allows for a variety of shot options. It is challenging for all abilities. The green complexes, bunkering and teeing areas nicely complement the routing, but the routing stands out because it allows for a great variety of holes running in many directions.” – Golfweek rater Bob Willis, Tulsa, Okla.
8. Royal Adelaide Golf Club
Where: Findon, South Australia
Golfweek rating: 7.44
Co-designers: H.L. Rymill, C.L. Gardner
The Buzz: “MacKenzie was only there for four days (in 1926) but built an entirely different course from its original layout. A distinguishing feature was a rail line through the middle of the property, with many original holes played over the tracks. MacKenzie’s contribution was a genius new routing of holes playing parallel to the tracks. It’s vintage MacKenzie: a solid course that will test anyone’s game; excellent use of small elevation changes; subtle greens as opposed to what has become Augusta; and genius routing through nature that pleases and challenges.” – Golfweek rater Robert Stuart, Orlando
7. Valley Club of Montecito
Where: Santa Barbara, Calif.
Golfweek rating: 7.66
Co-designer: Robert Hunter
The Buzz: Josh Asher, Scottsdale, Ariz.
“The Valley Club is magnificently understated, replete with subtle jeopardy and peril that is, more often than not, invisible to the eye. It’s a golf course I could play every day for the rest of my life, which is a world-class compliment.” – Golfweek rater Josh Asher, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Where: Santa Cruz, Calif.
Golfweek rating: 7.67
The Buzz: “The greens and bunkers are works of art and definitely leave an impression, but it’s the routing that really stands out. The course is built on some fairly tough ground covered with gullies and ravines that limited options and dictated the routing. I really liked the way MacKenzie located tee boxes, keeping them close to greens while at the same time putting them in the perfect location to maximize the use of the land, while using the natural ravines to create corridors and angles that would visually intimidate you and make you think about the carry, even when carry was not substantial.” – Golfweek rater Mike Hogan, Independence, Ore.
5. California Golf Club
Where: South San Francisco, California
Golfweek rating: 7.69
Co-designers: A. Vernon Macan, Robert Hunter, Kyle Phillips
The Buzz: “MacKenzie didn’t do the entire design at the California Club, what he did was focus his efforts (in 1928) on bunkering. The club has some of the best examples of classic MacKenzie-style bunkers on the planet, replete with his signature fingering and rivulet offshoots strategically framed by long fescue. Kyle Phillips did a tremendous job restoring these amazing and timeless MacKenzie bunker features during the redesign (in 2008).” – Golfweek rater Larry Jackson, Orlando
4. New South Wales Golf Club
Where: Sydney, Australia
Golfweek rating: 7.71
The Buzz: “New South Wales exemplifies one of MacKenzie’s design principles that a golf course should be a test but be scenic and enjoyable. One of the qualities of this course is the natural layout of its routing, leaving you admiring its scenic beauty with views of Botany Bay.” – Golfweek rater Jim Martin, Mobile, Ala.
3. Crystal Downs
Where: Frankfort, Mich.
Golfweek rating: 8.60
Co-designer: Perry Maxwell
The Buzz: “It’s maybe the most difficult, short 6,500 yards you’ll ever play, while never losing a ball. No real water hazards are in play and the heather is only in play for very errant shots. It’s a great natural course; no backhoes or bulldozers moved any dirt here, only a few mules I suspect. There are many short, almost drivable par 4s at approximately 350 yards where pars look easy but aren’t, and where double bogeys can flourish before you know it.” – Golfweek rater Eric Gersonde, Birmingham, Mich.
2. Royal Melbourne Golf Club (West)
Where: Melbourne, Australia
Golfweek rating: 8.62
The Buzz: “It is just a great piece of land, and MacKenzie brought that forward in the routing followed by the bunkering, green complexes and the way the edges of the holes often fall away into nature. Augusta National and Royal Melbourne are full of similar subtleties. They also share very thought-provoking holes that use the terrain to speak to the golfer: ‘Do this, but only if you’re up for this.’” – Golfweek rater: Forrest Richardson, Phoenix
1. Cypress Point
Where: Pebble Beach, Calif.
Golfweek rating: 9.61
The Buzz: “MacKenzie divinely meshed the tranquility of the verdant holes in the forest with those of impossibly flowing artistry in the sand dunes, ending with majestic and spectacular cliffside holes abutting surprisingly bright blue water. Among the latter of those, one is considered to be the greatest golf hole in the world while another is considered the most beautiful. Cypress Point from start to finish is complete sensory overload.” – Golfweek rater Dr. Gene Greco, Southampton, N.Y. Gwk
(Note: This story appears in the March issue of Golfweek.)