Why is it that famed golf course architect Donald J. Ross’ courses continue to both enchant, challenge, and befuddle golfers of all levels today 63 years after his rather unceremonious death? It could be he left a catalog of 412 courses in the USA, Canada, and even Cuba and remains among the most popular and emulated designers the game of golf was blessed to have. Often imitated but never duplicated, Donald J. Ross layouts are considered by many to be the benchmark of golf course design from the so-called ‘Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture.’
Donald J. Ross was born in Dornoch, Scotland but spent most of his adult life in the United States. Ross served an apprenticeship with Old Tom Morrisin St Andrews before investing his life savings in a trip to the U.S. in 1899 at the suggestion of Harvard professor, Robert Wilson, who found him his first job in the America at Oakley Country Club in Watertown, Massachusetts.
In 1900 he was appointed as the golf professional at the Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, where he began his course design career and eventually designed four courses there most importantly Number 2 for which he is best remembered. He had a moderately successful playing career, winning three North and South Opens (1903, 1905, 1906), two Massachusetts Opens (1905, 1911), and finished fifth in the 1903 U.S. Open and eighth in the 1910 Open Championship.
He later gave up playing and teaching altogether to concentrate on course design running a substantial practice with several assistants in Pinehurst and a summer office in Little Compton, Rhode Island. Ross’ most widely known design is the aforementioned Pinehurst No. 2, as well as courses like Seminole in Juno Beach, Florida, Oak Hill in Rochester , New York, Michigan’s Oakland Hills, and East Lake Country Club in Atlanta.
Closer to home here in New England, Ross’ imprimatur is seen on 90 courses he constructed or re-designed during his career including 49 courses in Massachusetts alone. Among his best and most revered courses are Salem CC in Peabody, Mass., Worcester CC, Brae Burn CC in Newtonville, Wannamoisett in Providence, and Wentworth-by-the-Sea in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
New England members of Ross courses being the chauvinistic lot they are might take exception to any “best” or “most revered” list when it comes to Mr. Ross. So be it. Opinions are like noses – everybody has one. What is certain, however, is that the United States Golf Association thinks highly enough of Ross to have conducted no less than 30 Championships at his New England designs over the years. Surly that stands as a testament and tribute to his greatness as a course architect. [See Table]
Ross often created challenging courses moving very little earth, as he observed the lines of nature are never straight. According to Jack Nicklaus, “his stamp as an architect was naturalness.” His widely known trademark is the crowned or “turtleback” green, most famously experienced on Pinehurst No. 2, though golf architecture writer Ron Whitten argued in Golf Digest in 2005 that the effect had become exaggerated compared to Ross’s intention because greenkeeping practices at Pinehurst had raised the centre of the greens. No matter. Anyone fortunate to putt on Rossian greens and experience the simultaneous feeling of sheer frustration and elation they bring realizes their true genius. One of the game’s greatest putters, Ben Crenshaw, said Wannamoisett has “fascinating greens.” He should know as a past champion at the prestigious Northeast Amateur which has been contested there for more than 50 years.
Ross frequently fashioned holes which invited run-up shots but had severe trouble at the back of the green, typically in the form of fallaway slopes. In the 1930s he revolutionized greenskeeping practices in the southern United States when he oversaw the transition of the putting surfaces at Pinehurst No. 2 from oiled sand to Bermuda grass.
Ross was a founding member and first president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, which was formed at Pinehurst in 1947. He was admitted to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1977, a rare honor seldom awarded to anyone other than golfers (mostly PGA Touring professionals) who meet stringent HOF criteria.
Donald Ross is most closely compared to two other leading architects of the early 20th century, Alister MacKenzie and A.W. Tillinghast. Some proffer that Ross’s work does not consistently carry the same standard of quality as Mackenzie and Tillinghast. Evidence supporting this argument includes the fact that a much higher percentage of Ross’s courses have been altered, redesigned, or destroyed than either Mackenzie or Tillinghast. Ross is unmatched in the quantity of courses he completed, however.
It must be stated, though, that much of the ‘blame’ for that criticism lies with the myopia of self-appointed green committees at Rossian clubs where they thought they knew better than Mr. Ross and set about to “improve” and “modernize” his work over the years. With the improvements to equipment over time, for example, it was believed that fairway bunkers became obsolete and no longer in play, for instance. What was not taken into account in some cases was the stunning visual effect these bunkers created. In recent years on the other hand, the recent resurgence in faithful restoration to Ross’ original plans at many of these same courses demonstrates why enlightened members at clubs today want their
Ross layouts returned to their original glory albeit with modern updated improvements. Nevertheless, New England – Massachusetts in particular – is blessed with a plethora of great Ross designs both municipal, resort, and private. Ross died in April 1948 while completing his final design at Raleigh Country Club in North Carolina. In future issues of NEGM, we’ll take an in-depth look at some Donald Ross courses of note especially ones that have hosted USGA and prestigious amateur championships. If you are a member of a Ross course – or play on a regular basis – we’d like to hear from you with your thoughts about your course. Tell us your opinion of Mr. Ross and your club.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” erefore, if Donald Ross was indeed great, it figures that his work might be misunderstood as well. What do you think? Let us know. Barry J. Palm is a writer and communications consultant in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. He is the founder of the Donald Ross Society and was its past president from 1988 to 1998. He also consults with golf industry clients on public relations and marketing strategies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.bjpalm.com.