One might think that the course at Moortown, north of Leeds, designed by Dr Alister Mackenzie(who created Cypress Point that has been called the Sistine Chapel of golf), and host to the first Ryder Cup match in the UK, might have a club that is resting on its laurels. It is certainly a traditional club with a small membership and waiting list but two young appointments of a secretary and a course manager reflect a go-ahead attitude, particularly exemplified in a recent policy of heathland regeneration which will help their course return to its heritage of fast-running ground, as part of the FineGolf trend.
Mackenzie lived in this area and was invited by the judges, doctors and the other Leeds professional classes to design his first course on heathland terrain at Alwoodley in 1907.
The newer money among the merchanting classes also wanted him to design for them a course on the nearby heathery, boggy moorland area known as Black Moor.
Nevertheless there was insufficient money available upfront so Mackenzie built one hole first to help convince the locals to join and pay subscriptions to the nascent Club. This first hole, which became known as ‘Gibraltar’ as it was constructed across a large rock, is now one of the most famous short holes in the world.
Following the success of ‘Gibraltar’ and the subsequent opening of nine holes in 1909, the full eighteen followed in 1910, with some amendments later made in the early 1920s prior to the Ryder Cup in 1929.
More recently in the mid 1980s Donald Steel (a member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel) was invited to design two new holes, these being hole six, 446 yards, and hole seven, 517 yards, both being cut through a wood on land that Mackenzie had avoided for good reason that it was very wet but with modern drainage techniques it was able to solve a problem that had flummoxed Moortown for twenty years. Two holes needed to be replaced at the end of the course as a result of safety concerns after housing was built nearby, on land that was formerly part of both Moor Allerton Golf Course (who moved to a parkland location) and of Sand Moor Golf Club (who moved north of Alwoodley Lane).
These two new holes gave a life line to the club and were built, unlike most of the other holes, with raised greens for drainage purposes.
The seventh green used to be dominated by a huge beech tree front left and perhaps now that this tree has been removed, with the hole being re-bunkered and the tree line cut right back and heather being encouraged, these holes will hopefully fit more naturally with the rest of the course.
But I get ahead of myself as over the years that well-known ‘weed of the forest’, the silver birch, has colonised the Moortown course along the edges of the fairways, stopping airflow and restricting sunlight to the greens and threatening to turn the course towards a woodland and, in areas, even a parkland setting.
The recent visionary leadership at the Club has recognised the regressive nature of this trend and so professional designers Ken Moodie and John Nicholson have been employed to advise on the tree-felling, as well as the rebunkering of many holes. They have also encouraged the development of the heather, with the overall objective to return the course to a true heath/moorland championship venue and more in keeping with the original Mackenzie vision.
Sensibly, advice from Tom Doak, the American golf course designer and noted expert on Mackenzie courses, was also taken.
It is a delight that one can see right across the course again with the beautiful Scots pines more prominent.
This is similar to what has been done at Hankley Common and Walton Heath, and it allows the wet annual meadow grass (Poa Annua) greens a chance to dry out. With plenty of aeration during the growing season and overseeding with indigenous browntop bentgrass, the greens are now starting to firm up and cut at 4mm are running truer than for many years.
The fairways are dominated by lovely fescue grasses giving tight lies and there are patches of moorland sheep’s fescue, particularly at the ninth hole, which offers an unusual ridge-and-furrow hazard off the tee.
An enigma at Moortown is that eleven of the original greens have been re-built to USGA modern standards. Luckily Steve Robinson, the Course Manager and his team know how to treat them differently and maintain consistent play across the entire eighteen holes.
The Moortown course, unlike its two fine neighbours, Sand Moor and Alwoodley, where there are some dramatic movements in the land, is predominantly flat though holes eleven to fourteen are on the higher Black moor. Here, a couple of Mackenzie’s ‘clusters of bunkers’ have been painstakingly restored at the eleventh and twelfth holes, to slightly strange, but attractive, effect.
Some bunkers were beginning to show signs of erosion and losing some of their Mackenzie characteristics and now many holes have been tightened up, both on the drive as well as around the green.
Ken Moodie spent hours scouring archives and historical images from the 1920s – 1940s from sources like the RAF to ensure the course is returned as near to how Mackenzie designed it. Of the 29 new bunkers completed over the last 18 months, 23 are original Mackenzie ones that had been lost over the course of time!
Some of these bunkers currently do not have the character or roughness of the heather or fescue tops found elsewhere on the course and which are so emblematic of wonderful heathland courses like Ganton or the Hotchkin at Woodhall Spa. I’m assured that when the renovated turf has matured it will be allowed to become more natural as just at the moment in places one is apt to think one is in a parkland bunkering environment, the fifteenth being a notable example.
The work that Jonathan Wood has done at Enville with new fescue topped bunkers is hopefully an example of how they will end up.
The new Scottish sand in the bunkers has a good consistency but is very white and hopefully will tone down in time. I am not sure why it should look so stark here when a similar whiteness fits in at West Sussex!
Apart from ‘Gibraltar’, the three other par threes are adequate, each tightly bunkered with quite similar, shallow, “tonsil” type traps, all now presented in good condition with the fourth and seventeenth holes in pretty ‘woodland glade’ settings.
An example of the two different types of Moortown bunker are found next door to each other, to the right of the famous Gibraltar hole (170 yards), where one plays slightly uphill to a side-shelf green which has a deep drop-off into a large front-left bunker. The first two bunkers are of a deep nature with scraggy heather tops while the recently renovated one alongside the green is flat and shallow. It is unlikely that such an iconic Mackenzie hole might have been changed and perhaps the neatness will mellow in time.
It is a commentary on how we all expect faster greens these days that some fifteen years ago Gibraltar’s green, that runs from back to front, had some of the hill flattened off on the left in order to offer more pin positions, because a putted ball sent from the back of the green had become difficult, on a dry summer’s day, to stop it running off the green!
Moortown off the back tees is now up to 7000 yards (par 71 SSS 75) and it possesses some very testing, long par fours. The first hole (488 yards,) is a birdie four opportunity if one can drive close to the new bunkers down the left, whereas the second and third holes, both measuring around 440 yards, are classic Moortown holes with subtle changes in elevation.
The fifth with the trees now cut back on the dogleg is a true risk-and-reward drive but perhaps clever players will use a three wood so as to not run into the new bunkers on the right, thereby setting up a short iron approach that may yet give them the birdie.
The run home from fifteen is set in a more parkland style of ground with an important huge deciduous tree dominating the drive on the sixteenth, while the eighteenth is a very fine, slight dogleg-right hole, today played from a new tee further to the right. There is a rise in the first part of the fairway which can push your ball into a row of right-hand bunkers if one presses too hard in trying to shorten your second shot, this being played with a long iron over bunkers in echelon protecting the green in front of the clubhouse veranda. It is a hole that has everything one seeks in an eighteenth.
The formidable red-tiled clubhouse which survives from 1915, though much modified, extended and updated internally, still has its panelled Mackenzie bar with two full-sized snooker tables beyond.
When I last was at Moortown the main lounge was being renovated and I met a long-term lady member who was somewhat embarrassed to be ushered towards the previously men-only Mackenzie bar. Time will tell whether Ms Harman’s equality laws, requiring female subscriptions to be brought in line with men’s, will actually help the development of female golf.
This club is quite advanced in its marketing methods and I was able to watch a CD of the recent centenary celebrations when many Ryder Cup players of the past played a pro-am. John Jacobs, the father of modern teaching pros, and who featured in a TV series based at Moortown in the 1970s, when professional tournaments were regularly played here, was holding court and clearly much fun was had by all.
This club will give plenty of ‘joy to be alive’ feeling to visitors as it returns to a modernised version of the challenging running course that hosted that famous first Ryder Cup victory when the GB&I captain George Duncan decisively beat the American captain Walter Hagen 10&8 over 36 holes.
With all the changes that have taken place since Mackenzie designed it, can it still be called a Mackenzie course?
The drive to return the course to a fine, dry, running one has gone hand-in-hand with the pride of being a Mackenzie course. That’s good enough reason for me to celebrate in the Mackenzie marketing policy that is being pursued.
See “ Moortown Memories” by Geoffrey Talbot and Peter Rogerson.
Review by Lorne Smith, 2012
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