It’s 150 years since the birth of one of golf’s brightest stars, but few outside the sport might recognise his name, reports Sandra Dick

By his own account, Dr Alister MacKenzie was not exactly what you might call a master of the game of golf.

“Good putter, but a mediocre ball striker”, was how he described himself.

His ability to hit a ball over 18 holes may well have been decidedly average. But what MacKenzie had in spades was an eye for what made a great game of golf, and an instinct for how to tease out the land’s natural features to create some of the finest golf courses in the world.

Born 150 years ago this month, the kilt-wearing son of a Highlands-born doctor and a Glaswegian mother became the most famous golf figure most of us have probably never heard of: the brilliant mind behind legendary courses and the source of many a frustrated golfer’s despair.

His roll of honour, which includes more than 50 courses from Scotland to Australia, Yorkshire to California, reads like a “must do” bucket list: Cypress Point and Pasatiempo in California, Crystal Downs by the shores of Lake Michigan and the Royal Melbourne in Australia.

And then there’s his crowning glory – Augusta National, home of the US Masters and where this year’s tournament, it was announced this week, will now take place in November, minus the crowds.

Strange as it may seem to golf fans who admire the perfectly lush Augusta greens and damn and blast him as they watch their ball on an unstoppable journey towards a devilishly located bunker, MacKenzie’s skills owed more to the dust and battle of the Boer War than his Scottish heritage.

South Africa was a long way from the small west coast fishing port of Lochinver where MacKenzie’s father, William, was born and where, long after he moved south to Yorkshire, he kept the family home.

The young Alister – born on August 30, 1870 and christened Alexander after his paternal grandfather – spent childhood holidays there, absorbing the Scottish heritage which would see him often opt to wear a kilt when not on the course in his tweed plus fours. While his mother, Mary Jane Smith, came from Glasgow, it would be Normanton, near Leeds, where the family settled.

He seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, with degrees from Cambridge University in chemistry, medicine and natural science, and a ready-made job at his father’s medical practice.

Instead he joined the Territorial Unit of the Somerset Light Infantry as a surgeon.

While serving in South Africa at the start of the 20th century he saw the defensive value of concealed trenches and camouflage techniques of the Boers.

The art of disguise and the clever use of the landscape to conceal, create illusions and play tricks with the eye would become a classic feature of a MacKenzie-designed course.

“He came home and started to play more golf,” recalls Robert Fletcher, author of two books that reflect upon his life and his work, Alister MacKenzie: Playing His Legacy and Alister MacKenzie: The Spirit of Adventure.

“He was one of the founders of Alwoodley Golf Club in Leeds. The committee was surprised when, as secretary of what was a club without a course, he designed a hole for it.

“The committee called in a prominent architect, Harry Colt, to make sure he wasn’t making a bit of fool of himself.”

Colt reassured the nervous committee that the fledgling designer was certainly no fool.

MacKenzie went on to design the entire course in harmony with the contours of the land, cutting the fast-running fairways from heather and gorse, adding tricky freeform bunkers and rippling greens.

Victory in a Country Life competition to design a golf hole spurred him into mapping the Old Course at St Andrews, switching from medicine to focus entirely on creating golf courses.

“MacKenzie, Harry Colt and a few others had broken away from the old traditional approach to designing a golf course which could be pretty boring,” says Fletcher. “Before they came along, bunkers would usually be positioned in certain places, there’d be mounds put in certain other places – it was pretty arithmetical.

“This group of architects used more imagination. Put it this way, if you took old-fashioned designers, they would go alongside a river. The likes of Harry Colt would go around it. But MacKenzie would go over the top of it.”

Such was his instinct for the contours of the land, its tricks and subtleties that he was called upon by the military during the First World War to help advise the British Army on camouflage principles.

Adds Fletcher: “Very clever things take place on a golf course – unless you play, you might not realise they’re happening. A designer tries to deceive the golfer – he’ll put a bunker in some hidden ground or the golfer will think he’s played well, but, in fact, it turns out he’s miles away from the green.

“He became a star architect, the one everyone wanted. He was a showman, a salesman of himself. It was said that if he so much as had a cup of tea on a golf course he’d claim to have designed it.

“At Burnham and Berrow in Somerset, he was called in to look at a bunker. He not only gave them a plan for the bunker, but a plan to redesign the whole course. They didn’t ask for it, they used some parts of his plan but he still claimed it.”

That’s not to dilute his immense impact on dozens of courses, including a few in Scotland: Duff House Royal Golf Club in Banff, which he redesigned in 1923; Pitreavie in Dunfermline; MacKenzie Championship Course in Aberdeen; Bonnyton at Eaglesham; and Pollok in Glasgow.

When the economic slump following the Great War saw demand crash, MacKenzie turned to Australia, South America and the United States of America.

In Uruguay, in the shadow of a meat processing plant, he designed the Fray Bentos Golf Course – a far cry from Cypress Point in California, described by former United States Golf Association president Sandy Tatum as “the Sistine Chapel of Golf”.

“The amazing thrill of driving successfully over the ocean at the 16th hole at Cypress Point more than compensates for the loss of a dozen balls,” said MacKenzie of one of his most stunning holes.

It impressed Bobby Jones, regarded as the greatest player of his generation, who chose MacKenzie to design a new course in Georgia. Together they created a golf masterpiece.

There was just one unfortunate problem. Money.

Some $100,000 was spent turning a fruit plantation in Augusta into a golf course while the Great Depression loomed.

“Augusta was nearly broke and behind all the sham and glam now, it was in a very precarious position,” said Fletcher. “MacKenzie was paid only 50% of his fee.”

The struggle took its toll. “Can you possibly let me have, at any rate, five hundred dollars to keep us out of the poor house?,” he wrote in one appeal for payment.

And in another he wrote: “I have been reduced to playing golf with four clubs.

“I am at the end of my tether, no-one has paid me a cent since last June, we have mortgaged everything we have.”

He died, almost destitute, in Santa Cruz, California in 1934 – eight weeks before the Augusta National club inaugural Masters Tournament, and without any idea that it would become one of the world’s most famous courses.

He’s the brilliant designer behind one of the world’s best-known courses, the Augusta National, home of the US Masters, but which other courses count among Alister MacKenzie’s finest work?

Alwoodley, Leeds. MacKenzie cut his teeth on golf course design here and some who play it believe they can sense a definite Augusta feel as they tackle the green on the 11th.

Moortown, Leeds. Founded in 1909 and a stone’s throw from Alwoodley, the course makes good use of the heathland and natural features.

Cavendish, Buxton, Derbyshire. Located in the hills on the outskirts of Buxton, the undulating course features adventurous Augustus type holes and is regularly hailed as one of the world’s best short courses.

Seaton Carew, Teesside. MacKenzie tended to work with inland courses, however Seaton Carew is among England’s finest links layouts. He redesigned the course at a cost of around £2000.

Sutton Coldfield. A fine heathland course, MacKenzie revisioned it in the early 1920s, with many of his features remaining intact.

Cork Golf Club, Ireland. A particularly picturesque course sculpted from limestone quarries and sitting on the inner reaches of Cork harbour.

Lahinch Old Course, Co. Clare, Ireland. MacKenzie created a new 18 hole links course for a £2000 fee. “Lahinch will make the finest and most popular golf course that I, or I believe anyone else, ever constructed,” he promised.

Royal Melbourne, Australia. During a ten week visit in 1929, MacKenzie transformed Royal Melbourne into one of the world’s finest courses, and worked on more than a dozen more courses.

Kingston Heath, Melbourne, Australia. Imaginative design and significant bunkering make this a regular in any list of top golf courses.

Cypress Point, California. Stunning location on the Monterey Peninsular, with holes hugged by bunkers and which jut out over the Pacific.

Augusta National, Georgia. Heavily manicured and pristine – even down to the green painted grass.