Unlike so many clubs where the men compete for the prized keepsakes, the most precious trophy at Moortown, near Leeds in north-central England, belongs to the ladies. Each year, the female golfers of Yorkshire play for their own Ryder Cup, a trophy donated by Samuel Ryder himself back in 1929 as a thank-you gift to the local women for their help in making the first Ryder Cup match held in the UK such an enduring success.
As if that distinction were not enough, Moortown also boasts the first original hole design credited to Dr. Alister MacKenzie, a legendary par three named Gibraltar. That hole, its green sitting on a rocky plateau edged on both sides by bunkers, was the genesis of the entire course. With funding of only $500 at his disposal, MacKenzie promised to build a hole so impressive that money for the rest of the course would soon follow. Subsequently armed with a handsome budget of $15,000, MacKenzie opened Moortown for play in 1910.
During the century and more that followed, the infestation of silver birch trees may have enhanced the ghostly beauty of Moortown, but the bloom came at a stiff price as the enveloping shade nudged a classic, fast-running heathland course closer to the characteristics of parkland golf. In 2000, at the encouragement of Tom Doak, Moortown undertook a costly tree-felling project that opened the corridors and allowed the heather to return.
In addition, after studying aerial photos taken by the RAF in the 1920s, the club restored many of the original MacKenzie bunkers. The result is a formidable layout, playing nearly 7,000 yards from the back tees, marked by a collection of searing two-shot holes.
Like a good host, Moortown welcomes the visitor warmly, with a benign par five. After this concession, the dogs are unleashed with a brace of challenging par fours that use the subtle elevation changes that typify the course. Although newly built in 1989 and initially out of place, the revised 6th hole has become a par four that would surely meet with MacKenzie’s approval. With rowan and birch trees felled, bunkers have been added and the natural heath now has extra space to breathe.
After Gibraltar ignites the back nine, the 11th lifts higher onto the Black Moor and the requisite heathland ingredients—heather, hummocks, and gorse—all come devilishly into play. A relatively short par four, 11 encapsulates the brilliance of MacKenzie’s design: huge bunkers surrounding a thin, raised green that could easily be the English cousin of the putting surface at the foot of Augusta’s second hole.
According to MacKenzie, his course was chosen to host Britain’s first Ryder Cup because it represented a strategic test. The British, more familiar than the Americans with Moortown’s subtleties, enjoyed a clear advantage in 1929, when the matches were contested over two sessions of foursomes (alternate shot) and eight singles. Each match was played over 36 holes, with Great Britain bouncing back from a 2 ½ – 1 ½ loss in the foursomes to win the singles 5 ½ – 2 ½. The most notable match was British captain George Duncan’s 10-and-8 evisceration of his American counterpart, Walter Hagen.
Although the Ryder Cup was in its infancy, the matches drew 20,000 spectators over the two days of action. In a letter of thanks to Moortown after he’d been made an honorary member, Hagen said that he had never played the game in front of more people.
Half a century later, Bernard Gallacher held off challenges from Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Bob Charles, Seve Ballesteros, and Tony Jacklin to win the 1980 Haig Whisky Tournament Players Championship, and in 1984 Faldo won the Car Care Plan International at Moortown.
But with that event the club’s days of hosting the game’s elite came to an end. In recent years urban sprawl has worn away at the surrounding land and access to the course is now too restricted for the demands of 21st-century tournaments.
For the rest of us, though, Moortown presents a rugged heathland treasure, a comprehensive test of risk-and-reward golf.