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Royal Dornoch

‘I went to Dornoch and suddenly realised what golf was all about’

Architect Tom Mackenzie talks Chris Bertram through his fascinating career
 

Tom Mackenzie is one half of the feted Mackenzie & Ebert firm that advises the R&A on most of its Open courses. We met him to hear about his life in golf…

What are your first memories of the game?

I grew up in the country and went to visit a primary school friend whose parents were farmers.

We went for a walk in the fields and crossed a ridge and, on the other side, there were diggers and dumpers and tractors.

They were building a golf course and this was the course where I first started to play six or seven years later.

Was there a big influence on you playing golf in your early years and where did you play most of your childhood golf?

That course was called Gleddoch House, overlooking the Firth of Clyde and the golf professionals were a huge influence on me.

I caddied for them, played with them and was taught by them. I am still in touch with one them, Albert MacKenzie who is now the pro at Saunton and was last year’s triumphant PGA Cup captain, so we have come a long way in 35 years.

Abaco

Was there a course or even an incident in your childhood-into-teenage years playing golf that left an impression on you?

Without a doubt. My father had been in poor health and decided that he was going to take early retirement.

My parents were threatening to go to Isle of Tiree, a remote speck off the west of Scotland, but my brother and I encouraged them to look north of Inverness, knowing full well that there was a great course at Royal Dornoch.

We only knew that because it was in our much-thumbed copy of the World Atlas of Golf. My father and I drove there from Glasgow, close to seven hours in those days – he went exploring and I went golfing.

I suddenly realised what golf was all about. My parents bought the first house that they saw because they loved the area so much and stayed there for 30 years.

What made you decide you wanted to be an architect and how did you go about it?

A bit like the MPs and Brexit, I was very clear what careers I did not want but much hazier about what I did want. I had always loved all things to do with landscapes and my brother suggested something connected to that.

Out came the Yellow Pages (that sounds so antiquated now – that is Google in old money for the younger readers) and the first entry under ‘Landscape’ was Landscape Architect.

I went to see one after school one day and knew that that was what I wanted to do and the icing on the cake would be if golf could be included with that.

I was 16 when that happened and I now realise just how lucky I was to discover that then. I went from loathing school to loving every second of my degree in Landscape Architecture.

Craigielaw

What was your first entry to the industry?

There was a graduate from my LA course who was working for a practice in Rugby and I got a summer job there – although, at that point, it was breaking up.

Has there been one lucky break that really boosted your career in the early days?

When working there, one of the partners was Donald Steel. I did not meet him that summer, but we spoke almost every day. Soon after, he left and set up his own practice.

I went to work in the USA for a year then came back to complete my honours year and we kept in touch. Before I had graduated, he offered me a job and I worked for him for 16 years.

Do you look back in horror at some fledging work you did, or actually are you quite satisfied with your early days?

I always judge myself harshly. The flaws become exaggerated enormously and when I go to see the ones that worry me I am usually faintly relieved.

The early days were exceptionally busy and I was inexperienced, so it was hard to provide the attention to detail which we now give every project.

Trevose

I cannot believe that there is a designer of any type who doesn’t look at earlier work and think that they are 100 per cent happy with their work. If there are then don’t appoint them because their ego is enormous.

The short answer is that there are a few where I wish I had had more time to think before starting on site and the results reflect that.

What is the one piece of design work you’d still like to do?

It would be wonderful to do a project on a lovely sandy site for an enthusiastic (wealthy) client without planning constraints.

It would be a chance to show what I can do without having to explain the compromises required to even get the project to start.

Golf enthusiasts are so passionate about their game, but I don’t think they realise how often we have our legs tied together and one arm behind our backs before we can design a course. The same applies to re-designs too.

Royal Dornoch

Is there a project you were close to getting and just missed out on that you still lament?

I have been lucky to see some stunning sites that would be perfect for golf. They were generally associated with resort developments and the sums involved to build them are so huge that the economics did not stack up and they do not start.

One that springs to mind, perhaps because of what is happening there right now, is in Mozambique where I saw a beautiful site scattered with baobab trees.

I had a wonderful trip there three or four years ago and it is just awful the damage that the storm did there. They were only just recovering from the civil war that had held the country back so much.

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery and do you ever spot little things you’ve done on courses elsewhere – perhaps even within architects in your own firm?

Everybody is influenced by each other, I believe. We also learn by looking at what others do and deciding whether a feature or construction method may improve what we do.

In the UK, there is a limited pool of contractors and they all leave their stamp on projects, so there is a little cross-fertilisation between projects from that.

Liphook

How do you deal with criticism of your work?

Badly. It is like someone telling you that they do not like your one of your children because they were poorly brought up.

Do you still love golf and do you still play golf regularly?

I am a golf nut still but a raging snob at the same time. I was out of the game for a couple of years recently and I missed the thrill of having a close game or a good score going so much.

I wondered whether I would ever play like that again and was on the verge of taking up archery for that fix. Thankfully, I have found a way to play again and am back out as often as I can – a couple of times a month perhaps.

Chris Bertram

Chris Bertram is a specialist in all things golf courses.
He was born and brought up in Dumfriesshire and has been a sports journalist since 1996, initially as a junior writer with National Club Golfer magazine.
Chris then spent four years writing about football and rugby union for the Press Association but returned to be Editor and then Publisher of NCG.
He has been freelance since 2010 and spends the majority of his time playing golf and writing about the world’s finest golf courses.

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