Jockey Club Golf (Cancha Colorada)
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Of all the countries in South America, Argentina enjoys the richest golfing history. Before the turn of the nineteenth century, Brits came to Argentina to help develop the infra-structure of the country such as train lines. As far away as four hundred kilometers from Buenos Aires, class golf courses like Mar del Plata were being built pre-1900. To this day at Mar de Plata, the golfers contend with canted, non-irrigated fairways and deep, sleeper-lined bunkers. Suffice to say, the spirit of golf has been alive and well in Argentina for over a century.
The Jockey Club itself was founded in 1882 (!). At the time, golf was not included but horses were and the Club set the tone for equestrian activities across Argentina. Already the social center for high society in Argentina, the Club decided to add golf to its offering. Over 315 hectares (approximately 785 acres) were acquired in 1925 on what was then the outskirts of Buenos Aires (today the sprawling city of twelve million now engulfs the perimeter of the property).
The Club had the great sense to contact Alister Mackenzie in the late 1920s to see what interest he had in designing two equal eighteen hole courses. Mackenzie at the time was living in California and had already designed three of his four original masterpieces: Cypress Point, Crystal Downs and Royal Melbourne (Augusta National would follow several years later).
With North America in the grips of the Great Depression, Mackenzie had nothing to keep him there and delightedly made his way by boat to Buenos Aires. Once there, there was no rush to return and consequently, both courses at The Jockey Club are the beneficiaries of his full attention.
The property at San Isidro was dead flat. How would Mackenzie handle such a site? After all, here was a man accustomed to working with such feature rich sites as Lahinch and Pasatiempo.
Along with Bob Jones, Mackenzie may be considered the The Old Course at St. Andrews’ greatest admirer. At some point early on, Mackenzie made a connection between the wide expanse of short grass at St. Andrews and the potential for a wide expanse of short grass at San Isidro. In regards to the construction of the Cancha Colorada (Red Course) and the Cancha Azul (Blue Course), Mackenzie writes in The Spirit of St. Andrews:
We made the ground extremely undulating by constructing a series of irregular swales radiating to the lowest point, and these swales gave us the following advantages: they cheapened and facilitated the drainage. They gave us plenty of soil for making greens and creating undulating ground, and above all, they gave the place a natural appearance that the undulations appear to have been created by the effects of wind and water thousands of years ago. The course has a greater resemblance not only in appearance but in the character of its golf to the Old Course at St. Andrews than any inland course I know.
Assisting Mackenzie during construction was Luther H. Koontz, an engineer specializing in drainage and irrigation. Koontz stayed behind in South America and went on to build the nearby Olivos Golf Club, another class Argentine course made famous by hosting big events.
Mackenzie was justly proud of the random humps and bumps and swales and hollows that they created. He continues on in The Spirit of St. Andrews:
When we had completed the contouring of this course, which incidentally was done in twenty-one days, the captain of the club, a very able man and a student of golf architecture, asked me what I was going to do about the bunkering. I replied ‘The undulations have created such a varied, interesting and pleasurable test of golf that we do not require a single bunker; nevertheless, for the sake of appearance and for the purpose of creating more spectacular thrills we will give you a few bunkers.
The challenge of St. Andrews for the better player lies in its short grass even more so than the numerous bunkers randomly scattered across its holes. In recent Opens at St. Andrews, Tiger Woods and Nick Faldo managed their way around the course by getting into only one bunker between them over 144 holes. The persistent challenge at St. Andrews is negotiating the humps and bumps when the course is running fast and firm. One almost senses from MacKenzie’s comment above that he would have left the course, or at least one of the courses, without a single bunker, so convinced was he of the merit of the undulations that they had created.
By undulations, this includes the green complexes themselves, which are astonishingly diverse. The greens range from famous ones featuring the pronounced mounds (e.g. the thirteenth and sixteenth) to ones that seamlessly rise up from the fairway with fall offs over (e.g. the sixth and fourteenth) to others that hug the ground and appear as mere extensions of the fairway (e.g. the eighth and ninth). This variety of green complexes allows the golfer to play all sorts of approach shots, a most desirable attribute.
The expansive, links-like feel that The Red Course once enjoyed has been altered as many hardwood and pines have been planted since Mackenzie’s day. They are generally out of play and do provide a handsome backdrop for one’s game. Nonetheless, they define the broad playing corridors, something not found at The Old Course.
Holes to Note
First hole, 425 yards; Creating contours that appear based in nature is one of the hardest challenges that architects face in the field. Mackenzie took obvious pride in how they turned a flat site with less than three feet of elevation change into a site with both better golf qualities as well as visual appeal. One gains the greatest appreciation of the work carried out by Mackenzie and Koontz on some of the longer holes, such as here and the three shot fifteenth.The early morning frost highlights the ground contours created by Mackenzie and Koontz.
Second hole, 350 yards; One of the great pleasures in playing a Mackenzie course is getting to see and study his sub-400 yard holes. Mackenzie’s design mantra was all about variety and creating pleasurable excitement; it was not about beating the golfer senseless. His superlative short two shotters go a long way in differentiating his courses from all other architects.
Third hole, 150 yards; Good players tend to gauge the distance correctly many more times than not. When they miss, it is directionally, either to the left or right. Appreciating this fact, Mackenzie built the two shortest one shotters on the course (here and the seventeenth) with long narrow greens. There are many ways to bogey this hole, regardless of one’s talent. Even the best struggle mightily to get the ball up and down from the sides of these holes.
Seventh hole, 425 yards; The green makes this straight hole the hardest two shotter on the front. Born in Scotland, Mackenzie studied the famous links holes in the United Kingdom. One of their more unusual attributes is the severity of the green complexes on some of the longest two shot holes. Famous examples outside of St. Andrews include Sea Hedrig at Prestwick and the third at Brancaster. Mackenzie employed the concept of a frightening green to punctuate some of his all time best long two shotters, including the sixth on the West Course at Royal Melbourne and the thirteenth at Crystal Downs. Here too, the green makes very exacting requirements on the golfer, though of course Mackenzie left the right open for a running approach shot.
Tenth hole, 470 yards; Famous the world over, this half par hole has infuriated great golfers for over seventy-five years. Certainly given the advances in technology today, this hole is within reach with two blows. However, the oblique angle of the green to the fairway combined with a deep bunker along the right of the green creates maddening angles of play, in some ways the mirror image to the Road Hole green and bunker at St. Andrews. The hole location changes the day’s playing average of this hole by nearly a full stroke. Place it back right behind the deep bunker and many 5’s are carded. Place it in a more accessible location and 3’s can be had. Mackenzie defends par at the green as well as any architect in the history of the game and this is a sterling example of his talent at doing so.