Waking to Alister MacKenzie

Waking to Alister MacKenzie

Wake up, laddie!”

I groaned and ground my face deeper into the pillow.

“Arise! I’ve something to get off my chest.”

Bad Scottish accent, I thought-a cross between Sean Connery and Fat Bastard. Going with the dream, I opened my right eye a crack. Sitting on the edge of the dresser, illuminated by light from the clock radio, was a large man in a jacket, tie and plus fours.

I let my eyelid droop; then I bolted upright with a yelp, practically falling off the bed. “Who … what …?” My heart raced, and I looked around wildly. It appeared that I was still in room 915 of the Atlanta Airport Marriott, but here was this bald Scotsman with bushy eyebrows and a fat mustache.

“You could have called first!” I patted my chest and tried to catch my breath. “Don’t you golf ghosts have a code of conduct?”

“Not really.” The intruder stood up and walked to the closet. “We do follow certain principles….” He pulled a white bathrobe off a hanger and tossed it to me.

The word principles tipped me. This imposing ghost had to be a renowned golf-course architect from the first half of the 20th century-the genius behind Cypress Point, Royal Melbourne and Augusta National-and the author of several books on course construction, one of which included his oft-cited “essential features of an ideal golf course.”

I sighed and gave him a long, steady look.

“Dr. Alister MacKenzie, I presume?”

I had a pretty good idea why he had come. “It’s that ‘turning in the grave’ business, isn’t it?” I asked. “They hire Tom Fazio to lengthen and toughen up Augusta National, and we golf pundits write that ‘Alister MacKenzie is turning in his grave.’ And you’re here to tell me that you’re not turning in your grave, that no golf course is ever finished, that change is inevitable and welcome, et cetera, et cetera.”

He frowned. “Have you been talking to Donald Ross?”

“The ghost of Donald Ross,” I corrected. The designer of Pinehurst No. 2 was, in fact, my first spirit interview.
“Well, I’m another Scotsman altogether, and I am turning in my grave.”

I had switched on the desk lamp, so we were no longer operating in darkness. I sat in the swivel chair by the desk.

“You’re upset that Zach Johnson won the Masters?”

He dismissed that idea with a wave. “No, it’s the length.”

“The length of the holes?”

“The length of the rounds!” His eyes flashed. “Fifty years ago we played three rounds of golf a day and considered it an interminably long time if we took more than two hours to play 18. Now it not infrequently takes more than five hours. Or six! We’ve gotten to the state where there is too much walking and too little golf.”

“I would have said too much putting.”

“That too! The greens are so fast, so velvety, so perfect; they’re made for croquet or tennis, anything except golf. It takes five minutes to examine an eight-foot putt from every angle. Then they miss the hole, and the ball rolls right off the green. What nonsense!”

The root of the problem, MacKenzie went on, was the golfer’s eternal craving for more distance. “I remember many years ago,” he said, “in the days of the gutty, getting hold of two of the first Haskell balls that came to Scotland. With the aid of the Haskell, I was able to outdrive opponents who formerly outdrove me. But my temporary delight only lasted until they obtained the rubber-cored balls. It’s a matter of relativity.”

We talked in a similar vein for perhaps an hour, MacKenzie lamented the modern trend toward target golf, saying, “Today nearly everyone plays a coarse and vulgar pitch that punches a hole in the green.” He gently mocked the parochialism of golfers everywhere, adding, “It is a remarkable thing about golf courses that nearly every man has an affection for the particular mud heap upon which he plays.” He ridiculed today’s golfers for carrying 14 clubs, pointing out that John Ball, the great 19th-century amateur from Hoylake, had frequently played with only two clubs, “and played as well as anyone else with a complete bagful of ironmongery.”

MacKenzie was born in northern England in 1870 to a Scottish physician and a young woman from a prosperous Glasgow family. A medical education at Cambridge and Leeds had set him on a conventional career path, but wars diverted him. He served first as a surgeon in the Boer War, somehow falling into the study of camouflage defenses. Then, when World War I broke out, he was chosen to create and run the British School of Camouflage.

“I was a keen golfer,” he said, “and while studying camouflage it struck me that inland courses, which were invariably second-rate, could be improved by imitating the natural features of the great links courses, the sand dunes by the sea. My first effort was Alwoodley, in Yorkshire, followed by Moortown, Sandmoor, Sitwell Park….” His wistful expression abruptly broke into something more sour. “The professionals said my greens were too undulating, my courses unfair.” He snorted. “There were leading players who honestly disliked the dramatic element in golf. They hated anything that was likely to interfere with a constant succession of 3s and 4s. They looked at everything in the card-and-pencil spirit.”

“Times haven’t changed all that much,” I said. “When Pete Dye built his Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass, the players howled. They said the banks were too steep, the greens too severe, the hazards too contrived. Dye spent years tweaking the course until….”

I didn’t complete the thought. “The history of most clubs,” MacKenzie said, “is that a committee is appointed to ‘improve’ the golf course. They make mistakes-they flatten all the humps and swales, they plant trees where trees have never grown, they pipe in water for waterfalls-and just as they are beginning to learn from these mistakes, they resign office and are replaced by others who who make still greater mistakes. And so it goes.”

He smiled again. “I like to tell the story of the old Scottish major playing over the brook. When he hits it on the green, he turns to his caddie and says, ‘Weel ower the bonnie wee burn, ma laddie.’ But when he knocks it in, he says, ‘Pick ma ball oot o’ that domned sewer.'”

With the Players Championship soon to be staged on a rebuilt TPC Stadium course, I asked MacKenzie what he thought of the Ponte Vedra landmark. “The test of a good architect,” he replied, “is the power of converting bad inland material into a good course, and not of fashioning excellent seaside material into a mediocre one.”

“Should I take that as an endorsement of Dye’s work?”

MacKenzie slapped his thighs. “If some people don’t like Mr. Dye’s work, it may be due to the fact that they have not brains enough to appreciate its many virtues.” He seemed happy, as if by smiting Dye’s critics he had landed blows on his own. “I do question the need for a complete renovation, however. Every golfer knows examples of courses that have been constructed and rearranged over and over again; the fact that millions of dollars are frittered away on bad work that will ultimately have to be scrapped is particularly distressful to me. It is impossible to lay too much stress on the importance of finality in a design.”

“Dye made most of the changes on his own,” I said.

“To do otherwise is to court disaster,” MacKenzie riposted. “A succession of ambitious architects must inevitably dilute the creator’s vision.” He turned his head, noticing the first light of dawn. “I used to tell the story of two rival course contractors. One of them admired the other’s greens, saying, ‘Angus, I’ve never been able to get my greenkeepers to make the undulations so natural looking.’ Angus said, ‘It’s easy. I simply employ the biggest fool in the village and tell him to make them flat.'”

MacKenzie chuckled and stood up. “I’ve interrupted your sleep, for which I apologize. I simply wanted to stress that my unhappiness with the changes at Augusta National is not due to a hidebound inclination. I was by nature a revolutionary, and only too apt to scoff at tradition.”

I stood out of politeness. “There’s one question I’ve always…,” I began-but in mid-sentence the desk lamp popped and the room fell dark. Startled, I wheeled around. When I turned back, MacKenzie was gone.

At home I pawed through the pages of The Life and Work of Dr. Alister MacKenzie until I found this:

Some say MacKenzie would not even recognize the Augusta National course today because of all the changes. In truth, he never saw the finished course; his last visit there was in April of 1932, just before the grass was planted.

I laughed out loud. “Pat!” I called to my wife in the next room. “You aren’t going to believe this!”

Which turned out to be the case.