The story behind Dr Alister MacKenzie’s construction of a set of ‘freak’, devilishly compartmentalised greens on the eve of World War I.
ARTISTIC TRIUMPH: It’s speculated that MacKenzie’s compartmentalized 12th green at Sitwell Park was the first example of the famous golf course architect’s dreams running wild.
Alister MacKenzie’s ‘freak’ greens at the Sitwell Park course near Sheffield, England, were notoriously eccentric, and arguably, in keeping with the man who paid for them to be built – Sir George Sitwell, Baronet. (At the age of four, the young Sitwell was recorded as saying to a stranger on a train: “I am George Sitwell, Baronet. I am four years old and I am the youngest Baronet in England.”) – Neil Crafter
“Sir George Sitwell was the strangest old bugger you ever met” – Harold Acton.
On hillsides at Sitwell Park, MacKenzie built at least three wildly undulating greens… possibly four, two of which were described by English golf course architect Robin Hiseman within an article about the lost par-3 12th green at Sitwell Park in the January 2012 edition of ‘Golf Course Architecture’ magazine. Hiseman wrote:
“The site was notable for a very steep, wooded hillside upon which the clubhouse was to be built. MacKenzie’s routing required that two greens, the 12th and the 18th, be sited adjacently, high upon the hillside and approached from below. The accepted wisdom would have been to form a basic cut and fill green terrace. MacKenzie knew that to do this would result in each green being sited high above the eye line, with a tremendously steep embankment fronting each green. The putting surfaces would certainly be hidden and this was not acceptable. Instead he built a pair of wildly undulating, eccentric greens that tumbled down the hillside close to the existing gradient. Each green contained numerous small cut and fill terraces to create flatter areas, but woe betide the golfer who left their approach shot above the hole location!
MacKenzie’s 12th green was an artistic triumph. He executed a construction that allowed the golfer a clear view of the putting surface and which amply rewarded an accurate approach shot. It looked magnificent and fitted seamlessly into the precipitous hillside. It was also a functional disaster, as for anything other that a precise approach, the fierce contours would repel the ball to points from which the club golfer would have a miserable time recovering. Golfers were embarrassed. And they hated it.”
So how did the Sitwell Park project come about and how vociferous was the criticism of the freak greens that MacKenzie built there? Let us examine the story behind the course – and the critical storm that was unleashed.
The Creation of Sitwell Park
Two parties were responsible for the creation of the Sitwell Park Golf Club. The first was a group of eight Rotherham men who decided to form a golf club on the south side of their town, located to the east of Sheffield. The second was Sitwell, who solved the fledgling club’s problem of finding a suitable site in 1912 by offering them the use of around 120 acres (49 ha) of his estate near Rotherham. Generously, he agreed to finance the cost of constructing the course, providing that at least 100 members could be guaranteed by the time nine temporary holes could be brought into play. Over 100 were enrolled within a week, and by 21 March 1913 when the ‘Sheffield Evening Telegraph’ reported on the new venture, the club had “… upwards of 170 members… including golfers from the Sheffield district, who will find the course as easy of access as some of the Sheffield courses.”
The site was located:
“… between the Wickersley Road and Royde Moor Hill, Whiston, Rotherham. The land secured is situated in a picturesque valley at the back of Wickersley Gorse, and extending up to Shrogs Wood, near Bent Laithes Farm, and is well sheltered from the north and east winds. It is to be a 27-hole course (nine holes forming a ladies’ course), and good progress has been made with the first nine holes.”
The report stated that the links were being laid out by:
“Mr A E Turnell, of Sheffield, in consultation with Dr MacKenzie, of Leeds, and these gentlemen are of the opinion that the land is eminently suitable for the construction of a very sporting and first-class course. The 3rd and 9th greens, which are being made in Shrogs Wood, will be unique in this part of the country, and quite equal to similar greens at Ashdown Forest or Stoke Poges.”
These two greens were part of the first nine holes to be built, which the report stated would be “ready in a few weeks” and ultimately became the 12th and 18th in the final layout. It was projected that the second nine would be “completed as soon as possible”. MacKenzie’s collaboration with Alfred Ernest Turnell, a Sheffield architect and golf enthusiast, likely began a year or two earlier when MacKenzie was invited to prepare a bunkering scheme for the Wortley club where Turnell was the Honorary Secretary. Their Sheffield area collaborations also included Dore and Totley and the Sheffield Municipal course at Tinsley Park.
The club itself was officially established at a well-attended meeting on 12 April 1913 held in the St George’s Hall at Rotherham. Sitwell, the president-elect, was unable to attend; however, Turnell did and described the progress of the work to the meeting, saying that he:
“… thought very few inland courses would equal it in its completed form. It was proposed to provide 27 holes in three loops. The 1st, 10th and 19th tees, and the 9th, 18th, and 27th greens would be as close together as possible. The drive off could be from either of the three tees, by which arrangement crowding was obviated. In outlining the proposal, he mentioned that two of the greens in Shrogs Wood alone would characterize the course, even if the other 25 were all bad ones; but in his opinion there would not be an uninteresting hole in the whole 27. He hoped play would be possible on Monday, April 21.”
A report that initially ran in the ‘Sheffield Telegraph’ in September 1913, concerning the use of dynamite to make bunkers on the new course, was picked up by several newspapers around the country over the following days. One report suggested that eight bunkers were being made by this method, and that “… the experiment has proved successful, three bunkers having been constructed by this novel means,” while another suggested that “this is said to be a new use for the explosive, but we should like to point out that bunkers have been blasted often enough before now.”
Yet another report was more detailed about the process used:
“Holes have been drilled in several places and explosives inserted which were then fired by electricity. One of the most experienced shot-firers in the district has been put in charge of the work which has so far been carried out with gratifying success. These runaway bunkers are placed in the fairway… When the shots are fired the earth is ripped up to a depth of 3-4 ft and the soil is blown out. These are left in the rough state and will be turfed over, the pans slightly sloping away from the tee.”
MacKenzie wrote of this experiment in ‘The Spirit of St. Andrews’, saying that:
“I recently used blasting charges for making bunkers. An article in one of the Sheffield papers somewhat humorously stated that this was not the first occasion when Dr MacKenzie’s bunkers had been ‘blasted’.”
The ‘Sheffield Daily Telegraph’ in its 5 November issue, recorded MacKenzie’s visit to the Sheffield area from 31 October to 2 November to visit four of his local projects, noting that “Dr MacKenzie spent a very busy weekend in the Sheffield District, for he visited the site of the new course at Dore and Totley (Bradway), Chesterfield, Renishaw Park, and Sitwell Park.”
The Controversy Erupts
The ‘Yorkshire Post’ on 3 January 1914 reported on “A Big Venture at Rotherham”, suggesting that it was hoped to eventually have two full courses and a clubhouse which was to cost £5,000. The writer had spoken with MacKenzie who had informed him about some of the greens he was designing, fully expecting that fierce criticism would come his way:
“… two of the holes which have been finished, the 12th and the 18th, which are in the wood, are delightful holes, but he is prepared to hear them severely criticized. They are both on a severe slope, and are made in the form of large and very deep 3 to 6 punch bowls on each green, so that a hollow for the play will always be available. One or two of the punch bowls are so deep that you could put a horse and cart in them. Greens of this kind give an enormous advantage to the accurate approach player, as the player in the wrong hollow has an extremely difficult putt. After the first virulent criticism is got over they will be extremely popular with the members.”
Golf was being played over temporary holes at Sitwell Park in February 1914, and a report in the ‘Sheffield Daily Telegraph’ on 21 February reported on good progress being made with the construction of the course, and “… with a number of workmen (superintended by a keen and efficient groundsman) busily engaged in constructing greens and bunkers, Sitwell Park now presents a somewhat striking appearance”. The writer commented on the different sub-soils across the course, with the first few holes being “somewhat heavy”, while ideal ground was found for the holes around Wickersley Gorse, and “the turf of the remainder of the course is firm and dry”.
However, he did offer some words of “advice” to the committee about the extremely undulating greens:
“Three greens, up-to-date, have been constructed, which all golfers of knowledge and experience will look upon with amazement, and which many will unhesitatingly condemn. They are placed right in the face of steep banks, and in each case the gradient on which they are built is very severe. A number of the undulations have been traced in the greens, which are, in many cases, far too deep, so deep in fact that the ball putted from any direction will invariably be found to reach the centre. The committee will be well advised not to pursue this policy of violence and severity in the contours and gradients of their greens.”
The writer then cited the example of the greens at St George’s Hill at Weybridge that apparently had to be altered at considerable expense due to their excessive undulations, and predicted that in the summer months, three putts rather than two would be the norm at Sitwell Park. He did say that there were some “… good single shot holes on the course” although the 16th would be improved in his view by moving the tee to the left given the severe fall on the green to the left side. He concluded by saying that money was being spent wisely “but with a lavish hand”.
A different writer in the same paper gave his views on Sitwell Park only a few days later, on 24 February. He wrote that the club had some 230 acres (93 ha) of land at its disposal, considerably higher than earlier reported figures. He commented that 18 holes were now in use, and that further holes were to be built on what was then two ploughed fields and the “admirable land in the vicinity of Wicklersley Gorse,” so it seems likely that the 18 holes then being played upon comprised the nine holes of the ladies’ course and nine from the main course. Near Wickersley Gorse, the land was intersected by a stream that was to be brought into play as a hazard on three consecutive holes. This particular writer was also quite critical of the greens already completed by MacKenzie, like his colleague, and expressed the hope that with places for beautiful natural greens on the Wickersley land that:
“… extravagances in green-making, which mar other parts of this course may not be indulged in. Dr MacKenzie is said to have declared that so soon as a player holes out the short 12th in one, that hole will be ‘made’. At the same time it is an unfair hole, and this green, like the 18th, is much too pronounced in its basin depressions. To the short 12th two tee shots, perfect in length and direction, may drop within six inches of each other, yet one may run round the basin edge and make a two certain, even if the ball does not find the hole/whereas the other may glance down the other slope and the hole is lost, though the shot has been as near perfection as possible. The 16th, a drive and a downhill mashie pitch, has an excellent undulating green, well guarded, and the excellence here only make one regret the extravagance elsewhere.”
These two pieces of criticism were like a red rag to a bull and MacKenzie promptly responded with a letter to the editor that was published in the ‘Sheffield Daily Telegraph’ on 28 February, which is worth reproducing in full (with original clipping next page):
“SITWELL PARK GOLF COURSE
Moor Allerton Lodge, Leeds. February 26th, 1914.
Sir – I have had cuttings from The Sheffield Daily Telegraph of February 21 and 24 sent to me by three friends with a request that I should reply to the criticisms. My remarks were quoted that the 12th, 15th, and 18th greens at Sitwell, after the first burst of virulent criticism were got over, would become extremely popular amongst the members.
I have got accustomed to measuring the ultimate popularity of a hole or course by the amount of criticism it gives rise to in the first instance. ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ Sitwell, which has not the natural advantages of at least three other Sheffield courses, like St George’s Hill which is undoubtedly the most popular of the recent London links, will have a great future. Its members will find other courses dull and uninteresting in comparison.
The criticism in your paper, however, is much fairer and milder than I anticipated. It is only natural that players who have been spoon fed on insipid, flat uninteresting golf should view with a considerable amount of suspicion anything which is undoubtedly out of the ordinary. Your critic makes a mistake in comparing the Sitwell greens with St George’s Hill. The fact of the matter is, the only crab of St George’s Hill is not that it is too undulating, but that it is not rolling enough. The St George’s greens are on too much of a slope and if they had been made more undulating there would be more available hollows or flat places in which to put the flag. In an undulating green it is absolutely essential that the place for the hole should never be on a side slope, but always on the flat.
Criticisms have been made that at Sitwell the putting is going to cost you more. The exact opposite is the case: the putting is going to cost less. It is inaccurate approaching that is going to cost you more. A man who has approached with great accuracy is helped towards the hole, and will frequently be down in one putt.
I would ask my critics in what other way would it have been possible to utilise the terrific slope on which these greens are situated and yet to have given the same natural appearance? Unless the hollows were made large enough and deep enough it would be impossible for anyone putting from the top of the green to remain anywhere near the hole when placed in a hollow at the bottom, and in a green of this kind it is only intended that the hole should be placed in a hollow or on the flat.
All these greens are large: in fact, 30 or 40 yards wide. Each hollow is almost as large as an ordinary punch bowl green and has a big advantage over the ordinary punch bowl in three respects – firstly, they are visible; secondly, an inaccurate shot rolls away from the hole; and thirdly, there still remains a chance of recovery with a putter instead of a niblick out of the rough.
I do not agree with your statements that at the short 12th two tee shots perfect in length and direction may have unequal treatment and, even if this were so, do you suggest that the element of luck should be eliminated entirely in golf?
I can assure you that you can no more do so than in cricket. A certain amount of luck is responsible for some of the fascination of both games, and, if you succeeded in eliminating it you would only succeed in making both cricket and golf uninteresting. – Yours faithfully, A. MacKENZIE.”
The controversy then spread from the ‘Sheffield Daily Telegraph’ to the pages of ‘Golfing’ magazine, edited by Robert Browning. In the issue of 4 March 1914, Browning wrote about the controversy on his editorial page in support of MacKenzie and modern course design and made the point that at St George’s Hill they had only seen fit to alter one green “… and even in that the reason was not any fault on the architect’s design”. He then quoted most of MacKenzie’s letter in reply to the criticisms. In the next issue on 18 March, he reproduced a further reply from MacKenzie which read:
“In regard to undulating greens, players frequently point to a slope like the side of a house, and ask what would happen if the greenkeeper put the hole there; the obvious reply is, the greenkeeper would get the sack.
My critic states that he has seen and played on most of the best courses, and therefore has a considerable experience of golf architecture. The ordinary business man might just as well use the same argument in respect to the architecture of public buildings.
The point is, has he studied the characteristics of the best holes in golf? Has he ever, for instance, studied the charm and subtleties of the 17th and 11th holes at St Andrews?
You suggest that the modern architect wishes to make courses impossible. I can assure you the exact opposite is the case. If you refer to my lecture, published in the Journal of the Greenkeeper’s Association, you will find that I advocate large but rolling greens, fewer bunkers, the total absence of rough grass (and the elimination in consequence of the annoyance of searching for balls), and the absence of blindness – all suggestions which tend to make golf easier.
I once constructed a green which the local professional said would be scrapped in two months, and within this period he himself was claiming the credit of it.
In my own immediate district golfers have gradually become educated to modern methods of golf architecture, and realize that in the past the most severely criticised greens have ultimately become the most popular.”
The ‘Sheffield Telegraph’ critic wrote to the Editor of ‘Golfing’ and his letter was published in the 1 April 1914 issue of the magazine. He suggested that the Editor should look at the Sitwell Park greens before passing judgment on his critique of them, quite a reasonable point. He went on to say that Dr MacKenzie was a friend and that the discussions between them had been on the friendliest of terms. He was well acquainted with much of MacKenzie’s work and had nothing but praise for most of it (in particular Alwoodley) but the greens at Sitwell Park surpassed “… in point of difficulty and luck, anything I have ever seen”. He contended that the committee would be obliged to alter the greens as soon as they firmed up, and that his criticisms were motivated by a desire to see the club be successful, but he believed … “the work at Sitwell is a caricature of the efforts of modern golf course architects”.
The ‘Star Green’un’, a Sheffield sports newspaper published on a Saturday evening, compared the greens at Alwoodley and Moortown with some at Renishaw Park and Sitwell Park in some fierce criticism in its golf column on 19th June 1915. It noted:
“Dr McKenzie’s rolling greens at Alwoodley and Moortown, two of his earliest ventures, were almost ideal, but since then he has developed his undulations until his more recent greens are simply nature burlesqued. The 9th at Renishaw is an example of a MacKenzie circus green which has gone too far, and some of those at Sitwell are even more freakish. Just at present these MacKenzie greens are causing a tremendous amount of discussion in the district.”
Interestingly, Renishaw Park was another new course project that MacKenzie and Turnell undertook for Sir George Sitwell, in the grounds of his estate, Renishaw Hall.
Not only did MacKenzie design the 12th, 15th and 18th greens at Sitwell Park with these severe contours, but it also appears that the 4th green may have been another at Sitwell along these extreme lines. An old postcard entitled ‘Green Making. Sitwell Park Golf Club’ (see page 35) depicts one of the greens being constructed on a hillside, with some quite severe internal contouring, and this green, although not identified on the postcard, appears from the landform around it to be the 4th green (although the club believes it may be the 5th green).
Doak, Scott and Haddock suggest in their book ‘The Life and Work of Dr Alister MacKenzie’ that this was the first course MacKenzie had built for a private client – Sir George Sitwell – rather than for a committee and for this reason it was the first time that he had the “… money and freedom to let his ideas run wild”. Unfortunately, according to the authors, those ideas – particularly some steeply contoured greens – were a little too wild for the tastes of the time and the client – the eccentric baronet Sir George Sitwell – ordered the greens flattened, making the course dull according to a disgusted MacKenzie.
However, no evidence has been found to suggest that MacKenzie was directly engaged by Sir George Sitwell or that Sitwell made the decision to alter the greens. It is considered far more likely that Sitwell directly funded the club for the cost of course construction, with Turnell and MacKenzie engaged by the committee and not by Sitwell himself. The book discusses that the establishment of the course had some growing pains, as the winter of 1913-14 was quite wet, and implies that the war intervened before the course was completed, giving a date of 1921 for its completion. A large tract of the course was also given up for agriculture during the war.
However, it appears that the course was in fact essentially complete by late 1915, as the ‘Sheffield Independent’ reported on the annual meeting of the Sitwell Park Golf Club that was held on 8 January 1916 in the clubhouse, and noted that:
“The construction of the 18 greens was complete. On account of the further depletion of staff, the committee had deferred the remainder of the scheme of bunkering and draining of the course until more peaceful times, but they had now a course of which they might be proud. They had, moreover, the longest course in the Sheffield Union, every hole of which had its own character and charm. There was not a second-rate hole on the course. Exclusive of the money spent in laying out the approach road and building the temporary clubhouse, over £2,000 had already been spent on the construction of the course.”
The critics had the last laugh though, as MacKenzie’s extreme greens at Sitwell Park did not survive for long. With the outbreak of World War I only months away from the greens controversy of early 1914, the greens were not altered until a few years after the war, with a date around the mid-1920s suggested by Doak, Scott and Haddock, when the course was closed for a period and the greens leveled, according to their book. However, the first evidence of the greens being remodeled comes from the annual meeting of the club held in January 1922, and indicates that several greens were altered early in 1921.
The ‘Sheffield Independent’ of 17 January 1922 noted, under the heading ‘Improvements to Greens’, that “After many interviews on the subject, permission was secured last February to alter some of the greens,” indicating that permission had to first be gained from Sir George Sitwell before work could commence:
“They soon got to work, and in a short time for this kind of work they had greatly improved some of the greens. The 6th, 7th and 15th were now to their liking. The 12th had been leveled at the bottom, but they might have to enlarge it slightly. They had not time to alter any more this season, and were not making tees.”
In November 1923, the ‘Sheffield Independent’ reported that the changes to the Sitwell Park course had not “… turned out as successful as had been anticipated by the committee. The changes in question were concerned principally with the moving of the long 8th hole, and this took the form of making of a new green on the near side of the cart road which cuts the hole in two parts.” With a new tee, this reduced the hole to a sharp dogleg and that it had been found that the new hole “… did not answer at all well,” and that play had been returned to the old tee but to the new green. The report also stated that the new 9th hole was “being perservered with”. One can only imagine what MacKenzie would have had to say about the committee interference with his design.
Finally, in 1925, the club got around to altering MacKenzie’s infamous 12th green. The annual meeting of the club in January 1926 heard that “… the one blot upon the course was the 12th green”, even though four members had holed out in one on it during the year. It was considered by many to be unsatisfactory and:
“… had caused adverse comments by members as well as visitors. The committee had decided to have it altered during the winter. The greenkeeper and his staff soon got to work, and in a very short time, considering the nature of the task, constructed a green on top of the slope which was a great improvement on the old one.”
And so MacKenzie’s spectacular 12th green was no more, and all of his vigorously undulating greens had been neutered by the club.
MacKenzie later wrote about Sitwell Park in ‘The Spirit of St Andrews’, and clearly the pain of this experience was still keenly felt some 17 years on from the events of 1914:
“Sitwell Park, which has been illustrated in Robert Hunter’s excellent book ‘The Links’, is a case in point. Before play commenced it was criticized by an ignorant press. Then the course became so popular that there was a big influx of members. Some years afterwards the course was played by prominent professionals and was again criticized. The committee thought that if players of world renown criticized it there must be something wrong, so they altered some of the greens. The result has been that the course has become so fair that it escapes criticism, but it is so dull and insipid that I have been informed that the membership has fallen from nearly six hundred to half that figure.”
Mackenzie’s 1920 book ‘Golf Architecture’ featured photographs of the short 12th green at Sitwell Park as the frontispiece, with a caption, “The 140-yard Short Hole at Sitwell Park: a fiercely criticized green that has become universally popular.” Also included was a photograph of the 18th green that was captioned, “The Home Green at Sitwell Park: An undulating green with a wide choice of places for the hole in the hollows or on the flat.” The same photograph of the Home green also featured in Robert Hunter’s 1926 book ‘The Links’ with Hunter describing it in the caption as “A freakish and fantastic green.”
Sitwell Park Today
Mackenzie’s extravagant creations are today a shadow of their former selves, something most current Sitwell Park members are probably most grateful for. According to English golf course architect Robin Hiseman, who wrote about the lost par-3 12th green at Sitwell Park in the January 2012 edition of ‘Golf Course Architecture’ magazine, he was shocked by the extent of the modification to this green that was made back in the 1920s:
“Many have wondered what became of the green, but few have made the trip to see; I did once, on a bitingly cold January day. I knew it had been modified, but not the extent. It was shocking to see what it had become, but it was still possible to see remnants of MacKenzie’s old contouring.”
Hisemen described a simple platform green at the top of the wooded hillside that had replaced MacKenzie’s undulating extravaganza.
Fortunately, MacKenzie appeared to heed the lessons of his eccentric Sitwell Park greens, as after the war, his greenmaking was much more subdued and controlled. Perhaps the five years of the Great War gave him a chance to reflect on such excess. His flirtation with the eccentric at Sitwell, and also at the nearby Renishaw course, was an important stage of his career, that was, fortunately for us, both quite well documented at the time, and quite short-lived.
The reverberations around the Sitwell Park greens are still being felt in golf architectural circles today. The photographs of the two Sitwell greens in MacKenzie’s 1920 book have long been the subject of fascination, and these inspired Mike Clayton, the American architect Tom Doak and his colleague Brian Schneider to build a wonderful homage with their undulating ‘Sitwell Park’ green on the 181-metre par three 13th hole at Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania. Dr MacKenzie would have a quiet chuckle to himself to learn that his Sitwell Park ideas were still influencing golf design some 100 years on.