Cypress Point

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Most golfers will accept that the Old Course at St. Andrew’s is not only the most famous golf course in the world but that it has a special status in the game. Its origins are lost in the past and many of the great names of the game have been associated with it in one capacity or other. It also has the good fortune to be situated in a golfing town and it undoubtedly played a major part in the latter  becoming a golfing town. It is a links course and some golfers do not like links golf, the weather on the coast of the Kingdom of Fife is not always clement and the course is relatively expensive. However given time, and perhaps some trouble, it is a course that is open for all to play. Most golfers will have their own favourite courses depending on their abilities, experiences and general tastes. For many if not most of the members of the Alister MacKenzie Society of Great Britain and Ireland it is likely that the courses designed by the master will tend to be fairly close to the top of their list of favourites if only because his characteristic touches are the ones that please.

It is debatable which of MacKenzie’s courses in North America is the most significant but inevitably the Augusta National course will be a serious candidate for this role. However the importance of Cypress Point is that being awarded the commission to design it presented MacKenzie with a remarkable opportunity to make his name in the country. Marion Hollins, a US Ladies Amateur Champion, was the leading sales person and promoter for Samuel Morse’s Del Monte Properties Company and she persuaded Morse that a private Club on the Monterey peninsular would balance the portfolio of his more accessible public resort courses  

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Plate 2. Bunkering on Cypress Point. (Photo by Haidee Llewellyn)

such as Pebble Beach. Seth Raynor, the protege of C.B.Macdonald was hired to design the new course but Raynor died unexpectedly in 1926 before construction could begin. Robert Hunter Jnr., from Hollins’s circle of polo-playing friends, suggested that she talk to Dr. MacKenzie who was a friend of his father’s.
MacKenzie and the elder Hunter surveyed the site and were enthralled with what they found, as MacKenzie wrote in the Club Prospectus,

It would be difficult to over-estimate the great possibilities of a golf course at Cypress Point ... there is an opportunity of making ... a golf course ... which should be superior to any other.

Before leaving on his historic design trip to Australia MacKenzie produced a routing plan quite different to that of drawn up by Raynor. On his return to California in the summer of 1927 he began work on the course. Robert Hunter Jnr’s American Golf Course Construction Company did the construction work and employed Jack Fleming, who had worked with MacKenzie on several of the latter’s projects in Britain and Ireland. Fleming’s son John, who became the  Superintendent of the Olympic Club in San Francisco years later, observed that while MacKenzie was the designer, his father was the construction man and Hunter was ‘The Suit’. Hunter’s role was to keep members and founders at bay and there is no doubt that MacKenzie would have appreciated this contribution as his relationships with clients were not always harmonious. While Hunter and Fleming 

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Plate 3. Sculptured Cypresses frame the hole. (Photo. by Haidee Llewellyn)

were of considerable importance in the construction of the course there is little doubt that Marion Hollins was MacKenzie’s most influential collaborator. Indeed it was Hollins who tested the viability of the carry over the ocean to what became the 16th green by teeing up a ball and driving it to the projected site. The design of the course was influenced by the landscape and not by convention as to where the different types of hole should be in the course of a round. Indeed not for the first time would MacKenzie abandon his own thirteen principles in favour of what he considered to be the most aesthetic configuration of the landscape.
MacKenzie’s ambition and imagination led to his plan to set the eighteenth tee on a rock in the ocean fifty yards beyond and to the right of the seventeenth green and the tee would be accessed by a suspension bridge constructed to his design. Alas the idea was discarded reluctantly over fears that it would soon be destroyed by ocean swells. The course was opened in 1928 and its overwhelming artistic success led to a number of contracts being awarded to MacKenzie including the Valley Club in Santa Barbara and Pasatiempo. Prior to the US Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach in 1929 H.Chandler Egan was asked to make some significant design changes to the course and it appears likely that his friend, and later partner, Dr Alister MacKenzie was responsible for the ‘new eighth green’ When Bobby Jones was beaten in the first round of the championship in 1929 he played Cypress Point and then visited Pasatiempo to play an opening exhibition round with Marion Hollins. Shortly afterwards Jones recruited MacKenzie to help in his project in Augusta, Georgia. No course remains unaltered over the years even one by such a celebrated architect as Alister MacKenzie. Robert Trent Jones made some revisions in 1966, as did his son in 1999, but fortunately the Club decided not to attempt to fight technology by adding new back tees but rather to celebrate the original design. The Course Superintendent, Jeff Marklow, played his part in this decision in the early years of this century by reviving MacKenzie’s unique bunkering by using old photographs of the course.

The Cypress Point course measures 6,524 yards and, as such, is an ideal length for
the average Club golfer although it has long been left behind by both the professional and the leading amateur games. Marion Hollins always intended that the Club should be a private one with a restricted membership and that aim seems to have been achieved. The late Bob Hope, who had been a member of the Club for over forty years, observed,

one year they had a big membership drive at Cypress. They drove out forty members

While the word iconic is in danger of being overused there is no doubt that it is a word that is very appropriate to Cypress Point. It is all the more regrettable therefore that somewhere so important in golf, particularly to MacKenzie enthusiasts, should be so exclusive that it is unwilling even to acknowledge the receipt of a letter. You can, after all, pay a green fee at St. Andrew’s, play the course and take your photographs from inside the property.

Further reading:-

Doak, Scott and Haddock, The life and work of Dr. Alister MacKenzie, Chelsea MI, 2001.

Lord and Pugh, Masters of Design, London 2009.

Golf Digest, 4 January 2017

Note. Both books carry photographs of the course past and present but the most colourful appear in the magazine article. 

                                                                Robert F Fletcher     Feb. 2018.