I Got Tired of Watching Them Die: The Story of Alister MacKenzie – Golf’s Greatest Architect

Based on a true story…

“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” -Frank Lloyd Wright

A young nineteen-year-old civilian medic lay in the brush along a ridge as the sun began to hang low in the sky painting orange and red shadows across a quiet plain. Clouds moved slowly and the sound of the wind created a feeling of momentary serenity.

Alister thought about how herds of zebra and antelope once moved across the plains following the waterholes and grass. Movement in his peripheral snapped him back to the moment. It was the white helmet of one of the British soldiers. From his vantage point, he could make out nine or ten white helmets and a few red coats with glistening gold buttons.

CRACK! CRACK!  Gunfire shattered the quiet South African dimmet. Shouts and more gunfire and the bone-chilling cry of “medic.” The shots had come from a ridgeline across the plain. A coterie of British regulars returned fire but nobody had seen the shooters.

Alister moved quickly across the ridge to where the wounded lay shot through the lungs gurgling and gasping for air. There was little he could do in the remote milieu. He often found he administered in equal parts, medical assistance and last rites to scared wounded and dying boys.

It was not an isolated incident and one that would carefully shape the mind and the future of the fledgling medic.

The enemy they were fighting fought a different kind of war than the traditional kind of which the British soldiers in their gaudy uniforms were used too. They fought a guerilla style of warfare with surprise ambushes and stealthy escapes. It was effective and psychologically demoralizing to the British soldiers.

But what fascinated Alister most was their ability to blend into the surrounding landscape making detection difficult until it was too late. The British soldiers could be seen for miles in their dress uniforms better preserved for Cinderella’s ball then bloody combat on the brown and orange colored remote South African ridgelines.

What the Boers were doing was an early use of camouflage and they were masters of it. Alister would study the art of camouflage. He became himself a master of concealment saving countless lives by applying his learned and tested methods. But his application of camouflage tactics wouldn’t end with his war experiences. Something rather miraculous would come out of the carnage he witnessed. And it would be defined by its splendor and beauty.

The war ended in 1902 and Alister returned to England to practice medicine and play golf. It was the same year that one of golf’s greatest legends was born. Robert Tyre Jones, aka Bobby Jones.

MacKenzie’s Big Break

Dr. Alister MacKenzie had dabbled in golf course design for nearly twenty years before the opportunity would propel him to the next level. In 1914, an English weekly magazine, Country Life, was holding a contest. It was for a new project being overseen by golf course design guru, Charles Blair MacDonald. The contest involved selecting the best design for the course’s finishing hole at Lido Golf Club in Hempstead, Long Island, New York.

The real estate was a marshy swath of land. The course had been created with the help of two million cubic yards of sand pumped out of Reynolds Channel. Of the eighty entries into the contest, Dr. MacKenzie’s was selected. A stroke of engineering brilliance. It was as if he understood how to control the water, the nuances of the land, and the wind. The 18th hole immediately became recognized as something extraordinary.

A famed writer and golf enthusiast of the time called Lido “The finest course in the world.”

It was at Lido in a pounding rain that legendary golfer Bobby Jones would shoot a 70 in one of the greatest rounds of his golfing career. The course, unfortunately, would not survive the Great Depression and fell into abandonment. 

Around this time, World War I was underway. Alister was once again assigned to the military as a civil surgeon. When the world conflict was finally over in 1919, MacKenzie would leave medicine to focus his energy fully on golf course design.

From the Battlefield to Augusta

Around 1930, Bobby Jones and his friend, fellow amateur superstar Francis Ouimet, selected to forgo the amateur championship. Instead, accepting invitations to play a course north of Pebble Beach that had the golf world in a frenzy. The corybantic chatter was hard to ignore.

The building of this course had been financed by English socialite Marion Hollins. He was enamored by the rocky seaside layout. A magnificent golf course had to be put there. The talented Scotsman was the man for the job. The course was Cypress Point. And when Bobby Jones saw it for the first time he was dazzled. The climactic windswept coastal views. The perfect use of natural land. And the attention to even the smallest detail was the mark of a truly gifted mind and eye.

When it came time for Bobby to select an architect for his Augusta National project there was no question as to who should design it. For anyone that steps foot onto that hallowed ground, nearly everyone will agree that it is the course’s beauty that strikes them first. And it is the fact that the golf course looks like it belongs there. Like it grew out of the earth as the flowers that decorate it. Achieved as if by mimicking the hand of God. MacKenzie once said:

“The chief object of every golf course architect or greenkeeper worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself.”

He also stated that “The ideal course is one that affords the greatest pleasure to the greatest number.” Interpretation of that statement can be that the course can satisfy the most amateur player and challenge the scratch golfer without taking away pleasure from either side of the spectrum. True genius.

That idea is substantiated by the immortal physicist Albert Einstein when he said “The definition of genius is taking something complex and making it simple.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, possibly the world’s greatest composer said, “To win applause one must write stuff so simple that a coachman might sing it, or so incomprehensible that it pleases simply because no sensible man can comprehend it.”

The need for balance and camaraderie between complexity and simplicity is recognized and understood in all the works of the world’s greatest geniuses. Alister MacKenzie, based on his own words, was no stranger to this phenomenon.

Augusta National Golf Club was the design that made him immortal in the eyes of golf enthusiasts. His design didn’t annihilate the natural beauty of the southern Georgia-pined landscape. But instead, as if the holes were painted onto a canvas of an already finished masterpiece, one couldn’t tell that it hadn’t been there originally.

Frank Lloyd Wright, famed Chicago architect said, “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be part of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other.”

Dr. MacKenzie studied and mastered camouflage and concealment of soldiers into the landscape to save lives. He was tired of watching the British boys being picked off indiscriminately, killed and maimed when they could not protect themselves.

One could argue that part of Alister’s need to protect the natural landscape while creating his golf courses was partially a result of his belief that nature was omnipotent. The perfection in terms of beauty as well as the fact that he witnessed too much destruction and carnage of beautiful things in the war. He wished to protect natural beauty while at the same time creating it.

Shakespeare’s eerie quote resonates, “There are few die well that die in battle.” As a medic in two wars witnessing countless atrocities, it is hard to doubt the deep impact it had on MacKenzie. These experiences most likely were part of what drove him to study camouflage with intensity and become successful in its creation and utilization. He then used these same methods to create some of golf’s greatest courses including the most famous modern course today, Augusta National.

Alister MacKenzie’s gift to the world was his originality. His cogitation equates with nearly all the other prodigious thinkers that have ever persevered in their chosen fields. He designed more than 50 golf courses and is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. MacKenzie would die suddenly at the age of 66 without ever seeing Augusta National completed. His legacy, creations, and story continue to intrigue.

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