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Donald Ross: A Golden Age great

A profile of golf course architect Donald Ross

by

Donald Ross, a giant of the golden age of golf architecture, is the most prolific architect of all time with over 400 golf course designs to his name. Ross was the first “professional” golf course architect in America as he was able to build a successful and efficient business. He has more top-100 courses than any other architect and over 100 major championships and USGA events have been hosted at his courses, far and away the most of any architect. Ross’s transcendent skill was his routing and ability to create playability at his courses for the beginner while still challenging the best players’ ability to score.

Background:

Donald Ross was born in 1872 in the town of Dornoch, Scotland. He got his start in golf by caddying at Royal Dornoch Golf Club and later became a club maker. He met Old Tom Morris on a visit to Royal Dornoch and served as an apprentice to Old Tom and shortly thereafter. Ross was soon named head professional at his home course.

After more than five years as the professional at Royal Dornoch, Ross decided to take his talents to the United States. Upon arriving, he found his first job as the club professional at Oakley Country Club in Massachusetts. The course had just 11 average golf holes when he arrived. He changed that in short order. Ross’s first golf course design would be the new course at Oakley Country Club which opened in 1901. If you visit Oakley today, you will find 11 original Donald Ross designed holes.

Soon after arriving in the states, Ross picked up a winter head professional job at James Tufts’s Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina. With the rising popularity of the resort and golf in general, Ross did much more than a typical head pro. He was immediately tasked with building a new 9-hole loop for guests in addition to its existing 18 holes (Pinehurst No. 1). The resort’s crown jewel remains to this day Ross’s Pinehurst No. 2, which opened at the end of 1907. He had a large hand in the upgrades that made Pinehurs the preeminent resort in America.

While in the States, Ross also built up quite the reputation as a player. He claimed the inaugural Massachusetts Open in 1905 and then again in 1911. He also won the North-South Open three times (1903, 1905, 1911) and finished as high as 5th at the U.S. Open.

As he aged, his playing career diminished and his architecture career began to flourish. Ross is credited with the original design or redesign work of over 400 courses in the United States. With such a heavy workload, it’s estimated that the designer was only able to visit about half of his sites, instead doing much of his work off of land surveys. By the 1920’s, he was offered more work than he could handle and he had a two to three year backlog. When the Great Depression hit, golf course projects were scarce and business slowed. Had the depression not occurred, Ross’s course totals would likely be closer to 700. Donald Ross passed away in the spring of 1948 while doing work on his final project, Raleigh Country Club.

From an architect’s perspective

“I think Ross realized he was introducing a new populace to the game of golf and felt a responsibility to use his work to teach the game in a balanced manner and examine a player’s ability to hit a broad spectrum of shots. His use of bunkers to direct a player to the proper line of play and or suggest a shape of shot spoke to the player abilities. Ross didn’t force the player around the course, he gave them multiple options and let them choose. Many times the shortest route was fraught with danger but the longer route was more visible and comfortable. The approach from each would present a different requirement and difficulty. There are certainly cases such as the Volcano par 3’s where he required one dominant shot type to reach the green – an aerial approach in this case.

Ross’s work is so unique because he routed and designed from what he was given at each and every piece of property. His courses and holes seldom look alike due to the way he connected each and every hole to “that” piece of property. I’ve often said Ross designed his holes by visualizing golf shots and knowing how the ball would react once on the ground. He placed bunkers and angled his greens and edges to interact with what he perceived the ball movement, drainage, and other factors to be. His ability and willingness to route holes and place greens over, through and across a variety of what would be considered severe topographic features to a modern day architect was very impressive considering the equipment at his disposal.”

– Kris Spence, Golf Course Architect & Donald Ross Restoration Expert

Design Principles

One of Donald Ross’s strengths was his ability to create a challenging course without any gimmicks. He perfected the skill of designing a hole that is playable for all but presents unique challenges for the great player. His designs test the experienced player’s ability to hit an abundance of different shots with different clubs in order to score well. It’s hard to draw similarities across common hole designs in Ross’s body of work as the majority of his courses have a unique feel. That being said, here are some of the core aspects of golf course design of which Ross was a master.

Switchbacks

A switchback is employed on par 4s and par 5s and is observed when opposing shot shapes are preferred off the tee and the approach. Ross loved to test a player’s ability to move the ball in different directions, and he would often do so using switchbacks. He employed this subtle strategy to test to a great player’s game without tricking up the course for a lesser player. Read about a great switchback hole #8 on Pinehurst #2.

Diagonal Hazards

Ross was a big believer in implementing cross hazards in his designs, either with creeks or bunkers. A cross hazard is a great design, as it allows a player to choose how aggressive they wish to be to gain a proximity advantage for the next shot.

Ross gives the player the safe option down the left side at the 3rd at Holston Hills, but if they challenge the bunkers on the right with their drive they are rewarded with a short wedge shot in.

Creative green complexes

Ross’s brilliance stand out around the greens. Often classified as turtleback greens that repel errant shots, Ross actually only employed that style at a few of his designs, the most famous being Pinehurst No. 2. He should be known more for the variety of unique greens that he built site-to-site and course-to-course.  He was able to make holes very difficult for the great player by presenting unique challenges at the green. Whether it was the bold turtleback greens you can see at Pinehurst N0. 2, his double plateaus, or his punchbowls, Ross was a master at building interesting green complexes and surrounding areas.

Notable Courses

Pinehurst No 2, Seminole Golf Club (FL), Oakland Hills C.C. (MI), Oak Hill C.C. (NY), Inverness (OH), East Lake Golf Club (GA), Beverly C.C. (IL), Holston Hills C.C. (TN), Essex C.C. (MA), Carolina G & C.C. (NC), Sedgefield C.C. (NC), Mid Pines (NC), Pine Needles (NC), Scioto C.C. (OH), Aronimink (PA), Gulph Mills C.C. (PA), Wannamoisett C.C. (RI), Exmoor C.C. (IL), Old Elm Club (IL), Augusta C.C. (GA), Brookside C.C. (OH), Franklin Hills C.C. (MI), White Bear Yacht (MN), Interlachen (MN), Whippoorwill Country Club (MA), Monroe Golf Club (NY), Roaring Gap Golf Club (NC)

Courses open to the public

Pinehurst (NC), Asheville Golf Course (NC), The Resort at French Lick – Ross Course (IN), The Broadmoor – East Course (CO), Ravisloe C.C. (IL), Forest Hills Golf Club (GA), Balsams Grand Resort Hotel (Panorama) (NH), Buck Hill (PA), Fort Myers Country Club (FL), Mid Pines (NC), Pine Needles (NC), Lulu C.C. (PA), Jeffersonville GC (PA), Manakiki GC (OH),