Alister MacKenzie courses that you can play in the U.S.

Most, but not all, of the designs from Augusta National Golf Club co-creator Alister MacKenzie reside behind locked gates. Fortunately, for fans of the good doctor’s great course architecture, a fistful of public-access U.S. layouts await

It is beyond dispute that Alister MacKenzie is one of history’s greatest architects. Cypress Point, Royal Melbourne and Augusta National are testament. Yet, MacKenzie’s legacy includes few public-access courses, at least in the United States. There are exceptions, however.  

If you’re looking to sample the good doctor’s architectural handiwork without boarding an airplane, then here is where to play, what to look for and how much actual MacKenzie remains.

Santa Cruz, Calif.

Situated 45 minutes north of MacKenzie’s uber-exclusive Cypress Point is his semi-private jewel, Pasatiempo. Opened in 1929, this pint-sized powerhouse measures just 6,495 yards (par 70). Yet, its challenge is relentless. Rolling terrain slashed by barrancas; bold, artistically crafted bunkers; and frighteningly quick, canted greens combine with coastal breezes off nearby Monterey Bay to create an exhilarating, if demanding test.

Most memorable are a pair of par 4s, the 390-yard, par-4 11th and the 392-yard 16th. The dogleg-left 11th embodies MacKenzie’s affection for risk and reward. A precarious left-side drive that flirts with the barranca will find a flatter lie and a better angle into the elevated green. The safer drive to the right creates a longer second shot, from an uphill-sidehill lie, over the barranca and sand, to a green rendered shallower by the angle of approach. It’s classic pay me now or pay me later.

MacKenzie immodestly called the downhill then uphill 16th, which concludes with a wild three-tier green, “the best two-shot hole I know.” Even so, there are many who concur.

Much of Alister MacKenzie's original design at Pasatiempo Golf Club remains as it first looked when the course opened in 1929.

Much of Alister MacKenzie’s original design at Pasatiempo Golf Club remains as it first looked when the course opened in 1929.

Photo: Pasatiempo Golf Club

MacKenzie’s frequent use of deception, a tactic learned while serving as a surgeon in the Boer War, is fully realized at the uphill, 222-yard, par-3 third hole. Recently restored bunkers well short of the green present vexing indecision to every player as to just how close they are to the putting surface.

According to Sean Tully, superintendent of the MacKenzie-designed Meadow Club in Fairfax, Calif., and one of the most respected MacKenzie scholars in golf, 90 percent or more of Pasatiempo today is pure MacKenzie.

“So much of the original course is intact,” Tully said. “The club has done a wonderful job of curating the MacKenzie features. Thanks to the excellent restoration and to the great work by superintendent Justin Mandon, it’s worth every bit of the trip to get there.”      

Monte Rio, Calif.

Playing golf through ancient, towering redwoods is one of those forbidden fruit thrills, like flaunting a fur coat on a chilly afternoon. The environmentalists today would sooner chain themselves to these magnificent trees before they would allow a golf course to be built among them. In 1928, though, when MacKenzie crafted this 9-holer an hour north of San Francisco for members of the exclusive Bohemian Club, development rules were decidedly more lax.

So respected was MacKenzie in this era that he was selected for the design, even though the very idea for the course had been suggested by Bohemian Club member Jack Neville, who himself had laid out Pebble Beach in 1919.

Northwood is drenched in unique beauty and the flattish 2,893-yard, par-36 layout is extremely walkable and playable by all. Even if many of its strategic features have faded over the years, it still exudes a MacKenzie aura.

Tully, who has served on the USGA Architecture Archives Committee, has a soft spot for Northwood, even as he acknowledges that perhaps only 20 to 30 percent of MacKenzie’s work remains.

“It’s been flooded so often (from the nearby Russian River), most fairways, bunkers and greens have been rebuilt many times, he said. “The cool thing about the course is that there are a lot of MacKenzie features that you can still see. The second green has this ridge coming down from the side of the hill. And in between the first hole and the sixth, there are a bunch of bunkers sitting there, grassed in, ready to be restored. It wouldn’t take much to restore these greens and some of the other features. There’s so much potential here.”

Pacifica, Calif.      

Prior to its opening in 1932, MacKenzie proclaimed that this City of San Francisco-owned course would be “as sporty as the Old Course at St. Andrews and as picturesque a golf course as any in the world.” Certainly this was classic architect hyperbole from the man who had designed Cypress Point, but there’s no question it was special.

As late as 1941, Sharp Park boasted two holes directly on the Pacific Ocean, a handful of others in sight of it and still others that were strategic marvels with double fairways that played around an inland lake. Subsequent storms and the erection of a seawall robbed the course of its best views and most memorable holes. In succeeding years, holes were altered, bunkers erased, greens divested of their original sizes, shapes and contours.

In the past two decades, Sharp Park has survived multiple legal challenges from environmentalists merely to survive, but survive it has. Situated 10 miles south of San Francisco, the 6,382-yard, par-72 layout enjoys a splendid seaside environment, amid coastal trees and breezes and a routing that is at least partially recognizable from MacKenzie’s day.

You can find remnants of MacKenzie’s work, but you have to know where to look. Architect Jay Blasi is part of a large team hoping to restore the course.

“Twelve of the original holes are there,” Blasi said. “The greens on these holes are original, but have shrunk significantly. The current greens are small circles. The original greens were 20 to 50 percent bigger with wings and irregular shapes.”

He also notes, wistfully, that many bunkers are in their original spots, but most of their character is gone.

While there are some holes that can never be restored, Blasi is heartened by work accomplished in 2018, when the greens at current holes 10 and 18 were expanded out to their original outlines through simple mowing.

HAGGIN OAKS GOLF COMPLEX [Alister MacKenzie Course]
Sacramento, Calif.

Haggin Oaks is a superb, city-owned operation. Its pro shop, instruction and practice facilities are first-rate. Its history is studded with PGA Tour legends and celebrities. What is lacking is much actual MacKenzie design in its Alister MacKenzie golf course.

Created as Sacramento Municipal Golf Course and opened in October 1932, the layout featured the usual variety of MacKenzie’s undulating, intriguingly configured greens and a routing that incorporated the beautiful mature oak trees on site. Golfers can still partake of those gorgeous oaks within the 7,030-yard, par-72 journey, but 10 new holes constructed in 2001 and others that were redesigned and re-routed over the years have eroded nearly all of MacKenzie’s original work.

What’s maddening to both Blasi and Tully is that the property would allow for a complete restoration. What’s more is that Haggin Oaks has MacKenzie’s original plans, including plans for all 18 greens. Perhaps a future generation will choose to turn back the clock.

What the University of Michigan Golf Course lacks in yardage, it makes up for with challenging lies on its hilly terrain and vexing green complexes.

What the University of Michigan Golf Course lacks in yardage, it makes up for with challenging lies on its hilly terrain and vexing green complexes.

Photo: University of Michigan

Ann Arbor, Mich.

For most of its life, access to the MacKenzie-designed University of Michigan Golf Course was reserved for students, staff, alumni or invited guests. That’s the current policy at The Ohio State University’s Scarlet and Gray golf courses, both conceived by MacKenzie, but at Michigan, things have opened up — slightly.

Unaffiliated guests can now play the Michigan course by purchasing the MacKenzie special package, which includes green fees, cart, welcome gift and concession stand voucher. It’s not an inexpensive proposition, but for MacKenzie buffs, it’s a welcome opportunity to experience some of the master’s incomparable greens.       

Co-designed with partner Perry Maxwell and opened in 1931, the University of Michigan course is draped atop a sloping site that overlooks the city and the campus, with especially memorable views of The Big House, Michigan’s world-famous football stadium. Not long by modern standards at 6,730 yards, par 71 from the Wolverine tees, the course fights back with challenging lies and stances on the hilly terrain, and with a set of remarkable greens, many of them MacKenzie and Maxwell originals, or close to them.

One standout is the wildly rippled putting surface at the 537-yard, par-5 third. Another unusual beauty shows up at the 308-yard, par-4 sixth, a horseshoe-shaped green reminiscent of the architects’ earlier effort at Michigan’s Crystal Downs, and later to be employed at the ninth hole at Augusta National.

An Arthur Hills renovation in 1994 restored some MacKenzie aspects, but not all. Having said that, there is plenty of MacKenzie on display at the University of Michigan, from the routing to the greens. Even if you’re a confirmed Buckeye fanatic, it’s worth the trip to Ann Arbor to play the University of Michigan course.

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