The spirit of St Andrews

Book review “The spirit of St Andrews”

 

Written 1933, published 1995.

 

The spirit of St Andrews, finest golf coursesDr Alistair MacKenzie of Yorkshire (1870 – 1934) is considered by some to be the greatest golf architect and with such courses to his name as the much praised Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and Augusta National in the USA, as well as Royal Melbourne in Australia and Alwoodley and Moortown in England he has a strong case.

A partner of Harry Colt for 18 years, he was one of the most provocative characters in the game and like Jim Arthur the world’s greatest agronomist, never minced words.

One of the reasons he left Britain in the 1920’s to work overseas in Australia and the USA was, as he put it, to get away from the influence of socialists.

He was similarly outspoken in the depths of the 1930s American depression, expressing the view that mental labour, when building a course, should reduce the amount of manual labour required, through the deployment of machinery and specialist expertise. Mackenzie put these theories into practise while building the successful Bayside and Augusta National courses.

I mentioned in my short review of Cavendish that I had recently been introduced to Mackenzie’s lost manuscript, written during his last years in the early 1930’s and which was only published in 1995. It is called “The spirit of St Andrews”.

 

As its central theme, he describes how in his view

St Andrews Old is the finest course in the world, 

thereby taking a definitive stance on one of the oldest argument in golf.

 

The spirit of St Andrews, finest golf courses, Alister Mackenzie

Mackenzie at St Andrews

A self-professed radical by nature, to his astonishment he found all his ideals exemplified within the venerable Old course.

He sees the Old course as a standing example of the possibility of making a course which is pleasurable to all classes of golfers and though condemned by some for this view, he regarded the condemnation of others as arising from the fact ‘they have not brains enough, or have not played it long enough, to appreciate its many virtues’.

On the surface a rather arrogant attitude(!) but when we think about it we all have courses we know intimately. Some grow boring in time, others like Royal Dornoch for me, which I have played every year since the mid 1980s, test your psychology of being able to dominate them, as you discover hidden subtleties over the years that weavel into the mind.

It would not be an over-statement to say the first six holes at Dornoch terrorise me these days and provide a fresh challenge each year. This is the type of virtue that Mackenzie is alluding to with the Old Course and that actually is a very humbling proposition.

 The spirit of St Andrews, finest golf courses, Alister Mackenzie

The 16th at Pasatiempo a Mackenzie favourite

He uses the example of the Old course to analyse what is an ideal hole and considers the role of hazards and the approaches to greens.

Many golfers look upon a hazard as a means of punishing a bad shot, but in Mackenzie’s terms its real objective is to make the game more interesting. He considers that ‘hazards should be placed with an object in mind and not one should be made which has not some influence on the line of play to the hole’.

 The spirit of St Andrews, finest golf courses, Alister Mackenzie, hell bunker

Was Hell bunker a favourite?!

He also likes to create variety in approach shots. Courses where only the ‘through the air’ pitch permits the best results to be attained at every hole, Mackenzie felt would be certain to become monotonous. An early criticism of ‘target-style’ golf.

He believes that firstly there is great fascination in playing a shot close to the ground climbing over hillocks, running through hollows, curving right or left and lying dead at the hole. The suspense of whether the ball will climb the last rise and relief as it does so and rolls down the final slope towards the hole provides great golfing pleasure.

Secondly he felt there is nothing like the same excitement in watching the flight of a ball through the air, in which it is only the result which gives satisfaction. It is the manner in which a shot is played that gives the greater lasting satisfaction.

Clearly a knowledgeable man, firmly on the side of the fine running game in contrast to “target golf”!

There are nevertheless some anomalies in ‘The spirit of St Andrews’. For example he doesn’t mention James Braid. This is perhaps because he doesn’t quite fit into his general theory that it was not until the amateur golfers like himself, Abercromby, Tom Simpson etc who took up John L Low’s and Stuart Paton’s pioneering work at Woking that strategic design was brought to inland courses.

I don’t know enough about Braid’s work but perhaps like JH Taylor, Braid took a little time to come round to the strategic school of design, prefering as a player the Penal school.

Another anomaly is Mackenzie’s under-valuing of the double Open Champion Willie Park Junior’s design work during the intermediary period of the 1890’s and up to the first world war. Perhaps this opinion arose on seeing how Harry Colt, another non-professional golfer, had greatly improved Park’s siting of a number of greens at Sunningdale Old.

He seems to have overlooked Park’s brilliant ability at routing and creating subtle green complexes that were important developments in bringing strategic design to inland courses. Park’s approach contrasted with the somewhat boring, square-shaped, flat greens and cross-hazards of the ‘penal’ school of design that had held sway through people like Tom Dunn up to around the turn of the twentieth century. (See FineGolf’s Huntercombe and Temple reviews for classic Park designs and the Hayling review for a fuller comment on Dunn).

Mackenzie likes courses where balls are not lost. He suggests long drivers should be given more latitude. This is a fair enough point of view but Tom Simpson strongly disagreed with it; he frequently wrote “the tiger, poor brute, deserves no mercy”. Mackenzie’s view seems also directly at odds with the recent USGA and R&A rulings on clubhead grooves that are supposed to redress somewhat the balance and favour accuracy over power.

As more people play the stunningly beautiful Castle Stuart course in the Scottish Highlands and read the architect’s justification for his open fairway design on their website they might remember that this course perhaps has a heritage derived from Mackenzie’s philosophy.

The spirit of St Andrews, finest golf courses, Alister Mackenzie

Bobby Jones & Mackenzie experimenting at Augusta

Much in line with FineGolf’s thoughts, Mackenzie’s favourite courses are where match-play is pre-eminent, in contrast to the opinions of some leading players of his day and the present who dislike the dramatic element in golf. “They hate anything which is likely to interfere with a constant succession of threes and fours. They look upon everything in the ‘card and pencil’ spirit”. (this is a most excellent point and goes an enormous way to explain why a tour professional is positively the LAST kind of person who should be designing any course!)

I wonder whether Mackenzie ever read PG Woodhouse’s short story ‘A woman is only a woman’ that describes how ‘love’ for a time spoilt the friendship of two ‘hackers’ in their daily attempt to improve their games which often satisfied the golfing spirit with halves in fifteen or even twenty-two on a hole! (Thanks to James Maxwell for sending me this reference that can be further investigated at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7028 and then click on ‘Plain Text UTF-8’).

The spirit of St Andrews’ certainly provides a bit of magic to lift the spirits, as we ponder which books to read during the Christmas holidays. It gives page after page of interest and commonsense and none other than Peter Alliss has commented that he has yet to read a more interesting book on golf.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2011

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