Appeared in March 2004 LINKS
It’s the last thing an accomplished golf architect wants to hear: “You must meet our committee’s new honorary secretary. He’s very interested in course design, he has some great ideas and he might even be able to assist with your layout.”
In this case the accomplished architect was Harry Shapland Colt, by all accounts a modest and soft-spoken man. The invitation came from the founders of Alwoodley Golf Club, near Leeds in Yorkshire, England. The year was 1907, and the honorary secretary with an interest in course design was the local medical practitioner, Dr. Alister MacKenzie, an opinionated, forthright and anything-but-retiring individual.
What budding golf course architect wouldn’t want to have been a fly on the wall in that Edwardian parlor, as Colt and MacKenzie swapped design concepts and strategies for the first time: Colt, the would-be king of English heathland golf and the architect chiefly responsible for Muirfield, Royal Portrush and (many would argue) Pine Valley; and MacKenzie, who would go on to fashion Cypress Point, Royal Melbourne and Augusta National.
Alwoodley was a handsome training ground for MacKenzie. Located on the fringes of Leeds, a large and prosperous northern industrial city, the site is reminiscent of England’s Surrey and Berkshire heathlands. It is perhaps more strictly moorland than heathland, and less sandy underfoot than the likes of Sunningdale and St. George’s Hill. But this is rich, rolling terrain, clad in silver birch, heather and gorse.
In the northeast of England, Alwoodley has only two peers—Ganton and Woodhall Spa—and in the opinion of many commentators, it may be a shade more enjoyable to play than either of these great layouts, considering their greater degree of difficulty and Alwoodley’s more dramatic changes in elevation. It is a beautiful place to play golf, particularly in spring, when gorse blankets the course in gold; and in late summer and fall, when the heather turns a vivid shade of purple and the trees are alive with colorful foliage.
The two most distinctive aspects of the layout—both clearly MacKenzie hallmarks—are the style and thoughtful placement of the bunkering, and the quality and character of the putting surfaces. The bunkers are bold, almost flashy, in appearance, and consistently turn already strong holes into superb and extremely strategic ones. Likewise, the greens are large and keenly contoured.
Alwoodley’s routing is unusual for an inland course in that it runs mostly out and back in classic links fashion. Coming in, the final six holes all confront the prevailing westerly wind and collectively make for an exacting finish.
The outstanding holes on the front are the 510-yard 3rd, with its green set in a slight hollow; the 5th, shortish at 371 yards, but with a fairway that has a pronounced left-to-right tilt; and the 546-yard 8th, defended by a chain of cross-bunkers and a slightly raised green.
On the inward nine the two short holes—the uphill, 168-yard 11th and the 207-yard 14th—are fairly challenging. But the two finest holes are confronted during the formidable closing stretch. The par-4 15th has been described by British architect Frank Penninck as “the pride of Alwoodley.” It presents an undulating and curving fairway, intimidating cross bunkering and an elusive, plateaued green. Finally, a commandingly high tee at the 439-yard 18th encourages players to swing from the heels, but a legion of fairway bunkers lies in wait, perfectly placed to dash hopes of a closing birdie.
Over the years Alwoodley has hosted a number of significant amateur events but has shied away from professional tournaments; today the course is clearly too short to test the modern tour pro. It is essentially a traditional members’ club, and it welcomes guests with prior arrangement. Any MacKenzie disciple should seek to visit Alwoodley at least once in a golfing lifetime, for this is not only his finest English creation, it’s where the good doctor’s legendary second career got its start.