From Modest Beginnings
As a Scot, Donald Ross brought to his craft of course design an instinctive conservatism and frugality, always making it a point to use the terrain provided him to the fullest. He sought to maximize the environment of the land as he found it, and to disturb as little as possible. His course philosophy was that “every hole must present a very different problem for the golfer. Each hole must be built so that it wastes none of the precious ground at my disposal and takes advantage of every possibility I can see.”
This practical approach almost assured his success because in the early years, golf budgets were very thin, and the architect who could produce a quality course for a low design fee and low construction costs was often the man to grab. If earth had to be moved, he kept it to a minimum. Pete Dye has said, “He was one of the few designers who was able to put a real purpose into each shot on every hole.” A born environmentalist, he’d walk the course site over and over again to get just the right routing that nature and the elements seemed to dictate.
A champion in his own right, he’d select 9 or 18 green locations that would demand that the player use every club in the bag. In the early days, players carried as few as five or six sticks, but when Ross was at his creative peak, players literally had a club for every contingency. (The 14-club limit, still in effect today, was not enforced until 1938 – almost at the end of his professional career.)
Ross was self-taught. He never had the luxury of Golf Course Design 101, or Grass 102; he invented as he went along. At his peak he had over 3,000 men working for him, building the courses he designed, and it is believed he may have completed as many as 400 or more.
After a few years spent in the Boston area, he received a life-changing summons. He was invited by James Tufts to help him improve a rustic golf course that had been created at his new resort in Pinehurst. Within several years, Ross was expanding his outlook and designing courses for other golf locations, while retaining his ties to Pinehurst and three generations of the Tufts family. It was a tie that was to last a lifetime.
He spent most of his professional life in Pinehurst, and the fact that it is today one of the premiere golf centers of the world is testimony to his genius. His courses have received countless accolades, but the truest honors are those represented by their consistent selection as major tournament sites. (In this book we list his courses that have been selected by the U.S.G.A., the P.G.A. and Ryder Cup officials for championship play.)
Noted golf writer Bradley S. Klein has named his best Ross courses in this order: Pinehurst No. 2, Worcester, Wannamoisett, Plainfield, Oakland Hills, Essex, Interlachen, Inverness, Oak Hill, Salem, Franklin Hills, Holston Hills and Seminole. Ranking is a very subjective thing, but we’ve never found fault with Klein’s list. Of those listed, only one course, Pinehurst No. 2, is open for public play; the rest are private.
Today, your authors estimate that there are over 315 golf courses in existence in the U.S. that Ross had a hand in designing. He also did twelve fine courses in Canada that are still in operation. Only one is public, and unfortunately it has been redesigned in a way that has totally removed any trace of Ross’ original genius. He also created two beautiful courses in Cuba (The Country Club of Havana and The Havana Biltmore Golf Club) that no longer exist. Perhaps one day when Cuba regains its status as a premiere resort destination, world-class golf may return to the island.
Dick Taylor writing for GolfWorld, June 1989 issue, referenced Ross’ management style: “Caddies wanted an increase in standard pay, something like a dime more to the 50 cents, double fee. The oldest caddie approached Ross, who was standing on the clubhouse steps with his ever-present seven iron in hand. The question was begged; Ross asked what the alternative would be. The caddie replied that the crew would strike. Ross then hit him on the head with the golf club and declared, ‘The strike is over!’ True? One never knows about such things. A tight man with a nickel – he might have been even tighter with a dime.”
There is a bronze statue of Donald Ross at Pinehurst Country Club, sculpted by Gretta Bader of Stanford, California. She executed the life-size piece in 1991, based on a photo given to her by golf champion Peggy Kirk Bell, who had known Ross early in her career. The statue faces famed Course No. 2 – Ross’ premiere achievement.
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Alec Ross, front left, Donald Ross second row second from the left – Pinehurst, 1906 with
Tin Whistles friends. Tin Whistles photo courtesy of the Tufts Archives, Pinehurst, NC
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