The Doctor’s Diagnosis – Alister MacKenzie

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The very mention of Alister MacKenzie’s name is enough to cause consternation across the golfing landscape. Unnecessary trees quiver. Pointless dog-legs quake. Blind holes run for cover. Bogus bunkers bolt. And long grass might as well blow in the wind for all the use it is. None of the above, of course, has any place in the strategic master plans that the transplanted Scot by way of Leeds and all points west created across the globe. Augusta National. Cypress Point. Royal Melbourne. These are just three of the masterpieces to which MacKenzie has put his name, each modelled on the basic principles that make the Old Course at St Andrews the most interesting 18 holes in the game. A man of few words these days (he would be 140 this year), MacKenzie has long been loath to give interviews. But he makes the odd exception. And one of those came recently when he sat down with John Huggan to discuss golfing matters past and present.

What do you think when you see an excess of rough on a golf course?
I shudder. As I said in my book, ‘The Spirit of St Andrews’ (available at all good book stores), I hate to see long grass cluttering up the playing areas. Its only purpose, it seems to me, is to annoy and frustrate. It is certainly boring to play from. Plus, I have yet to meet a golfer who actually enjoys looking for his ball on almost every hole. And let’s not get into the feelings of those unlucky enough to be playing behind such an unfortunate individual. For me, golf is a game to be enjoyed. It is supposed to be fun, not purgatory. Too many people seem to have forgotten that fact, especially these days.

Was fun for all what you were trying to achieve at Augusta National?
It was. Bob Jones and I were very definite about that. We wanted the fairways to be wide so that every class of player could find a way to navigate each hole. The good player should be able to create an attractive angle for his approach with a drive into the correct spot. And the lesser player should be able to easily achieve a bogey without any undue stress.

That doesn’t sound much like the Augusta National we have seen over the last few years.
Sadly, it doesn’t. For the life – and death – of me, I can’t imagine what they have been thinking. It all seemed to start going wrong when that gentleman with the funny name – Sooty was it? – took charge of the club.

Hootie. Hootie Johnson.
That’s it. Clearly he had no idea what he was doing. I mean, growing rough, planting trees and placing the pins on what looked to me the very edges of the greens – which are typically way too fast nowadays – has created a golfing scenario far removed from the one Bob and I envisaged back in the 1930s. And I find it hard to believe that Clifford Roberts, for all his faults and lack of golfing knowledge, would have countenanced such things. It was madness, madness I tell you, on a par with holding the Open Championship at St Andrews and having to use tees not actually on the Old Course because incompetent administrators have allowed the golf ball to go too far…

Moving right along, you and dear old Cliff didn’t part on the best of terms did you? How do you feel about Augusta National never having paid your bill for services rendered?
As a sort-of true Scot, that still makes my blood boil. Can you believe they did that to me? After all I had done for them? And after all that whisky I helped Bob consume during construction? Disgraceful.

How do you like it when people say you never were very involved in Augusta, even though you spent several months there during the building of the course?
This time, my blood runs cold at the very thought that my influence on the land is not obvious to all. Does anyone seriously think that anyone – least of all me – would want to spend more than five minutes in a dump like Augusta if they weren’t fully committed to what they were doing there? All you have to do is read my book to see that Augusta National is the very embodiment of everything I stand for in course architecture. At least it was before Tootie got his hands on the place.

It’s Hootie.
Oh yes, Hootie.

Anyway, have you enjoyed watching the Masters over the last 76 years?
I used to enjoy it very much. Back in the days when Hogan and Snead seemed to be going at it head-to-head every year, I was having a wonderful time taking in the view from above. Then came Arnold Palmer and his patented charges over the last nine holes, situations I like to think were enhanced and encouraged by the way my course played. My favourite period, however, was the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Europeans were showing the Americans how proper golf should be played. Again, the creative genius of the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and José Maria Olazábal was given free rein by the way in which Augusta National used to be set up before Zootie took over.

Hootie you mean.
Please stop interrupting. Where was I? Oh yes. Even when the Europeans didn’t win, they were fun to watch. Remember Seve’s long iron to the 13th green in 1986? Or Faldo’s on the same hole a decade later? These were great moments in the history of the game, ones I am pleased and proud to be associated with. Speaking of the 13th, I find it difficult to know what to say when I stand on that tee now. Why would they ever move it back to the point where what was once the most exciting hole in world golf has been reduced to what is, 99 times out of 100, a par 3 of less than 100 yards? As I think Geoff Ogilvy – a fine young man with a good grasp of course architecture – said last year, ‘I’m not capable of hitting a ball 270 yards straight, then having it turn at right angles to the left.’ Well, I’ve got news for Scooty, no one
else is either.

It’s Hootie.
Yes, Hootie. I yearn for the old days to return now. The last few Masters have been enough to put a man into a deep sleep, or even a coma. Even when one of my favourites, Tiger Woods, won back in 2002 it was with a brand of golf that must have been as boring for him to play as it was for us to watch. There we had maybe the best golfer of all time playing one of the world’s most interesting courses and what did he do? He played safe on almost every hole, all because the risk factor on so many shots far outweighed any reward he might gain from successful execution. From being wide and encouraging, the course was too narrow and overly long. Heavens, only one man broke 70 in that final round, in calm conditions and on a course softened by rain. Worst of all, of course, Tootie and his gang had all but eliminated any chance of someone taking a run at Tiger with a string of birdies and maybe even an eagle on the back nine. In the conditions they contrived to create, that sort of excitement was a complete non-starter. I’m just glad Bob isn’t around to see it. The poor man would be driven to drink. And it wouldn’t be a Diet Coke in a green cup. And don’t get me started on 2003 and 2008. My goodness, how boring was it to see plodders like Zach Johnson and Mike Weir donning Green Jackets. Instead, they should have been asked to wear pyjamas.

You mentioned the Old Course a minute ago; what do you make of rough and defined fairway lines on the Old Course?
Words almost fail me. Who is in charge there now? Is it Bluto?

No, and it isn’t Hootie either.
Whatever, it almost brings tears to my eyes when I see the character of the Old Course being perverted in the ways it has been over the last decade and a bit. I never thought I’d see the day when the decision over where to hit from a tee at St Andrews was being made by a faceless committee rather than the player himself. They are slowly sucking the fun out of the place. And for that they should be ashamed.

Getting back to the Masters and Augusta, is there anything else upsetting you when you go back there now?
Never mind that. What about Royal Melbourne? They tell me that in 2003 Ernie Els hit a drive and a 7-iron into the three-shotter we made the 17th hole. I feel sorry for the Australians and all those wonderful courses I created with Alex Russell. I know they must be very upset at how short all those Sandbelt courses now play. Kingston Heath was over 6,800 yards when I had finished with it in 1926. It was one of the longest in the world. It seems that they are strong advocates of a sensible new ball for the first-class player but they are at the mercy of the ‘do-nothings’ far away in New Jersey and St Andrews. As a consequence, their best courses are little more than pitch-and-putt affairs for men like young Ogilvy. Despite that, Kingston Heath held up well when Tiger was there last November. It proved – not that I needed any proof – that fine, well-bunkered greens and logical strategies will hold even the best players in check and reward those who think as well as they execute. Woods thought his way around the course perfectly. I warned in the books I wrote that the ball was getting too lively, but they paid no attention. Now they turn the argument the other way and say there have always been those saying that ‘the ball goes too far.’ It is as if such an assertion gives them the right to do nothing, even when great old courses have run out of room for new tees.

That sounds like Augusta.
It does. Look at all those ridiculously long walks between greens and tees. Oh, and one last thing. Why in God’s name does the BBC have that silly soccer person hosting their coverage? It’s quite obvious the man doesn’t have a clue about golf. A bit like Footie really.

It’s Hootie.
Oh yes, Hootie. Don’t remind me.

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