Feature Interview with Todd Rohrer
1. When was the golf bag invented? Glasgow Green from 1851 shows people carrying clubs in their hands.
I am aware that Richard MacKenzie, in his book A Wee Nip at the 19th Hole, noted Dr. Trails Canvas Container appearing at St Andrews in 1890. The very nature of golf is one of uncertainty, and I like to imagine that the development of the first bag was just as organic as the development of some of those highly specific clubs that were created in the early Open era. All of the sudden there were too many “necessary” golf clubs, and the crook of an elbow just didn’t suffice.
There is a case to be made that golf has, from its inception, been the subject of unnecessary “improvements,” under the guise of making the game easier by making us all “better” at it. But I’m not sure that’s why we play. Heck, if we were still playing at golf with 5 or 7 clubs on interesting golf courses that were easy to walk we still might not need a bag to carry our clubs. A few sticks in the crook of our elbow, a few balls in our pocket… what else do we need to make the pursuit of pleasure through golf attainable? Maybe only some good company, and an interesting field on which to play.
2. When was the first stand created? Indeed, where are you in creating stands for your bags?
There was a bag with an automatic stand patented as early as 1893, again, only three years after the earliest documented golf bag. Certainly before that someone had fashioned 2 sticks into an “X” and used them as a method of elevating the mouth of the bag. I have to imagine that too many clubs started making bags heavier, and the ground started moving farther away… and someone said, “wouldn’t it be easier if the clubs weren’t so far away? My solution would have been to stop the arms race…! That’s golf for you, though. We spend an awful lot of time and effort on things that purportedly make the game easier, and yet I’m unaware of an easier game actually being the golfers’ goal.
As for us, the MacKenzie mantra has always been simple, beautiful, useful. Although many of our customers disdain stands, we have always felt that if legs could be added to a MacKenzie without making our golf bag less aesthetically pleasing we would consider it. We have an elegant MacKenzie leg solution engineered; we have to determine whether it makes enough sense to pursue.
3. Tell us the origins of the MacKenzie Walker. It dates back to 1985.
Peter Jacobsen, a professional golfer from Portland, and now a commentator on NBC — and a really nice guy — spent a week in St Andrews on the Old Course. He and his brother arrived with, shall we say, larger than necessary bags. Their caddie for the week was a young lad called Rick MacKenzie, and he promptly selected 7 or 8 clubs from each of his player’s large bags and put them in simple, weathered leather pencil bags. Rick carried double for the Americans all week, and fun ensued. On the plane ride back to Portland, Peter started sketching the idea for the first MacKenzie Walker, and upon their arrival, began researching how to have a simple leather golf bag crafted in his hometown. The result was the first iteration of the MacKenzie Walker. Its purpose was to carry a bunch of balls and some clubs, beautifully. Over the years, the changes that have been made to the bags are minor, and in my 9 years of involvement we have strived for nothing more than refinement.
4. I bought my first MacKenzie in ~1987. I am now 28 years older, knees creakier, back wobblier. What does your company do to help me still enjoy carrying?
Well, your lowest score is probably in your past, so we build a beautiful carry bag which will enhance your enjoyment of what really matters: the walk. And a MacKenzie contributes to your enjoyment of the sensory nature of the game. We’ve long believed that if golfers really played for all the reasons the industry tries to sell us on, we’d have all given up the game ages ago. For all of the promises that are made about how this or that latest and greatest development is going to make us happier by providing us with lower scores, well, scores for the vast majority of golfers haven’t come down. And yet we still play.
We’ve all experienced the fleeting “success” of new clubs or a new swing thought, but what doesn’t leave us is the pleasure we derive from a great walk, great company, an interesting layout; the smells and sounds and the visual stimulation of golf and golf courses. And golfers always use the word “feel.” Well, to add to that aspect, a Mackenzie Walker feels great. Finally, the minimalist nature of a MacKenzie reminds you to take with you only what you really need, and those creaky knees will appreciate that you’ve opted to carry fewer clubs, fewer balls, and kept the one or two pockets on your golf bag relatively empty.
5. Break down the weight of a typical bag (i.e. the bag itself, clubs (both as a full 14 club set and as a 9 club set, balls and other miscellaneous).
Round a golf club to 1 pound and balls to 1.5 ounces (OK, it’s 1.62, but remember, we think all the chatter about weight is overblown…) The bag is 3 to 5 pounds. So if you carry a 4.5 lb MacKenzie with 9 lbs of clubs and 6 balls, 1 or 2 headcovers, and a pouch in the pocket that has your favorite pitch-mark repair tool, lucky ball markers, a few incidentals and your wallet, there’s no reason that you can’t have a great round carrying 16 lbs. Make it a full set and 20 lbs is still easily achievable.
6. How much more weight does leather contribute to a bag than waxed canvas?
Waxed canvas Mackenzies are 8 to 12 ounces lighter, if they’re empty… The waxed canvas is pretty cool stuff — the original outdoor waterproof fabric in the eyes of many. We use two sources, one in the States, and one in England. Both companies have been fabric finishers since the 1800’s. I’d love to know who made the canvas for Dr. Trails Canvas Container!
7. What is the greatest misconception(s) about leather?
People assume that leather is naturally heavy — and it can be, if you’re talking about the kind of leather from which saddles or boots are made. Or if you remember the big heavy staff bags of yesteryear. There is, of course, lightweight leather. MacKenzie Walkers are made from “full grain” leather in an upholstery weight — around a millimeter thick. So empty, a leather MacKenzie weighs around 4.5 pounds. But the greatest misconception is probably that water is really bad for leather. Leather gets wet, and then it dries. An occasional treatment with a natural leather conditioner will replenish most ill effects. Beyond that, sunlight will certainly fade the pigment added to leather in the tanning process, but often that just adds to the beauty and appeal of fine leather goods.
8. What’s the greatest mistake walkers make? Overstuffing their bag?
The greatest mistake walking golfers make is the same mistake we all are in danger of making: not knowing why we play golf, and measuring our success and our enjoyment against things that others have told us are important. This adds all sorts of baggage — in our heads, and in our golf bags! So I guess, yes, overstuffing their bags can be an issue. But if the goal is to have fun, and enjoy the walk and the game, it’s pretty easy to keep your head and your golf bag light!
9. How long have you been playing with a ‘reduced’ set of 7 or 8 clubs? What have been the benefits?
Geez, it’s been 4 or 5 years now. For me, the main benefit of a reduced set is fun, and the pleasure derived from the occasional successful attempt at creativity. It’s truly one of the reasons I feel so fortunate to have been part of this little company. See, I’ve spoken with lots of golfer/customers over the years, and rarely do they describe their most memorable shot as “a stock 7-iron from the middle of the fairway; pured it at the flag… almost went in on the way past, spun back and almost went in again. Had a 3-footer for birdie.” Nope.
It’s usually, “It was #8 on Pacific Dunes. I was down the left side, only about 90 yards to the hole, but the wind was howling from behind, and that pot bunker was directly on my line to the hole. I couldn’t carry the bunker and stop it, and the same bunker kept me from running it up there anywhere close. I could hear Doak and Urbina snickering… Well, I hooded a 7-iron and punched it under the wind and about 5 yards to the right of the bunker. It raced past, ran all the way up the slope behind the green, and then drifted down onto the green and actually lipped out!”
It’s so fun to hear those stories that I usually forget to ask, “Didja make the putt?”
10. Golf is a walking sport. Where are some of your favorite courses/clubs were walking remains sacrosanct?
To us in Oregon, what Mike Keiser and his team have created at Bandon Dunes is hard to top. I’m a native Oregonian, and have never lived much more than an hour from the Pacific Ocean. When you lay out links golf on cliffs along the Pacific, on special ground — ground that has had a spiritual draw to residents of the area for hundreds and hundreds of years … well, take me to church!
Bandon is one of the most important things that has happened in American golf in quite a while. It is reminding thousands of golfers that golf is a walking game, and that fine architecture naturally contributes to the enjoyment of golf. The emphasis placed on taking caddies, and especially the number of caddies they employ from area high schools, sets an example that should be emulated.
There are quite a few private, walking-only clubs in America, but… they’re private! The vast majority of American golfers aren’t aware of them, much less able to access them. One of the greatest contributions any of our private clubs can make to the game is to continue to introduce young people to golf through the opportunity to work as caddies. It can be challenging, but the rewards and payback are all around us. Caddie programs where kids can caddie are simply one of the greatest contributions that golf can make to the community.
I would love to see all of our state associations taking a cue from what has been created at CommonGround GC in Denver. The Solich Caddie Academy is another of the amazing contributions that golf can make to the community. But off my soapbox and back to your question. I think National Golf Links is a wonderful walk, and ridiculously fun golf, and I love the importance that Merion ascribes to walking and the use of caddies.
11. Walking isn’t much fun if the green to tee walks are lengthy, yet little attention is paid to this important aspect of golf course design. The enjoyment of walking is also diminished when you can’t progress down a hole (i.e. you tee off, are forced to dart into the woods and pop out already 150-175 yards down the hole). What courses have you seen in the past twelve months whereby the tee to fairway walk is well done?
Either of these can be enough to detract from the pleasure of the walk, in my opinion. Sometimes you’ll see a spectacular solution to an unavoidably difficult green to tee walk that will add to the experience. 15 to 16 at Friar’s Head comes to mind… But usually it’s just a trudge, and detracts from the pleasure. And leaving the hole after your tee shot is frustrating. It takes you out of the rhythm of the walk, and the game.
Gil Hanse’s restoration at Waverley in Portland is terrific fun, and the holes flow one to the next easily. I love the walk at Pacific Dunes. Even if the next tee box isn’t right next to the green, the walk to it is interesting and takes advantage of the vistas. Kyle Phillips’ work at Cal Club has enhanced that walk, and Meadow Club is just a wonderful routing. And over on the northern Oregon coast is Gearhart, which still hearkens back to how you would lay out a simple, fun course when walking was the only consideration.
My very favorite just may be the Sheep Ranch, though…
12. Did you ride in a cart this year?
I don’t want to sound too strident on this subject, because everyone has their own reasons for playing golf, and it should be a welcoming game, but I can’t remember the last time I rode in a cart. It just detracts too much from my reasons for playing.
13. Apart from the visual aspect of paved cart paths marring nature, what else about riding detracts from the game?
Well, riding detracts from most of the reasons I play golf. If you’ll indulge me for a minute, let’s face it: Golf is a simple game, but it’s elusive in its simplicity. I’m stealing from Fred Shoemaker and “Extraordinary Golf” here, but without discounting the fact that low scores are the “goal” of our game, the “purpose” of golf, and why we play, is up to each of us. You can’t say that about many games. I’m paraphrasing, but Shoemaker wrote “play a game that you want to play; seek joy and satisfaction and play with freedom. Enjoy the beauty and the people, and be grateful that you even get to play!”
We hear over and over from our customers that they want to get back to the simplicity of the game; how they’ve devoted themselves to walking whenever they can; how the most important things to them are the camaraderie, the challenge, the time they spend with family… really, the walk itself. To me, walking a golf course enhances the sights, sounds, & smells that surround you while you golf. I love the feel of the turf and sand beneath my feet. The laughter and conversation that occurs when a four-ball is walking together is more pleasant to me than a 2 by 2 parade in a buggy.
I think there is a rhythm to the game that only walking exposes, and I have always thought that great architecture is absorbed more thoroughly when the course is walked; you just experience more of the design on foot, and engage the architect on a different level than in a gps-enabled cart.
Here’s the takeaway for me: I’m convinced that golf is so appealing because it is among the richest sensory experiences we allow ourselves. I believe that is why we play, and for me, carts eliminate an awful lot of the sensory experience. The laughter and conversation that occurs when a four-ball is walking together is more pleasant to me than a 2 by 2 parade in a buggy.
After all, Ran, a golf swing takes less than 2 seconds. Take 80 or 100 of them and you’ve used up a couple of minutes. Add a “pre-shot routine” and you might spend 45 minutes actually thinking about and making your swings. We’re on the golf course for 3 or 4 hours … Maybe, just maybe, some of the most important things golf gives us actually happen between the shots.
I think there is a rhythm to the game that only walking exposes…
14. Is there any great golf experience that requires riding?
Well, two come immediately to mind, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit to being fortunate enough to have experienced both. It may be dodging the intent of the question, but I would say Sand Hills and Doak’s work at Dismal River.
15. I’ve seen both, and found both very stroll friendly! Do you disagree?
Oh no, not at all. In fact I think they are both spectacular walks, and have never played either in a buggy. But I really think that the trip from the respective clubhouses to the first tee justifies using a cart …
16. I understand your point. Moving on, MacKenzie bags are straightforward and simple, featuring either one or two pockets. What are some features that other manufacturers offer that you think is overkill?
In essence, most of what isn’t a sack on a sling in unnecessary, but I don’t know if I want to call it overkill! It’s only a game, after all, and if a golfer thinks they will benefit from an insulated water bottle pocket and a rangefinder and brush tees and a mesh ball-holder and an external putter sleeve… Wait, the external putter sleeve is overkill. Just too silly. In business we’re always talking about features and benefits. We’ve long believed that a MacKenzie already has all the features you really need to effectively carry your sticks and some balls, and enjoy your round of golf. (Which is the benefit!)
17. When do you recommend a 7″ MacKenzie Sunday Bag versus a 8″ MacKenzie Walker? When do you recommend waxed canvas over leather?
It shouldn’t surprise me anymore how many of our customers have both an Original MacKenzie Walker and a Sunday Walker. Typically, after getting to know a customer a bit we learn that they are already “minimizing” and have played with fewer than 14 clubs, are more interested in the walk and the architecture than their score, and will be perfectly served by a 7” Sunday Walker.
To be practical, and prepared, and to be certain to have enough room for their waterproofs, or a sweater, most of our customers buy the 8” 2-pocket MacKenzie first. Then, when they decide it’s time for another MacKenzie (guaranteed to add to your enjoyment longer than a new driver) many of them opt for the smaller Sunday bag. Because let’s face it, you need somewhere to put that second set of clubs!
18. Everywhere I go, people complement whichever MacKenzie I am using, invariably followed by, ‘How long did it take?’ Timely fulfillment of orders was never your strong suit – admit it! Happily, you acquired a new partner at the start of this year. How has that helped?
It’s been quite a ride from the day in 2006 when we revived MacKenzie with one stitcher and a cell phone, to where we are today. We kept growing, but by 2014 we had worked our butts off only to earn a reputation for delivering a beautiful product — too slowly! But now we have a great partner who brings years of additional business experience to us, and for the first time we are adequately capitalized. We have invested substantially in equipment and material, and have moved to a new workshop that is more than double the size of our old one. We can once again deliver not just a beautiful product, but a beautiful product in a timely manner. We are fulfilling golf bag orders in four weeks or less — even more quickly on smaller items like leather headcovers, valuables pouches, and wine carriers. We are grateful to have a loyal, repeat customer base and I am thrilled to say they now receive the service they always have deserved.