Alwoodley: MacKenzie masterpiece a place of loyalty and sanctuary

Alwoodley Golf Club is a place where loyalty is par for the course. 

Ever since the great Dr Alister MacKenzie – the man who would go on to design Augusta National – became a founder member here in 1907, there has been a sense that devotion has been sewn into the springy fairways and perfect greens at this Leeds golf club. 

Not only is that the case out on this truly wonderful Yorkshire golf course, where the club has gone to great lengths to retain the hallmarks of strategy, variety and natural beauty that were cornerstones of Mackenzie’s design. But it’s also the case among the people working here.

On the day we visit, secretary Julie Slater stops to say hello just as she is showing her successor around after 25 years at the club. She is not leaving –  no-one really leaves – only changing roles. In the pro shop, where we receive a warm welcome, John Green has been head professional of Alwoodley for 31 years. It’s a story replicated throughout the club.

There’s a sense among them all that, once you’re here, why go anywhere else? “Long before the Covid-19 bubble, there was the Alwoodley bubble,” says Julie.

The 18th at Alwoodley Golf Club

“We are in a busy city but once you are through the gates, all that disappears. You feel like you are transported to a more peaceful place. That makes Alwoodley a unique experience for members and visitors alike. There’s a stillness to it. It’s something we all feel here.”

Alwoodley doesn’t need to shout loudly about anything. This golf club exudes a quiet confidence in everything it does, safe in the knowledge that it’s home to a truly majestic inland course – undoubtedly one of England’s best. And as you pull in past the imposing clubhouse you feel delightfully cut off. The pace slows, as does the pulse. No-one rushes, no-one needs to. 

Much of that may stem from the people who work here. Happy people, lots of them. There is a togetherness about Alwoodley which is noticeable in the warmth of everyone you cross paths with. 

“The staff almost feel like family and that is partly because so many of us have been here for so long,” Julie adds. “We really are a team. You leave your family at home. And come here to your Alwoodley family.

A view across the par 5 3rd hole at Alwoodley

“Before Covid we held regular staff barbecues out by the course. It was a way of everyone understanding what each other does and doing it on the course meant those who weren’t always able to get out there could see what we were doing, the small changes we were making and ultimately the reason we are all here. That has bred an attitude where everyone is prepared to turn their hand to everything.”

Dr Alister MacKenzie

John in the pro shop is a case in point. He’s open and friendly, not just to us but to every visitor who appears at the door of his shop. The course record here at Alwoodley has been broken twice in recent years. It was lowered to 64 by Walker Cup player Stiggy Hodgson in Open qualifying and then to 63 by Harry Hall en route to second place at the 2019 Brabazon Trophy. What about John’s best round over the past 31 years?

“I’ve shot 64 twice,” he says with a smile. “The first time was with a lady playing her very first round of golf. She must have wondered why I was paying so much attention to every shot as we got further and further into the round,” he says with a chuckle. 

It’s a sunny day and I’ve forgotten my trusty cap. John patiently helps me pick one out. And then another. None fit my frankly enormous bonce. John explains that each one I try will need to go into Covid quarantine for a week. I call it quits, partly because I feel a bit guilty that hats will get lonely in quarantine, but partly because no hat here is going to fit, no matter how hard I try.

Despite the cap tomfoolery there is no sense that this pro shop is only for those ‘in the club’, it is simply a nice place to be. As is the sprawling practice ground, which is the kind of place you dream of spending a summer’s day getting better. 

And what of the course? Well, this is the place where Mackenzie first turned his hand to course design, having been both secretary and captain here. For all my talk of loyalty here, perhaps it’s ironic that it turned out there would be no lifelong relationship between Alwoodley and Mackenzie. He left the club under a cloud in 1930, having been told he was no longer welcome following the breakdown of his marriage to Edith, who served as the ladies’ honorary secretary from 1914 to 1936.

The 16th tee at Alwoodley

Alwoodley’s loyalty was afforded to her, while Mackenzie boarded the boat to America in 1930 with his second wife, Hilda. He would go on to design 99 more golf courses during his life, in the UK, US and Australia. Three of them, Augusta, of course, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne, are in the world’s top 10 golf courses. 

Alwoodley though, is the original. And the course has clues all through it of what was to come from Mackenzie. The par-5 10th here is the blueprint for the iconic 13th at Augusta, for instance. But this is not a course in need of a signature hole. It doesn’t need to try that hard. The fairways are framed by vivid purple heather and relentless heathland which runs for miles. It doesn’t have a bad hole. There are no weak links, it’s consistently excellent, never dipping below that to simply good. 

Red kites soar overhead and roe deer are regularly spotted running across the fairways. If you haven’t heard of Alwoodley, then those who have are probably happy for it to stay that way. Those in the know may not thank me for saying it, but this is a golf course that should be high on your must-play list. The golf course is, of course, the centrepiece. But in truth, Alwoodley has it all. 

As you walk off the magnificent par-4 18th and take it all in with a cold drink on the sprawling terrace overlooking the first tee and 18th green, it isn’t hard to understand where that deep-seated sense of loyalty to Alwoodley comes from. We were feeling it after 18 holes, never mind 18 years.