Donald Ross Biography
Transplanted Scotsman Donald Ross (1872-1948) remade the American sports landscape in the first half of this century. At his death in 1948, he left behind a legacy of 385 golf courses that he designed or redesigned. His legendary creations include Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina, Seminole in Florida, and Oakland Hills outside Detroit. His courses have hosted 21 U.S. Opens, 15 PGA Championships, 11 Women's Amateurs and 5 Ryder Cups.
Ross was born in the north Scottish coastal town of Dornoch. There on crumpled dunesland, he grew up playing one of the world's purest links, Royal Dornoch. As a young man he took up "the keeping of the green." After a year of apprenticeship at St. Andrews under the tutelage of four-time British Open champion "Old" Tom Morris, he returned to his native Dornoch. In those days, there was no rigid division of labor for golf professionals, so Ross became adept not only at maintaining the grounds but also as a player and club maker.
He was of common stock, making an adequate if unspectacular living. All that changed when an American professor on golf pilgrimage to the sport's holy land invited him to come to the New World to help spread the game's gospel. Ross arrived in 1899 to run (and then re-design) the Oakley Golf Club west of Boston. The next year, he landed an assignment with the Tufts family on a property in North Carolina's sandhills called Pinehurst.
Eventually, he designed and (re-)built four courses at the Pinehurst resort, none with more love and care than the No. 2 layout.
Drawing upon his extensive background in turfgrass management, he revolutionized southern greenkeeping practices when he oversaw the transition of the putting surfaces at No. 2 from oiled sand to Bermuda grass. The work was done just in time for the 1935 PGA Championship. The result was devilishly quick domed greens and a sense of impending doom for any wayward shots.
During his summers, Ross started designing and building courses throughout New England. Eventually, his practice spread into the Midwest and down the Southeast coast. He maintained long associations with design colleagues J.B. McGovern and Walter Hatch. Ross had satellite offices in North Amherst, Massachusetts, and Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. After his remarriage in November 1924 to the former Mrs. Florence Blackinton, Ross set up a design studio at their summer home at Little Compton, Rhode Island. It was while there that he enjoyed an honorary membership at Sakonnet Golf Club
Of all the courses that bear Ross' name, either as original designs or as renovation projects, he probably never even saw a quarter them, and perhaps half he visited only once or twice. Given the constraints of train and car travel in those days, repeat visits were difficult to arrange. Though Ross was a voracious traveler, he did much of his design work from his home in a cottage behind the third green at Pinehurst. There he worked from topographic maps, drew up blueprints, and wrote simple but sharply-worded instructions that his construction crew knew how to implement.
Ross had a genius for sound routings, with very little walking required from one green to the next tee. He would commonly route his short par-4s on uphill ground. Other trademarks included greens that invited run-up shots, but with deep trouble over the green - usually in the form of fall away slopes - to punish the overly bold golfer. Ross was also not averse to placing cross bunkers in play to punish the topped shot - off the tee, or some 50 yards short of the green. Sadly, a great number of these hazards have been taken out of play over the years in the misguided pursuit of "ease of maintenance" or "making the course more playable."
Ross was a founding member and first president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, a group that formed at Pinehurst in December 1946. In 1996, a manuscript he first drafted in 1914 called Golf Has Never Failed Me was and published by Sleeping Bear Press includes many of his thoughts about golf, both pragmatic and philosophic.
Bradley S. Klein of Bloomfield, CT, is editor of Golf Week's Superintendent News and the author of a forthcoming biography,
Reading Donald Ross: the Architect and his Golf Courses
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2000).