Learning From Mackenzie’s Design Principles Down Under


imagesRecently I played at four of the finest courses in Australia – Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Huntingdale and the New South Wales Golf Club in Sydney.

With the exception of Huntingdale (home of the Australian Masters), these courses were designed by the great British golf course architect, Alister Mackenzie, who gave us many other classic courses such as Augusta National and Cypress Point, as well as the beautiful Alwoodley and Moortown Golf Clubs in England.

Firm Conditions, No Rough

These world-class Australian courses are extremely popular with all levels of golfer sand, as you might expect, have many common design features.

The fairways are really wide in places and the ground conditions are always firm…never soft. There is also almost no rough around the greens, which feature many interesting slopes and deep bunkers that really cut into the greens.

Hazards Are for Interest – Not Punishment!

UnknownMackenzie’s aim was to make the game interesting and make courses that are playable for anyone – young or old, expert or beginner.

Around the greens these courses are certainly not easy but, playing in a very mixed ability group, we hardly lost a ball and everyone enjoyed their game. Mackenzie had one brilliant idea that I especially like. He held the view that the purpose of a hazard is not to punish a bad shot, but to make the round more interesting.

The Spirit of St Andrews 

Mackenzie was not an accomplished player himself. In fact, before he went to Australia a friend advised him not to let his clients see him play! This may well have been one of his strengths since he understood very well the problems of the handicap golfer and did not just build difficult courses that only the best could play. In his view, anyone could do that.

More of his ideas can be found in his excellent book, the Spirit of St Andrews, which would make a great Xmas present for any golfer.

Why More Clubs Should Copy Mackenzie’s Ideas

Not every course has such great architecture but clubs can best present what they do have by adopting some of Mackenzie’s ideas.

Last summer (in England), I played a tree-lined course where the conditions were the complete opposite of what Mackenzie would have prescribed. The greens (in one of the driest summers for ages) were so soft and over-watered that each iron shot left a huge pitch mark. Under the trees, from which a recovery was already difficult enough, there was lots of thick rough so that much time was spent looking for balls and then hacking out instead of being tempted into an interesting recovery shot. It was not much fun at all.

Wider Fairways Allow More Strategy for Everyone

The Mackenzie courses all had very wide fairways but there was usually a risk reward choice or a perfect spot on one side of the fairway that opened up the green, perhaps depending on the pin position. A narrow fairway gives fewer options for challenging hazards or making angles and can reduce the game to a rather dull straight hitting contest. This is fine on some holes in the round but most golfers find it quite tiresome over a full 18.

Many golfers think that long rough and narrow fairways are what makes a course a proper tournament test but this is not the case. Everyone remembers Davis Love asking for almost all the rough to be cut down for the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah. There was hardly any long grass anywhere which was controversial at the start of the week but it did allow the players to produce great matches.

Even the USGA (finally!) relented on rough when they took the US Open to a restored Pinehurst in 2014, so perhaps we are seeing the start of a trend away from thick rough as a hazard – something Mackenzie warned was really bad for the game…..and speed of play.

Courses Do Not Need to Become Still More Difficult

Participation in golf has been reported as declining according to many reports. To start growing the game once again, we cannot present newcomers with ever longer, narrower, more difficult courses and expect them to enjoy it. No one comes to the golf club to be punished – the game itself will do that perfectly well, as all golfers already know!

If we want to keep existing golfers interested then it would help if the courses were as sporting and exciting as they can possibly be.

Mackenzie certainly achieved that in Melbourne and Sydney. Visit them if you get the chance.



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