The American Golf Course Construction Company: Building MacKenzie’s Californian Classics
Following the Armistice in 1918 Dr Alister MacKenzie was able to put the years of the Great War behind him, years he had spent in the Royal Engineers working on camouflage solutions for trenches and interpreting aerial photographs in France, and he could return to his pre-war occupation as one of Britain’s pre-eminent golf course architects. The immediate post-war years were a boom time for golf in Britain and the golf architects of the day – men like MacKenzie, Harry Colt, Charles Alison, Tom Simpson and Herbert Fowler – were inundated with enquiries and commissions from clubs looking to re-establish their courses, many of which had been abandoned during wartime or turned over to agriculture. – Neil Crafter
MacKenzie needed a way to better control the construction of all these projects rather than leaving them in the hands of the golf clubs and inexperienced local contractors, and for this he turned to his younger brother Charles. Some six years younger than Alister, Charles had also served in the British Army, achieving the rank of Major, just like his elder brother. Charles had formed a company in Headingley, Leeds with James Nicholson, a local landscape contractor, and Alister began to push some of his construction projects towards his brother’s company, C. A. MacKenzie & Co.
In this immediate post-war period Alister had gone into partnership with his old mentor Harry Colt, and with the addition of Charles Alison, the firm of Colt, MacKenzie & Alison hung up their shingle in a thriving market. Each partner had plenty of work and occasionally they covered for each other, with Alison taking some of the site inspections for MacKenzie’s project at Bury Golf Club when MacKenzie was occupied elsewhere. The partnership though was a somewhat strange affair, with Colt and MacKenzie competing for the same projects at Worcestershire GC and the new municipal course at Blackpool, Stanley Park! Such strained relations could not continue and by early 1923 MacKenzie announced he was leaving the partnership. Whether he jumped or was pushed is not entirely clear.
The British Golf Course Construction Company
Some of MacKenzie’s projects while in the partnership were constructed by the specialist golf course construction firm of Franks, Harris Brothers, who built many of Colt’s projects, but after leaving he must have felt that it would be better to take direct control of the construction of his courses and so he formed the British Golf Course Construction Company based in Headingley, Leeds, with Charles as managing director following Nicholson’s retirement. As a shareholder in the new company, Alister had a vested interest in ensuring his projects were built by his own company but whether he ever disclosed the fact of his shareholding to his clients is another matter!
Generally, good results were achieved for MacKenzie’s clients although there were difficulties on more than one project. Over 40 of MacKenzie’s courses – both new courses and remodelling of existing ones – were constructed by Charles, and geographically, these were located all over England and Scotland as well as in Ireland, including Hazlehead, Dunfermline, Pitreavie and Troon New in Scotland; West Herts, Moor Allerton, Sand Moor, Cavendish and Weston-super-Mare in England; and the Irish courses at Cork, Monkstown, Balmoral and Knock. Charles asked his satisfied customers to write testimonial letters for him and he would send these on to prospective clients – all design clients of Alister – along with an outline of his terms:
“On all money expended in labour & material we charge
On and over £1000 ……………… 10%
Over £500 and under £1000 …..12 ½
On £500 and under ………………15%”
Experienced site foremen were employed on the construction projects to oversee the labour and a number of these were Irish, including talented men such as Jack Fleming and Daniel Gormley who would both play a supporting role in MacKenzie’s later expansion into America.
Across the Atlantic to America
In early 1926 Dr MacKenzie received an opportunity to travel to the United States at the invitation of two men, both of whom were to become his design partners. The first of these was Robert Hunter, the millionaire socialist who had a passion for golf and golf architecture. MacKenzie and Hunter met up in May of 1923 when Hunter travelled to Britain touring its best courses and playing in a number of amateur events including the Amateur Championship. MacKenzie provided a number of the photographs for Hunter’s book on golf design The Linkswhich was published in the USA in 1926. Hunter thought there would be some good opportunities for MacKenzie in California, where Hunter had recently moved to. The second man was Oklahoman banker-turned-golf architect Perry Maxwell who was just starting out on his design career and had projects in Oklahoma City and Philadelphia.
MacKenzie set sail for New York on the ‘SS Homeric’ from Southampton on the 13th January 1926, arriving a week later. After visiting some of the Long Island courses – including the Lido where Charles Blair Macdonald had used MacKenzie’s Country Lifemagazine competition-winning entry from 1914 for the design of the 18th hole – MacKenzie travelled by train to Oklahoma City where he met up with Maxwell and inspected the Twin Hills course that Maxwell had recently completed, en route to San Francisco. Meeting Hunter in San Francisco, the pair toured a number of Bay area courses, including the San Francisco and Olympic Clubs, as well as the course Hunter had designed at Berkeley Country Club, for which MacKenzie was full of praise.
The commissions came thick and fast, and MacKenzie must have been exhilarated by the response. First up came a meeting with members of the Meadow Club of Tamalpais, a design for a new course that Hunter had already all but secured prior to MacKenzie’s arrival. Following the untimely death of Seth Raynor in January 1926, the prized job for Marion Hollins’ new course at Cypress Point was up for grabs and MacKenzie and Hunter were selected. Raynor’s death unfortunately left the Dunes Course at the nearby Monterey Peninsula Country Club uncompleted and the pair were chosen to finish its construction. Hunter had also lined up with Samuel Morse of the Pebble Beach Company a commission to rebuild two greens at Pebble Beach, and MacKenzie must have felt like he was in seventh heaven with the projects he was involved in and the calibre of the land he had at his disposal. He wrote of the Monterey Peninsula in 1928 saying that: “The gem of the entire Pacific Coast is here and I have to shake myself as in a dream when I think that Robert Hunter and I have the high privilege of landscaping with golf courses part of this precious area.”
Onwards to southern California, and MacKenzie visited the Los Angeles Athletic Club’s new course at Riviera with its architects George Thomas and Billy Bell, and here he also consulted on the design of Redlands Country Club. After a busy and productive five weeks in California, Mackenzie departed by train for New York, from where he sailed back to England on the ‘SS Berengaria’, arriving on the 12th March 1926.
Building the Masterpieces
Before leaving California, MacKenzie and Hunter must have had long discussions about the best way to build the work they had in hand and other commissions that were on the horizon. MacKenzie would have put forward the model of a construction company owned by the architects, and the success of the BGCCCo surely acted as the inspiration for their decision to form the American Golf Course Construction Company, to be based in Oakland, California. While the details of the company’s shareholdings are not known for certain, it seems most likely that there were four shareholders and directors: Alister MacKenzie, Charles MacKenzie, Robert Hunter and his son Robert Hunter Jr who took on the role as Managing Director. Hunter Jr was born in 1904 and was educated at Thacher School in Ojai Valley, California, subsequently going on to university at Yale. In 1925 he was working in the construction industry in California with a large firm of contractors. No doubt this contracting experience held him in good stead for his move into golf course construction. At only 22 years of age though, he was a very young man to be heading up a golf course construction company with contracts in the region of $100,000 and more.
Charles MacKenzie came out to California to oversee the setting up of the company in July 1926 and offices were secured at 3034 Richmond Boulevard in Oakland. The first known advertisements from 1927 that the company placed for their services in yearbooks and golf magazines included both Major C. A. MacKenzie and Robert Hunter Jr as company representatives, but it was not long before MacKenzie had returned to England and Hunter Jr was the sole representative on their advertisements. By November 1927 the office had moved to 1702 Tribune Tower, also in Oakland, where it remained until around 1930, when it was relocated to 1530 Latham Square Building.
One of Major MacKenzie’s first actions was to arrange to bring over some of the BGCCCo’s trained foremen to run the on-site operations of the US projects, with Irishmen Daniel Gormley and John “Jack” Fleming arriving later in 1926, with Gormley having just completed work on Dr MacKenzie’s redesign of Monkstown GC in Ireland. (Interestingly both men, along with a number of other Irishmen like Michael McDonough and Paddy Cole, remained in the US to live and work for the remainder of their lives. Fleming went on to have a fine career in California as a course architect, constructor and greenkeeper.
The Meadow Club of Tamalpais
High in the hills near Mt Tamalpais, north of San Francisco, lies the Meadow Club, MacKenzie & Hunter’s first new course in California. Hunter secured the commission and MacKenzie first saw the site on his initial trip to America in January 1926 and in his report to the directors of the club suggested that “it is rare to find terrain more perfectly suited for the finest inland golf than that selected by the club”, and that the land was well suited to reproduce two famous short holes, an Eden and a Redan. MacKenzie drew a course plan and prepared individual green plans to guide the construction in his absence. The fledgling outfit that was the American Golf Course Construction Company commenced work later in 1926, with Jack Fleming as foreman. Fleming later rated the Meadow Club as “second only to Cypress Point in the list of courses we laid out.”
Robert Hunter wrote a description of the course in the club’s prospectus which was put out when the course construction had been effectively completed apart from seeding. In regards to the construction work Hunter wrote:
“The work of construction is being carried out by the American Golf Course Construction Company under a foreman who has built some of the best courses in Europe. All the construction will be of the highest class and the contouring of the bunkers and greens will be on the latest models. Provision has also been made for the most improved water supply. Nearly ten thousand feet of 6-inch cast iron pipe will be used so that the course can be watered under good pressure in the shortest possible time. In the construction work, care is being taken to make it possible to cut every inch of space with a triplex mower and no hand mowing should be required.
“The greens will be planted to bents. They are large, visible and closely trapped so that the play to the green and the putting on the green will be testing and interesting.
“The course will be constructed at about half the cost of any other course yet built in California comparable with it, and by reason of improved methods of construction the cost of upkeep will be at a minimum.”
When MacKenzie visited the course under construction on February 22, 1927, having just arrived from New Zealand, he was suitably impressed with the progress, later writing that:
“I found the construction work had been done magnificently by the American Golf Course Construction Company, who have several foremen specially trained according to my ideas. I had originally estimated the cost of construction at eighty thousand dollars, as the soil was not very suitable, the ground was very weedy, and a tremendous amount of drainage was necessary. On my arrival there, I found that all but two greens had been completed, the course drained, the ground ploughed and harrowed four times to get rid of the weeds, while much of the watering system had been finished, and to my amazement I found that little more than twenty thousand had been expended.”
The course was officially opened on 1st October 1927 with an exhibition match featuring prominent Californian amateurs and professionals.
California Golf Club
This San Francisco club moved to its new site south of the city in 1926, with a course designed by Willie Lock. The club, though, was unhappy with the size of the greens in his design and replaced him during construction with Vernon Macan, an Irishman who had emigrated to Canada, and who worked predominantly in that country and the Pacific Northwest. Macan had wanted to make more significant alterations but was saddled with Lock’s routing. So within a year of opening – and two architects later – MacKenzie & Hunter were brought in to see what changes they would suggest to the course and were hired to draw up their plans. Hunter Jr’s American Golf Course Construction Company was awarded the contract, with construction commencing in late February of 1927. MacKenzie wrote in June of that year that:
“While I was in San Francisco the work on the Californian Course was commenced by the American Golf Course Construction Company, and one hole, which was completed before I left, was undoubtedly the best piece of construction work I have seen in America. The American Golf Course Construction Company is amalgamated with, and has the same foremen as, the British Golf Course Construction Company, of which my brother, Major C. A. MacKenzie, is Managing Director.”
It appears that most of the work was undertaken to reduce the cost of course maintenance, and in a large part involved the remodelling of the bunkering, with some work undertaken to the greens – it is known that the 11th green was completely rebuilt. Work progressed over a two-year period, with work even being undertaken while the club hosted the 1927 California Open, and it is likely that this remodelling work was fitted in between new projects. A photograph of “one of the recently reconstructed greens at the California Golf Club – the tenth – showing some effective trapping by MacKenzie & Hunter”, featured in an advertisement for the AGCCCo in Fairwaymagazine of January 1928.
Claremont Country Club
This Oakland course was renovated in 1920-21 by William Watson and is one with close ties to Robert Hunter as he was a member. In 1926 remodelling again occurred under the direction of William Fries the club professional; however, the work was not well received and his services were dispensed with – both as architect and professional. Given Hunter’s knowledge of the course the club turned to him and he brought in MacKenzie for advice – although it is likely Hunter directed the work. The bunkering scheme was updated, and changes to greens implemented, in particular the 2nd, 3rd, 9th, 12th, 13th, 17th and 18th greens. The AGCCCo undertook the construction work in a number of stages, beginning in 1927 – company advertisements in November 1927 listed Claremont as a remodelling project – and continued through to at least the middle of 1929.
Cypress Point Club
Cypress Point was MacKenzie’s favourite course and without doubt he viewed it as his masterwork, falling in love with that very special piece of land on the majestic Monterey Peninsula. Construction of the course was entrusted to the AGCCCo and commenced on the 26th October 1927. By the end of April 1928 seeding was taking place and it was expected that the course would be open for play within the year. By July 5th all construction work had been completed and the turf was establishing, with Robert Hunter stating that the course would be in play within a few months and that the construction cost would be less than estimated. The course opened for regular play on 11th August 1928, with an official opening held later, taking only some nine months since starting, well ahead of schedule.
MacKenzie later wrote of the construction of Cypress Point in an article in Fairwaymagazine in November 1928:
“The construction work was carried out by the American Golf Course Construction Company, of which Mr Robert Hunter, Jr, is managing director. He took the trouble to obtain from Britain two excellent foremen, Dan Gormley and Jack Fleming, who had years of training in the construction of golf courses designed by me.
“On condition that we could choose the construction company, we estimated the cost at $100,000. We not only completed the whole course for $90,000, but did a great deal more work than we undertook to.
“We removed about fifteen acres more of trees than were necessary from a golfing point of view, for the purpose of opening out fresh vistas to the ocean and sand dunes, and increasing the beauties of the place. We constructed more than twice the number of tees agreed upon. We made watered grass tracks from the greens to the tees, and from the tees to the fairways. We enlarged the fairways towards the tees, so that nowhere would the dub have a compulsory carry of more than 80 yards. We also planted many acres of sand dunes with grass, etc., to prevent the sand from blowing.
“The trained foreman ensured that there would be no lost motion in carrying out the details of the construction work and, above all, we insisted that no work should be done by hand that could be done cheaper by machine.”
Hunter wrote that, in addition to Gormley and Fleming“a young man named Cole must be given credit for much of the finishing touches to the beautiful (if damned) bunkers… all the grading was done with four-mule teams and Fresno scrapers”, and this young man was Paddy Cole from Donegal, another Irishman who went on to work on many other MacKenzie designs. In ploughing for the fairways on the first four holes many Native American artefacts such as mortars and pestles, beads and abalone shells were found.
Jack Fleming later recalled some of the difficulties they faced in building Cypress Point:
“To build that one we had to cleave a way through a forest and bring in thousands of yards of earth to cover the sand dunes. More than 100 men worked on the job and we couldn’t have done it without help of mules borrowed from the Army. What little machine equipment we had in 1928 would have been swallowed up by the sand.”
Fleming’s son John recalled that his father said that many of those difficulties came in his role as timekeeper and paymaster, having to sort out the pays for over 100 men who had to be paid in cash every Friday.
Cypress Point was a reputation maker for both MacKenzie and Hunter, and their AGCCCo. New commissions for both firms came thick and fast on the back of this project.
Lake Merced Golf & Country Club
Lake Merced is an 18-hole course in San Francisco that opened in June 1923 to a design by Willie Lock on a site to the south-east of the large lake that the course takes its name from, Lock having beaten William Watson and Herbert Fowler for the design job. By February 1928 the Club had contacted MacKenzie & Hunter “to make readjustments of the traps and approaches to the greens for the purpose of eliminating a part of course upkeep.”In correspondence with Samuel Morse of Pebble Beach Co, MacKenzie stated that he had removed over 100 bunkers from Lock’s design – significant savings for any club.
While it is not known exactly when construction started, around May 1928 seems a likely time, as the course was listed in an advertisement for the AGCCCo in Fairwaymagazine of June 1928. Around this time construction was winding down at Cypress Point and Robert Hunter Jr no doubt moved some of his team as they became available up to San Francisco to work on the remodelling at Lake Merced. By August the work was nearly complete – with the notable exception of the par-3 17th hole that required a more significant remodelling, displaying MacKenzie & Hunter’s design vision that was brought spectacularly to fruition by the AGCCCo.
Union League Golf & Country Club
In 1928, a group of prominent San Francisco doctors and businessmen planned a new country club in the area of Millbrae and the rolling 143-acre site they chose was once an orchard and nursery, with its own creek. They appointed MacKenzie & Hunter as their golf architects, who declared it an ideal site.
The AGCCCo were employed to construct the course, with the first sod being turned in January 1929. It was planned to complete construction by the end of the summer, but this lofty goal was not achieved. Construction foreman was Irishman Michael McDonagh, Jack Fleming’s first cousin who had just arrived in the US after a stint building courses for the BGCCCo in England and Ireland. In August of that year MacKenzie suggested that the course would rank with the three finest in San Francisco, and be one of the sportiest in the country. Irrigation pipework was being laid in readiness for seeding and constructional work on the greens, fairways and bunkers was nearly complete. The putting greens were sown with Astoria bentgrass, while a mix of bent and fescue was chosen for the fairways. The course grew in over the autumn and winter of 1929 and by spring of 1930 it was ready for play (notwithstanding a washout on the first fairway that took some 7,800 linear feet of drainage line to be installed shortly before the opening).
The official opening took place on 27th April 1930 and the final cost of construction, including the design fees, was $140,000. Robert Hunter Jr gave a hole-by-hole description of the course that the AGCCCo had built to the San Mateo Times, a task normally undertaken by the architect, and which shows that Hunter Jr was perhaps becoming more comfortable in his abilities.
Valley Club of Montecito
The Los Angeles Times announced in its 24th August 1928 edition that work was expected to begin shortly “on the new and exclusive Valley Club of Montecito” set on 150 acres in a valley set back from the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara, and that “Hunter & MacKenzie, builders of the Cypress Point golf course at Pebble Beach, have been retained to lay out the course”. MacKenzie and Hunter had in fact been working on this project for some months, as a routing plan of the course is dated to 17th March 1928. By October, the promoters of the fledgling club were confident of their membership uptake after the earlier release of their prospectus, that they entered into an agreement with “A. MACKENZIE and ROBERT HUNTER, co-partners doing business under the name of MACKENZIE AND HUNTER,” to “prepare plans and specifications and superintend said work” for a fee of $8,150.
That same month the club entered into an agreement with “C. A. MACKENZIE and ROBERT HUNTER, JR, co-partners doing business under the name of the AMERICAN GOLF COURSE CONSTRUCTION COMPANY” and they were to be paid a flat fee of 10% on the cost of constructing the new course, provided that the fee did not exceed $5,650.
By November 1928 the regular advertisement that the AGCCCo was placing in Fairway magazine listed the Valley Club of Montecito as being under construction and this construction date is confirmed in club records. Jack Fleming was the foreman on this project, moving down the Pacific coast from Cypress Point, and his son recalled that it was one of his father’s favourite projects, and that the advent of bulldozers helped expedite its construction. Robert Hunter had recently moved to Santa Barbara and as a result he probably spent more time supervising the on-ground work than at many of MacKenzie & Hunter’s other projects. He joined the club at an early stage and subsequently took on the role of chairman of the Green Committee. The new course opened for play on 30th December 1929, taking just over a year to complete.
Pasatiempo Country Club
After MacKenzie’s success at Cypress Point for Marion Hollins, she again turned to him for the design of the golf course in her own new development in the hills above Santa Cruz, which she announced in January 1928. She called her new project Pasatiempo, Spanish for pastime. Hollins became a very wealthy woman in October 1928 when the Kettleman Oil Company that she had established with her brother and a number of investors, struck oil when drilling in the Kettleman Hills of California. The company soon sold out to Standard Oil, and Marion’s share was $2,500,000, which she promptly invested into the purchase of 10,000 acres at Big Sur and into her already underway Pasatiempo project, a 570-acre planned community with a golf, equestrian, tennis and bathing focus.
The famous Olmsted Brothers planned the development, and MacKenzie and Robert Hunter Jr met with their representative George Gibbs on site on the 4th and 5th October 1928, and walked the course that MacKenzie had already staked out. Gibbs’ report back to their Palos Verdes branch office makes interesting reading, describing MacKenzie and his design practices, especially as MacKenzie had considered that playing across some internal roads would be acceptable to him – but wasn’t to the Olmsted Brothers. Issues with roads and their interface with the course were an ongoing issue for the development. Hunter Jr, later that same month, went up to the Olmsted’s Californian office to talk over the construction of the course in more detail, prior to construction of the first nine holes commencing in November. The AGCCCo had the contract and brought in Daniel Gormley as the site foreman.
Frank Bickerton, a former Antarctic Explorer and World War I British fighter pilot, had invested in the Hollins’ Santa Cruz development Company and had a role as vice-president and site manager, eventually becoming an associate to MacKenzie. Bickerton wrote of construction progress in an article in the Santa Cruz Evening News of 20th February 1929:
“The first nine holes of the golf course being built by Miss Marion Hollins on the Billings ranch just outside the city limits of Santa Cruz, are now ready for seeding with grass as soon as the weather allows. The second nine are not so far advanced, but the whole 18 will probably be ready to play on in August. The best water system for the course and subdivision has been worked out and is being looked after by Salisbury, Bradson & Taylor of Los Angeles. This will provide for watering all the fairways, greens and tees.”
A full-page feature on Hollins’ Pasatiempo Golf Course and Estates ran in the Santa Cruz Evening News of 5th September 1929, and included two photographs of MacKenzie playing on the 16th and 18th holes.
“American Golf Course Construction Company of Robert Hunter Jr is responsible for the construction of Pasatiempo, which is destined to be one of the best courses in the United States. The first sod was turned on the morning of November 11, 1928, with the first seed planted May 11, last. The first nine holes of Pasatiempo have been completed for several weeks, but will not be thrown open until the entire 18 holes are ready for play, which will be several weeks it is understood.” The Pacific Golfer magazine in its September 1929 issue reported that: “The course which is being nurtured along rapidly under the skilful hand of Robert Hunter, Jr., and the watchful eye of Dan Gormley, comprises a series of surprises and problems that make golf the interesting game that it is.”
The course was opened on 8th September 1929 with a gala exhibition match that Hollins had arranged, featuring Bobby Jones, British amateur Cyril Tolley, American women’s champion Glenna Collett and herself, in front of a large gallery estimated to be 2000-strong. Jones and Tolley were in California playing in the US Amateur at Pebble Beach the week before and Hollins had been arranging their availability for the opening day match for many months. The course was not quite ready for play but Marion was determined to have her grand opening come what may, and ‘winter rules’ of placing the ball on the fairways applied.
MacKenzie saw Pasatiempo as the ideal location to live adjacent to one of his courses, and he arranged with Hollins to acquire an allotment overlooking the 6th fairway. He had a house built to a William Wurster design, and it was there that he lived out the remainder of his life with his second wife Hilda until his sudden passing in January 1934.
Northwood Golf Club
Amongst the towering redwoods of Monte Rio lies the nine-hole course of the Northwood Golf Club set within a crook of the Russian River. It was to this site that Dr MacKenzie came in 1928 with his partner Robert Hunter to design a new course after being contacted by Jack Neville, Californian Amateur champion and co-designer of Pebble Beach with Douglas Grant.
The heavily wooded 70-acre parcel was just across the river from the Bohemian Club, and Grant, a club member, saw the possibilities of golf here. In 1925 Neville first presented his idea to the land owner who eventually agreed to the use of his land for a golf course, and then later involved MacKenzie & Hunter with the challenge of designing nine holes of golf in this forest setting. They never had a site quite like this one, and it doubtless caught their interest.
Construction commenced in 1928, with the AGCCCo as contractor, but it is not known who assumed the role of construction foreman.
Fairway magazine reported in its July 1929 issue that the new Northwood course had opened for play, at a length of 3181 yards, and that William Selkirk was the golf professional in charge. An advertisement for the AGCCCo from the September 1929 issue of Country Club included Northwood under their ‘Recently Completed’ heading. A few period photographs exist of the course in its early days and depict classic MacKenzie & Hunter bunkering to the tree-lined holes.
Woodside Country Club
In December 1927 MacKenzie & Hunter were announced as the architects for a new 18-hole course to cost $90,000, and to be located within a new housing community development on a 500-acre parcel adjacent to Stanford University in Palo Alto. Construction of the course was considerably delayed and a subsequent report in September 1930 indicated that plans had been approved by club directors and that MacKenzie was at Woodside supervising the initial work, with Robert Hunter Jr in charge of construction.
In a prospectus for new members MacKenzie wrote:
“I pledge the members of Woodside a course perhaps not the greatest in the West, but certainly one of the three outstanding courses of the Pacific Coast. To it I will devote more of my personal attention than I have given to the construction of any course in recent years, not even excepting Cypress Point.”
Sadly though, MacKenzie did not get an opportunity to fully test his pledge as construction was halted not long after it commenced, never to start again. The aftershocks of the financial crisis that was the Great Depression spelt the end of the project – not to mention that the course lay over the San Andreas Fault – although a number of houses were built and remain today as a small community known as Woodside.
Sacramento Municipal Golf Course
Through the 1920s, golf in California’s capital Sacramento showed signs of growth but it wouldn’t be until 1st October 1932 that the Sacramento Municipal Golf Course would open, and a further 20 years before the course took on the more familiar name of Haggin Oaks. Initially the site had been chosen by Sam Whiting, the noted architect and golf professional connected with the Olympic Club, but the job would eventually go to Alister MacKenzie.
By August of 1931 MacKenzie along with Robert Hunter Jr had toured the site and it is interesting to note that MacKenzie was given contour maps and aerial photos to work out a routing for the property, and his study of aerial photography as a Major in the Royal Engineers during World War I dealing with concealment and camouflage surely gave him a much better understanding of the land and its possibilities. MacKenzie gave himself a week to work out the layout and another month to work out the finer details for the course.
“The undulations, the oak trees and other natural conditions,”said MacKenzie, who appeared quite enthusiastic, “will permit the designing and construction of a beautiful course – one that will be not too hazardous as to discourage the beginner or the average player, yet intriguing enough to interest a Bobby Jones.”The course falls into the same design style as Bayside and Augusta National that were built during the same timeframe, with no rough along the fairways, undulating greens, minimal bunkering, and allowance for pitch-and-putt course that MacKenzie was known to advocate, but which was never built. By September, Hunter Jr and the American Golf Course Construction Company had been hired to build the course to the plans drawn up by MacKenzie. Mike McDonagh was the construction foreman for the AGCCC and he came to Sacramento after building the Union League and Tahoe City courses; he would eventually stay on as the course superintendent at Sacramento for 32 years. It has yet to be confirmed if the Tahoe City project – possibly the nine-hole Tahoe Tavern course – was a MacKenzie design and an AGCCCo build, but this seems likely given McDonough’s time there. Interestingly, Haggin Oaks is one of the few courses that has its original MacKenzie plans, including all the individual green plans.
Sharp Park Municipal Golf Course
The Sharp Park course at Salada Beach in the San Francisco coastal suburb of Pacifica opened in April 1932 to a design by MacKenzie and Chandler Egan, a champion amateur golfer from Oregon who Mackenzie brought into partnership after the retirement of Robert Hunter. The original routing plan had been prepared by MacKenzie and Hunter back in 1928 but it took some years before the plan was realised. The site had been bequeathed to the City of San Francisco as a public park in 1917 and John McLaren, Superintendent of Parks, decided that part of it should be developed as a public golf course, and invited his fellow Scot MacKenzie to design it.
MacKenzie had long been looking for the ideal site to build his own version of his Country Life 1914 competition-winning hole design, and he found it here as the 5th, bordering the Laguna Salada at the centre of the course. Construction by the AGCCCo began on 5th April 1930 with a local newspaper reporting that Chandler Egan made a survey of the property “accompanied by Robert Hunter Jr.” and that “thirty men were working on the property yesterday, wrecking shacks and getting the terrain in shape for Hunter’s construction crew”.
Jack Fleming was brought in as construction foreman and stayed to become its first superintendent. Fleming had a tough job establishing turf as the irrigation water was salty and the sandy soil was also saline. The fact that the course took two years to build and establish is testament to the difficulties that the site presented Hunter Jr and his team.
While it has been suggested that storms in the 1930s washed away the oceanside holes 3 and 7, the course was intact until 1941 when these two holes were replaced by a sea wall, three other holes between Laguna Salada abandoned and four new holes were added by Jack Fleming to the east of the course (Fleming by this time had been appointed San Francisco’s superintendent of public golf in charge of the three City courses).
In recent years the course has been threatened by environmental activists wishing to close the course to protect frog and snake habitat and complex legal proceedings are still in process. The San Francisco Public Golf Alliance are fighting to save MacKenzie’s Sharp Park course and readers can support their ongoing battle at www.sfpublicgolf.com
Approach & Putt Courses
MacKenzie designed at least two short courses in California, with one for his friend, the actor Douglas Fairbanks and actress wife Mary Pickford at their 15-acre estate ‘Pickfair’ in Beverly Hills. In July 1930 it was reported that “Douglas Fairbanks has become golf minded in a big way. ’Tis reported that ‘Doug’ has commissioned Dr. A. MacKenzie to design and construct a nine-hole pitch-and-putt course at Pickfair, down Hollywood way.”
San Francisco furniture emporium owner Gustav Lachman invited Dr MacKenzie to design a small “approach-and-putt” course, as MacKenzie titled it, on his nine-acre estate at Hillsborough where he was building a Tudor-style mansion. A San Francisco newspaper report from 24th July 1932 described how MacKenzie was positive on the future possibilities of this type of course: “… the possibilities of approach-and-putt courses in the way of originality and interest, MacKenzie believes, have hardly been touched. Gus Lachman’s approach-and-putt course, built by MacKenzie and formally opened at Hillsborough this weekend, is said to be one of extraordinary interest.” A later report indicated that the nine-hole course was even lit for night play.
Charlie Chaplin, friends of Fairbanks and Pickford, built his mansion in 1923 close by to ‘Pickfair’ and it has been speculated that MacKenzie designed a short course on his estate; however, despite considerable searching we have been unable to confirm if MacKenzie designed a course for Chaplin.
Although there is no evidence to prove categorically that these short courses were built by the AGCCCo, it is considered safe to include them in this listing given that they were located in California and that none of MacKenzie’s Californian courses were built by any company other than the American Golf Course Construction Company.
Polo Fields, Tennis Courts and Stadia
The AGCCCo did not limit itself to constructing only golf courses. A report in the Californian magazine Country Club of September 1929 mentioned that they had under construction a new polo field for Mr Henry Russell and his wife Helen that they had commissioned at their newly completed estate at Carmel Valley called the ‘Double H Ranch’. In a 1930 yearbook the company advertised that they also built en-tous-cas (clay) tennis courts, and that same year Hunter Jr obtained a contract to returf the Memorial Stadium at the University of California at Berkeley, so it seems clear that in the difficult financial times of the Depression the company took non-golf work in to keep the doors open.
Later Work and Legacy
From about 1930 onwards, apart from the commission to design the new municipal course in Sacramento, Dr MacKenzie’s new course opportunities came about in places far from California, such as New York, Georgia, South Carolina and South America, and the AGCCCo was not required for these projects as MacKenzie had established a relationship with Chicago-based engineer Wendell P. Miller who built these courses for him.
Following MacKenzie’s death from a coronary in January 1934, Robert Hunter Jr and his AGCCCo were still active, as in November of that year it was reported that he visited Reno, Nevada to inspect sites for a proposed municipal course at the request of the City Council and the Reno Chamber of Commerce. Unfortunately when the course was built the following year the task of constructing it came under a federal government WPA employment program for the unemployed and it was supervised by a local engineer.
It is not known when the American Golf Course Construction Company ceased activity; however, the authors have been unable to find any mentions of it after 1934, so it is likely that Hunter Jr ceased activity with the company in the mid 1930s. He later moved to Hawaii to live in 1941 with his wife Margaret.
The legacy of the American Golf Course Construction Company is clear – they were the first large-scale specialist golf course contractor in the USA and they built all of MacKenzie & Hunter’s Californian classics – and with their use of specialist and experienced Irish construction foremen were capable of consistently turning out quality courses for their clients and the architects, who in turn could be confident of seeing their designs turned into first-class courses that would stand the test of time.
Neil Crafter and Sean Tully are members of a small research team working with The Alister MacKenzie Society of the UK researching Dr MacKenzie’s life and work. Neil is a golf course architect and member of the SAGCA, while Sean is the golf course superintendent at the MacKenzie & Hunter-designed Meadow Club in California and is a keen student of Californian golf course history