As one half of Mackenzie and Ebert (Martin Ebert being the other), golf architect Tom Mackenzie has been responsible for not only creating some of the world’s finest new courses, but also ensuring heritage courses such as Royal Troon, St George's, Carnoustie, Trump Turnberry (the list goes on) remain truly timeless. Here, he talks exclusively to Golf Travel Solutions…
I found my career through Yellow Pages. Like most teenagers who are mad keen on golf, I found it a lot more interesting than school and I didn’t know what I wanted to be. One day after school, my brother said ‘you love landscapes, why don’t you do something to do with that?’. So I looked it up in Yellow Pages and the first thing I saw was ‘landscape architect’.
I was a caddy at The Open. I took a year out to caddy on the European Tour, working for Andrew Oldcorn and Jeff Hawkes. I worked the bag on many good courses, but the best moment was caddying at The Open on the Old Course at St Andrews, having made it through a nerve-wracking final qualifying.
Caddying teaches you about course management. You see how the best players in the world try and work out the best courses and how they approach each part of the hole when they’re right in the thick of the battle. I saw some astoundingly good golf, met a lot of good people and a lot of unpleasant people too. Practice days give the most insight as the players try to plot their path through the course, so I’d always say to visit then – it’s cheaper, friendlier, more interesting and quieter.
You’ve got to play golf competitively. That doesn’t mean you need to be off scratch, but that you know the game. Beware the golf course architect who hardly plays golf. If it’s too unfair, people don’t enjoy it, and if you don’t get rewarded for good shots, people will get annoyed. At that stage, you might as well go and play tiddlywinks. I was single figures when I was at university but now I’m down to about four.
Donald Steel gave me my first job. I’d worked for a practise where Donald Steel was a partner but I never met him. That firm broke up and he then set up his own practise. My only contact had been over the phone but he must have liked the cut of my jib – either that or he couldn’t find anyone else.
My career started in the golf boom. Donald really threw Martin and I in the at the deep end. It was 1989 and the phone just kept ringing with new projects, there were a lot of hotel courses and private member courses. It was a bit of a real baptism of fire but it meant we were allowed to show considerable creativity under Donald’s watchful eye, coming up with concept designs for greens and real detail on courses, like bunkering, from the start.
Find good green positions for a great course. This was the design principle of Golden Age Architects like Harry Colt, Herbert Fowler, Tom Simpson, James Braid and Alister MacKenzie out of necessity because earth-moving machines had not been invented, except those on two and four legs. Find good green sites, then create the best layout using them. Eighteen good green sites and you’ve got a good course.
We don’t want to make cookie cutter courses. We like them to be natural and economic so that people can afford to play them. For instance, we worked for a group of Slovakians who loved Scottish style golf and one night in Scotland, over a few beers, they pledged to create their own local course in that style. We became involved and followed the tested principles: minimal earth movement, find the best green sites and almost no bunkers, just use the natural features. We agreed to spend the money to have decent greens and we can always add things like bunkers later. Golf Club Scotland is up and running with a nine-hole course, a driving range and six-hole par three course. It’s never going to be top 100 in the world, but it’s number one in their town and that’s what matters.
Our email address is pitchandrun18 and that’s a statement of intent. We love firm, fast golf; heathland, downland or links. They’re the ones I Iike playing – where you’re pitting your skill against the ground conditions and environment rather than soft receptive dartboard golf. I took my younger son out when he about five and he hit the ball along the ground and loved the way it kept appearing and reappearing – he got it straight away. Most of the world’s gofers have never worked this out because they play courses where these shots are impossible.
All architects need a brief to work to. Don’t build a five-bedroom house when they only want three bedrooms. It’s the same with golf design, we need to make sure we know exactly what clients want. Sometimes they don’t know so we have to tease it out: what are they trying to achieve? Are they trying to improve position in the rankings? Make it harder? Make it easier? Reduce maintenance?
There’s no room for ego on heritage courses. We work on courses by Harry Colt, Alister MacKenzie, Herbert Fowler, Tom Simpson – you have to be highly respectful. You need to work out what is original and if it’s it not, ask yourself ‘why was it changed?’. If it’s not worth restoring faithfully, then perhaps we recreate it in the spirit of the original and update it for the modern game.
We’ve walked away from projects in China. Some jobs over there were insanity and we walked away. The clients had almost no knowledge of golf and the sites were wholly unsuitable for what they wanted to achieve and they didn’t acknowledge it. Combined with a ridiculous attitude to construction and timetables, they were recipes for danger.
Water is the most important factor in golf course design. Managing water is the key to success in golf course design, construction and management. It’s about removing it when there’s too much, about applying it when you need it and making sure you’ve got enough. Where does it come from? How does it need to be treated? How do you recycle and harvest it? How do you stop properties down the hill from the course from flooding!?! It’s one thing to design a good course, but you can’t forget the technical bits.
There is lot of legislation but don’t blame it all on Brussels. It’s not as simple as that. There can be protected species, archaeology, all sorts of things and, many of them, I agree with. But some are illogical. We have heathland courses and while one government department encourages clubs restore and expand heathland which inevitably involves tree removal. Another will make us plant a tree for every one we cut down, which limits the heathland area. So we have two government departments with different remits, but neither will budge and all it takes if for someone to say in this instance that heathland is more important than trees for the nation.
Right now, as an industry, it’s a mixed bag. It’s good for us, but we’ve really carved out a niche in existing course work. Historically it was 50/50, but in recent years it’s been closer to a 70/30. It doesn’t bother me, I just like working on good projects and I love the cut and thrust of persuading members to make a change. But when it comes to new courses, all of the Eurozone is flat as a pancake. Italy, France, Spain, Portugal – all flat. Germany a bit better and France a few nine holes because of Ryder Cup, but that’s it.
We’ve been able to get clubs out of the spending paralysis. Can they afford to make changes? Can they afford not to? We’ve found those that those who do invest suddenly have increasing membership and waiting lists again because they’ve broken out of the spiral of fighting over the price of a bacon buttie and two for one offers.
We’ve had to fight hurricanes in the Bahamas. We were building a new course, the Abaco Club, on an island and were hit by two hurricanes before it had even opened. One part of the course was filled with seawater, fish, plants, rocks and sand. We spent days pumping the water out, lifting rocks and scraping off the sand, but once we’d finished, it started to green up again because we chose the right grass. It still opened up on time.
Gil Hanse’s Olympics golf course was perfect for the occasion. He created a design that suited the Olympic format. It was still the 72-hole format but there were only three prizes and no playing for 20th-placed money. Normally, if you’re not in the running at a tournament you just see how much money you can make, but the Olympics was different. He designed a course to encourage the ebb and flow of the scores in the closing stretch. He also recognised that it would be a good statement for Olympic golf for it not to be all emerald green and it played firm and fast.
Tom Simpson and Herbert Fowler’s philosophy is true today. If you design for the one per cent (the scratch players) nobody will want to play your course. So you try and make it playable for the average player, while also making it more challenging for the best players, it’s the same a century on. It’s all about business, you won’t have people saying your course it’s great if it’s so difficult nobody that nobody wants to plays it more than once.
The greens of Augusta are what it makes it special. Going back to what I said earlier, if Augusta had flat greens then The Masters would be a non-event. The extreme contours of the greens scare the players who fear finding themselves out of position. That fear is what leads them to make mistakes. It generates the excitement and builds upon the nervousness. Even Rory and Jordan know about that.
Cypress Point is a course I’ve never played, but would love to. I like the fact that Alister MacKenzie had the vision and confidence to design a course with back-to-back par threes, par fives and short par fours to create the most of the land’s potential as naturally as possible. He was never scared to be non-conformist. It doesn’t hurt that it’s got a drop-dead gorgeous setting too.
Favourite hole? The Road Hole. It’s a bit of a hackneyed response I know, but the Road Hole is just such an epic experience and the tee still sets the pulses races. It has lost some of its venom as players have got longer but it is the green and Road bunker that makes it. It was a great deal more intimidating when players were hitting a driver and two or three iron as they were when I caddied there in 1984, but it’s still exciting to play.
My ideal is a client that wants the best course with the least amount of money. The best clients are the ones who want to create the best possible course on a great site, leaving it as natural as possible, without all the bells and whistles. That way, because it costs less, in theory it should be cheaper to play – so more people play it. That’s got to be what it’s all about, more people playing affordable golf.