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Spiers on Saturday: remembering the 'Scot' who designed Augusta for the Masters

The Masters tournament looms on Thursday.

Alister MacKenzie had to dig in to his own saving to complete the building of the Masters course
Alister MacKenzie had to dig in to his own saving to complete the building of the Masters course

Augusta National Golf Club, ever in dazzling bloom, will be revealed once more to the watching world. The event remains one of sport's most captivating spectacles, though it may be worth pausing to reflect on a lingering sadness in the Masters story.

It is now 81 years since Augusta National opened its doors as a golf club, and 83 years since Alister MacKenzie, its lauded "Scottish" designer, died an impoverished and broken man. The two events are related in a way which causes a twinge of regret to this day.

"He was miserable after his Augusta experience and died soon afterwards," says Nick Leefe, an English golf historian who has taken a keen interest in MacKenzie's life and career. "He died not having much money and, so far as I can know, Alister MacKenzie never got paid for the work he did at Augusta."

The mythology around MacKenzie often requires unravelling, not least in the recurring claim about him being "the Scot who built Augusta National". One of the most famous pictures of MacKenzie shows him spruced up in a kilt, looking determinedly at the camera, which has only enhanced the myth.

In his acclaimed book, The Story of Augusta National, Clifford Roberts, the formidable co-founder of the club and the Masters, claims rather poetically and surely fancifully that MacKenzie "spoke with a rich Scottish burr" and that he "punctuated his remarks with Scottish exclamations". The latter may well be right, but any such claim about MacKenzie's accent sounds highly improbable, him having spent next to no time at all in Scotland.

Despite having a mother from Glasgow and a father from the Highlands, MacKenzie was born near Leeds and spent his entire youth in Yorkshire before going on to Cambridge University. So what Roberts mistakenly took to be "a rich Scottish burr" may well have been an accent far more rooted in the north of England.

That apart, MacKenzie is a revered figure as a golf course designer, most especially for his work at Augusta. Yet his life appears to have descended into psychological pain and penury.

Together with Roberts, Bobby Jones, the great champion of the 1920s and 1930s, chose MacKenzie to design their new course at Augusta in 1932, having seen two of the designer's other great creations, at Cypress Point and Pasatiempo, both in California.

MacKenzie, by now 60 and having travelled far and wide in his golf course construction career, including Australia and South America, gladly took up the offer and arrived in Augusta in 1931 to survey the scene. It was a job, despite it becoming his great masterpiece, which came to frustrate him and cause him deep unhappiness.

Roberts and Jones had alighted on the 365-acre former indigo plantation and disused fruitlands nursery to fulfil their dream of building a new golf course. The previous owners of the site had imported an array of exotic plants and flowers, which to this day has left a legacy of vivid colour all across Augusta National.

The work quickly began, but there were problems. It was post-Depression America. Roberts and Jones between them had mustered the money to secure the site, but funds for the running costs thereafter - including fees due to MacKenzie - were nowhere in sight.

The completion of Augusta National from start to finish was done in record time - about five months - but as time wore on in 1932 MacKenzie began to get desperate. "I am at the end of my tether," he wrote to Roberts, with his work almost completed. "I've not been paid a cent since last June, and we have mortgaged everything we have. Can you possibly [send me] five hundred dollars to keep us out of the poor house?"

Roberts must have bridled at this plea, but the plain fact was he couldn't pay MacKenzie. Augusta National was broke. Roberts had hoped to sign up hundreds of rich underwriters as members early on in the venture, but very few took up his offer. MacKenzie had agreed a fee of $10,000 for his work. That sum was somehow halved in time to $5000, but even then the club couldn't hope to pay him. MacKenzie had received, it is believed, $2000 early on in the project, but thereafter not one more thin dime.

MacKenzie once more wrote bitterly to the club, claiming that all his domestic power supplies were being threatened due to unpaid bills, and that the bank was set to reclaim his house. In the last months of his life this once bright, energetic man was seen scavenging for wood in the forest behind his house to fuel his home.

"His end was pretty unhappy," adds Nick Leefe. "He hadn't been paid by Cliff Roberts at Augusta National for the work he had done, because Augusta National at the time simply had no money.

"In fact, when Augusta National was officially opened in late 1932, my records show that MacKenzie did not attend the ceremony. This was either due to the fact that he hadn't been paid, and was unhappy, or it might have been simply that by this time he was not a well man. He had been having heart problems.

"I think his final days were miserable. Of all the golf courses he designed, he never got to see his great masterpiece - Augusta. It opened for play in late 1932 and MacKenzie died of a heart attack in January 1934. And it appears he died having not much money at all."

A journal of the time rather abjectly describes how MacKenzie died: "Hilda [his wife] brought him his lunch and they sat chatting. As she was tidying up his room, he suddenly gasped and died."

The great golf course architect, whose supreme creation is revered to this day, died in paucity and distress. MacKenzie would never see his finest gift to the world.

An even crueller postscript also warrants mention. Clifford Roberts' own mother, who reared her large family in dirt-poor conditions in the Midwest, was a suicide when Roberts was a teenager in 1913. Sixty-four years later Roberts took his own life, also by gunshot, in the middle of the night on the grounds of Augusta National in 1977.

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