Alister Mackenzie's 13 Principles of Golf Course Design

Alister Mackenzie Golf Architecture book cover
What are the key features that a newly designed and built golf course needs to have? Opinions differ, of course, but wouldn't you like to go back in time, to the so-called "Golden Age of Golf Course Design," and ask one of the giants of golf course architecture that question? Turns out we can: We can know exactly how Alister Mackenzie answered that question because he included his answer in a book.

In 1920, Mackenzie's book titled Golf Architecture: Economy in Course Construction and Green-Keeping (affiliate link) was published. In it, he included his list of 13 "essential features of an ideal golf course."

Why should we care, more than 100 years later, what Alister Mackenzie wrote in 1920? Because he is a legend of the field. Mackenzie, who died in 1934, was the designer of Augusta National Golf Club, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne (West), three courses that often make it into lists ranking the 10 best golf courses in the world. And some of his other designs are pretty famous, too, including Cork in Ireland, Crystal Downs in Michigan, Pasatiempo in California, Royal Adelaide in Australia, and The Scarlet Course in Ohio.

Mackenzie's Golf Architecture book is in the public domain today. You can read it free online or purchase a hard copy from Amazon.com. (Rare first editions can sell for thousands.) What follows is taken verbatim from Mackenzie's book. How many golf courses have you played that adhere fully to this list? How many have you played that violate multiple of Mackenzie's principles?

Mackenzie's 13 'Essential Features of an Ideal Golf Course'

  1. The course, where possible, should be arranged in two loops of nine holes.
  2. There should be a large proportion of good two-shot holes, two or three drive-and-pitch holes, and at least four one-shot holes.
  3. There should be little walking between the greens and tees, and the course should be arranged so that in the first instance there is always a slight walk forwards from the green to the next tee; then the holes are sufficiently elastic to be lengthened in the future if necessary.
  4. The greens and fairways should be sufficiently undulating, but there should be no hill climbing.
  5. Every hole should have a different character.
  6. There should be a minimum of blindness for the approach shots.
  7. The course should have beautiful surroundings, and all the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself.
  8. There should be a sufficient number of heroic carries from the tee, but the course should be arranged so that the weaker player with the loss of a stroke or portion of a stroke shall always have an alternative route open to him.
  9. There should be infinite variety in the strokes required to play the various holes — viz., interesting brassy shots, iron shots, pitch and run-up shots.
  10. There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls.
  11. The course should be so interesting that even the plus man is constantly stimulated to improve his game in attempting shots he has hitherto been unable to play.
  12. The course should be so arranged that the long handicap player, or even the absolute beginner, should be able to enjoy his round in spite of the fact that he is piling up a big score.
  13. The course should be equally good during winter and summer, the texture of the greens and fairways should be perfect, and the approaches should have the same consistency as the greens.

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