Very few courses can surpass the debut work of Dr. Alister MacKenzie as a golf course architect in terms of quality, playability, strategy and ultimately as a true test of golf.
I was introduced to Alwoodley almost two decades ago by Nick Leefe, the then Chairman of Greens at the Club and also Honorary Secretary of the Alister MacKenzie Society of Great Britain & Ireland, whilst I was undertaking a university thesis on the work of the Good Doctor. The round provided a fascinating history to the course and an insight into the Club’s plans for the future.
Over the years I have since played and walked the course on several occasions, each time gaining a greater understanding of the layout and its many subtleties. A recent visit came when the Yorkshire Union of Golf Clubs staged their annual County Championships here in the summer of 2014. A practice game followed by two competitive rounds, when the course played extremely impressively, left me in no doubt that this is the real deal when it comes to first class championship golf courses.
I also enjoyed a round here in October 2014 when the course, as you might expect, didn't play as firm and fast but was still a great challenge and in wonderful condition for the time of year.
Unusually for a course predominantly of heathland characteristic the layout follows more of an ‘out and back’ routing. When the prevailing wind blows one must make their score over the first ten holes before hanging on for dear life coming home. The final six holes, when played into any sort of a breeze, are worthy of defining any a champion.
The course, that has a lovely understated elegance to it, is technically a moorland-heathland hybrid played over the notorious tight and springy turf to the north of Leeds that is home to a number of fine golf clubs. Wigton Moor is the precise location of Alwoodley and here you will find expanses of open heathland as well as more confined areas of woodland, most notably pine and silver birch.
The terrain the golf is played over is extremely natural in appearance and with no two holes even remotely similar you must work the ball both ways if you are to score well. On several occasions when stood on the tee at Alwoodley you are only ever given a glimpse of the hole and it’s hazards; sometimes just a slither of fairway and a few flashes of sand, sometimes a little more. Always enough to know where you are going but never enough to eradicate doubt as to the correct line or distance to drive. This aspect I think is what sets Alwoodley apart from many other top heathland courses and gives it an edge; that degree of uncertainty it casts in a golfers mind. There are many examples of this during the round but the fourth and sixth are perhaps the finest examples you will find.
As a consequence of this there aren’t too many holes throughout the round at Alwoodley where you stand on the tee and visually have your breath taken away. It doesn’t need them, because the course all comes together in an exceptional manner.
The main exception to the above comes at the final hole, when from the elevated tee, everything lies before you and you simply think ‘wow’. It’s a stunning par four and one of the best finishing holes anywhere.
The majority of greens at Alwoodley slope from back to front and therefore appear inviting from the fairway, however, they are also deceptively large and have many borrows. You are never faced with a flat putt at Alwoodley. A handful of the greens have more severe breaks and just like at MacKenzie’s most famous and final design, Augusta National, staying below the hole is essential. The eighth, 10th, 11th and 15th are prime examples of this.
The bunkers, of which there are many, are old-fashioned in style, free-flowing in shape and particularly eye-catching as they melt into their surroundings sublimely. They mostly have heather-trimmed faces and are visually striking yet totally naturalistic in appearance. A five year plan to improve the bunkering is now showing the fruit of labour and as a result of this work, in my mind and that of many others, has catapulted Alwoodley very close to the summit of our country’s elite venues.
Lots of the holes are framed spectacularly by the vibrantly coloured sand in the bunkers but next time you play I suggest you take a look back down the fairway at the hole you’ve just played and you wouldn’t even know they were there, not even a trace. Whilst serving in the British Army MacKenzie became an expert in camouflage and used this talent to great effect on the golf course in this respect, not hiding bunkers from the tee view like many people erroneously believe.
The first hole is a modest getaway with a drive down the left preferable to open up the green. However, placement off the tee at the opener isn’t as important as it is at the second when, depending upon the hole location, being on the correct side of the fairway is essential in order to be able to attack the flag at this short two-shotter.
The third and fourth holes work extremely well in tandem. The former is a reachable par five played over a swathe of heather from the championship tee whilst the next makes an about turn and heads back in the opposite direction in the form of a long par four with a green tucked marginally behind a protruding mound of heather, gorse and sand. It’s often best to think of these two holes as a par 9 in combination.
The fifth is a superb looking hole as you drive from a high tee to a fairway that slopes severely from left to right before narrowing and climbing up to a raised green. Although stroke index one on the scorecard be assured it is not the hardest hole on the course, indeed it is perhaps one of the best opportunities for a birdie, of which there are few.
The sixth is an immaculate hole that dog-legs slightly to the left but has a fairway that falls away from you. Unless you drive bravely up the left you will likely be faced with a hanging lie to a beautiful green complex.
The first par three arrives at the seventh and is played at right-angles to most of the other holes on the course before you tackle the imperious par-five 8th, undoubtedly one of my favourite par fives anywhere. The key to this long hole (584 yards) is a tongue of rough, with a bunker in the middle of it, which juts out into the fairway approximately 150 yards short of the green. This must be carried at some point and the fact that your lay-up short of it would likely leave a mid-to-long iron approach into the green often tempts you to go for the carry when it’s not often the sensible option. The approach and green complex at this hole is very picturesque whilst the spot just behind the green is the most enchanting on the course boasting a glimpse of the 12th to the left, a look back at the snaking hole you’ve just played and virtually a full view of the handsome ninth to the right.
The layout remains virtually unchanged since MacKenzie routed it in 1907 although to cope with the advances in modern technology the course has now been stretched to almost 6,900 yards. New tees at the (short!) 9th and sweeping par five 10th holes have added extra bite but also improved this part of the course significantly. The latter, possibly the inspiration for the 13th at August, now requires your best drive to have an opportunity to go for the steeply sloping green in two otherwise you have a decision to make as to where you lay up; atop the hill or in the valley below.
The 11th completes a run of four holes without a par four and is a magnificent par three. Dramatic bunkering catches the eye but it’s the wicked green that is the unsung hero with a large swing from back-to-front and right-to-left.
The 12th is a medium length par four and merely acts as the calm before the storm of what is one of the most demanding finishing stretches you will find. The 13th simply requires two straight shots but always seems to play much harder than it should… perhaps it is one of the 14 bunkers, four of which tightly pinch the green at each quadrant, that will be your undoing at this impressive 400 yarder!
The next is a long par three with a large green featuring a mighty slope, manufactured by Mackenzie but natural in appearance, and protected by deep bunkers on both sides, especially the left. Meanwhile, the green complex at the 15th, featuring an angled ridge running through it to deflect a ball towards an ominous greenside bunker, is simply outstanding before you turn 90 degrees to play the attractive 16th.
The 17th is one of the most discussed holes at Alwoodley and actually has many critics but I really like it and think it comes at the perfect time in the round. There’s no denying it’s a tough drive with out-of-bounds a constant threat down the left, however, it is the blind approach to a depressed green that stirs most debate. Admittedly out of character with the rest of the course the shot usually calls for a running approach down a steep slope just before the green that, if landed on at too much pace, may kick your ball through the back of the green. Judging flight, shape and distance of your ball is of paramount importance here and this is the main reason I believe it’s such a good hole. The favoured approach is also from the left so those who shy away from the boundary fence on the drive face a much harder second shot, potentially over a bunker and clad of gorse.
The aforementioned home hole is a thing of beauty with strategic bunkering throughout its 470 yards that culminates under the shadow of the iconic semi-circular clubhouse, built towards the end of the millennium.
The strategic architectural merits at Alwoodley were well ahead of their time when MacKenzie constructed the course in the early 1900’s and it is testament to his work that they remain intact today.
As at most top courses the ground game is still very much alive and kicking at Alwoodley and thus the art of shotmaking is too.
The sophisticated golfer, who can make the right decision and also execute the correct shot, will prosper here at this fair but challenging venue.
There is something about Elie that puts you under a spell. It is a truly magical links that, after just one round, has won a place in my heart and mind forever.
There’s very little that hasn’t been written about the golfing mecca that is St. Andrews.