From the Golf Journal Archives - The Donald Ross Hallmark on Championship Courses

Nov 30, 2012

Famed golf course architect Donald Ross was born on Nov. 23, 1872. His courses, including legendary tracks such as Pinehurst No. 2, Oak Hill and Scioto Country Club, have hosted numerous USGA championships. This June, 1968 Golf Journal feature about Ross highlighted some of those courses. For more information about Ross, visit the Donald Ross website or his profile at the World Golf Hall of Fame .

by Richard S. Tufts

It is interesting to note that three USGA championships will be played this year on courses designed by Donald J. Ross: the Open at Oak Hill, the Women’s Amateur at the Birmingham Country Club in Michigan, and the Amateur at Scioto in Columbus, Ohio. The fact that the work of a man who died 20 years ago can successfully compete with the products of today’s golf architects should certainly attract the interest of those who appreciate good course design. What is it that Donald Ross had to offer which has caused his work to withstand the test of time so well?

The answer to this question is undoubtedly found in the standards which Donald Ross set for himself, and to better appreciate how high these standards were we need to know a bit about the man himself. To begin with he had the advantage of being of good solid Christian Scotch stock. Further he had the native ability to make a success of whatever profession he might have chosen for his life work. It happened that he selected golf and to best prepare himself for this career he spent several years at St. Andrews as an apprentice to that greatest of all professionals, Old Tom Morris. Aside from the old man’s great knowledge and love for the game, the young Donald was thus exposed to the influence of two of the greatest courses in Great Britain, the Old Course at St. Andrews and his home course at Dornoch, Scotland.

These experiences gave Donald Ross a keen understanding of the strategy of golf and a deep appreciation of the beauty of the game’s surroundings. He never would permit himself to design a golf hole that was not both natural and beautiful. There is a sense of balance and lack of artificiality about his work which few architects have ever matched. He thought of golf as a game that must be played amid pleasant surroundings and his work has lasted because those who play his courses are certain to find pleasure in the experience, even when their appreciation of their surroundings is too dull to make a direct impression.

The Subtle Aspects

Donald Ross was himself a very fine golfer and, having been brought up in the old school where finesse and skill were highly appreciated, he designed his holes to develop these more subtle aspects of the game. The problems which he presented to those who play his courses were not of the obvious and spectacular sort. There was nothing vulgar about his work. Frequently the symmetry of his construction even leads the golfer into a false sense of security as the pitfalls he built do not shout their presence to the player. And yet he never forgot that the game must be a pleasure and not a penance to every golfer, regardless of his or her ability and handicap. The distance to which the golfer may be capable of striking the ball has never been a limiting factor on a Donald Ross course since the opportunity to avoid trouble is always offered and the player is not penalized for lack of length but only when guilty either of an error or of being overly ambitious.

Aside from these general characteristics, perhaps the distinguishing feature of a Donald Ross course is the care with which his green situations were selected. To Donald the feature of every hole was the shot to the green, and on the par fours the chief function of the tee shot was to place the ball in the most favorable position for this all-important approach. In this way the location of the green becomes the keystone which holds the hole together.

In the planning of a course his first task was always to select the most favorable sites for the greens. These locations had to be natural. Other features of the course could be built, but the situation of the green had to be a part of the terrain. After the best available sites had been located on a topographical map, they were connected by golf holes and these hole locations roughly staked out on the ground and the center lines cleared.

Even after the holes had been so fixed, there was still a tremendous amount of fitting and adjusting to be done in order to obtain the exact results desired. It was a time-consuming process but the finished product fully justified the effort. A Donald Ross course bore about the same relationship to the work of his less careful contemporaries that an expensive, well-tailored suit would bear to one bought off the racks.

Worked on 600 Courses

Donald Ross came to America as a golf professional in 1899, but by 1911 his work as a course architect was occupying so much of his time that he had given up the time-consuming work of teaching. He is credited with having designed or remodeled some 600 courses, most of his work having been done prior to the Depression of the 1930s when golf course construction almost stopped.

The only serious regret which Mr. Ross ever expressed with regard to his work was the fact that a number of courses designed by him were not built under his supervision. Too often the contractor had no experience with golf course construction and though the name of Donald Ross appeared on the plans, the end product was not what he had in mind.

This was a situation especially distressing to a man who believed that the details of a golf course were even more important than the grand design. Especially for the little shots around the green, Mr. Ross used great patience to have every slope and break just right. It is very difficult to develop these refinements with the heavy earth-moving equipment in use today and many current architects do not seem to have the patience necessary for the construction of these details by more time-consuming methods. In order to be assured that his courses would be properly built, Mr. Ross personally contracted the building of many of them and at one time employed eight foremen capable of directing the construction of a course. These men understood his requirements, and when a course had been completed it was certain to be in accordance with his design.

Since most Donald Ross courses are now at least 40 years old, it is perhaps surprising that three of them appear in one year as sites for national championships. The game has developed tremendously during these years, and the equipment and players are producing results which would have been considered impossible 40 years ago. The answer certainly is found in the fact that good basic design is enduring.

The natural beauty of a Donald Ross golf course, the clever development of its strategy and the meticulous attention to its details all create a work of art which can be destroyed only through heedless efforts at “modernization.” A sympathetic adjustment of bunkering and a few new tees are all that is required to make a Donald Ross course a better test for present-day golf than most of the courses now being built.

Any club owning a Donald Ross course should jealously protect what it has. The owner of a Rembrandt painting would hardly turn it over to a pop artist for modernization.

Donald Ross pictured at Pinehurst. (USGA Museum)

Donald Ross came to America as a golf professional in 1899, but by 1911 his work as a course architect was occupying so much of his time that he had given up the time-consuming work of teaching. He is credited with having designed or remodeled some 600 courses, most of his work having been done prior to the Depression of the 1930s when golf course construction almost stopped. (USGA Museum)

Donald Ross tees off at the ninth hole at Pinehurst No. 2. (USGA Museum)