Ever Present, Ever Relevant

By Bradley S. Klein

| May 31, 2022

Ever Present, Ever Relevant

Why Donald Ross courses never go out of style

The following content was first published in Golf Journal, a quarterly print and monthly digital publication exclusively for USGA Members. To be among the first to receive Golf Journal and to learn how you can help make golf more open for all, become a USGA Member today.

What is it about Donald Ross-designed courses that make them so relevant for championship play? We are about to find out yet again, thanks to a pair of his creations on the USGA championship slate in 2022, which also happens to be the 150th anniversary of the Scotsman’s birth.

From May 14-18, the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball sets up shop at the Country Club of Birmingham (Ala.)., which dates to 1927 and whose two 18-hole layouts, the East and West Courses, will share hosting duties. Then, on June 2-5, the 77th U.S. Women’s Open Presented by
ProMedica will be contested for the fourth time at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C.

That will make for a total of 174 USGA championships held on Ross courses – No. 175 will come in 2024, when Pinehurst No. 2, perhaps his most notable creation, hosts its fourth U.S. Open and 11th USGA championship overall. This unmatched sum has been building since 1912, when the Hall of Fame architect’s Essex County Club in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., held the U.S. Women’s Amateur (see sidebar, page 69).

Not bad for someone who arrived in the U.S. in 1899 from Scotland at age 26 with just a tattered suitcase, a canvas golf bag with some clubs, $2 in his pocket and the promise of a job as golf professional and greenkeeper at Oakley Country Club outside Boston. Of course, Ross brought something else to the New World: a solid background in course design and maintenance, acquired during an apprenticeship under Old Tom Morris at St. Andrews, followed by four years running things back in his hometown at Dornoch Golf Club (which didn’t receive its “Royal” designation until 1906).

Within three decades of his arrival in America, Ross was sitting on top of the golf world. Throughout the 1920s golf boom, he and his two design associates were working on 15-25 courses annually – one out of every six courses being built or rebuilt. Upon his death in April 1948, Ross left behind 410 courses bearing his imprimatur, whether as an original work, an expansion from nine holes, or a remodel.

Many are legendary, and continue to test the world’s best players: Inverness, Oak Hill, Oakland Hills, Pinehurst No. 2, Scioto. Others are less familiar but admired venues on the elite amateur circuit: places like The Broadmoor, Exmoor, Longmeadow, Minikahda and Seminole. The wonder is that these courses have held up so well, for elite and everyday players alike.

Ross’ penchant for conceiving of championship courses became evident in the period between the two world wars. From 1919 to 1931, Ross-designed layouts hosted eight of the 13 U.S. Opens. Five years running, 1931-35, the U.S. Women’s Amateur was conducted on one of his designs.

Fast-forward to the current century, where just since 2000 his courses have held two U.S. Opens (at Pinehurst No. 2) and seven U.S. Senior Opens (Salem, Inverness and Broadmoor twice each, along with Scioto). This year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles will be the seventh visit to a Ross course for that championship since 2000.

Ask people who work in these landscapes for a living and you’ll learn a lot about Ross’ enduring values. Hall of Famer Amy Alcott counts herself among those who find inspiration from his design work. Alcott first encountered that work competitively at Pinehurst No. 2 and then in her first USGA championship, the 1971 Girls’ Junior at Augusta (Ga.) Country Club. Her win in the 1980 U.S. Women’s Open came on a now-defunct Ross course, Richland Country Club in Nashville.

The lessons of Ross continue to influence her own work in course design. “He was part of ‘The Greatest Generation,’” Alcott said. “You learn to appreciate the close walks from green to next tee, the falloffs around greens, the shot-making variety where on one hole a tee shot would go left-to-right and the approach shot would go right-to-left, and on the next hole it would flip the other way.”

Course architect Andrew Green is among many who have carefully studied Ross courses. With recent work at Inverness, Oak Hill and Scioto, Green is now considered among the leading Ross restorationists.

“Ross had a tremendous ability to use the land,” Green said. “He fit the holes into the existing slopes and contours so that they looked natural and blended in.”

Green points to Inverness, a course routed across and over long contours; it also involves the use of a deep swale that contains a small creek bisecting the course and impacting four holes. Another small stream comes into play at the far end of the property, where it forms a diagonal hazard on the long, slightly uphill par-4 seventh hole – one of the finest unbunkered holes Ross ever created. The angle off the tee and the slope of the ground as it rises to meet the green provide all the strategy one needs. It’s a highlight of a course that has proven its relevance through four U.S. Opens (1920, 1931, 1957, 1979), two U.S. Senior Opens (2003, 2011), the 2019 U.S. Junior Amateur and the 2021 Solheim Cup – as it will for the recently announced U.S. Women’s Open in 2027 and the U.S. Amateur two years later.

Ross’ routings – the connection of holes, their relation to the ground and to each other – provide a settled feel that appeals to the eye and yet also engages in terms of the contours to be negotiated. Ross created puzzles to be worked through rather than epic confrontations of in-your-face drama played single-file down the middle.

The existing ground created the basic shapes for Ross. Once he had his larger elements aligned and wide enough, he was then free to fashion the strategy through bunker placement and artfully crafted putting surfaces. Green particularly admires what he calls Ross’ tendency to “layer” bunkers.


Kyle Franz's recent restoration returned Pine Needles to what Donald Ross envisioned, but with a modern touch. (USGA/Russell Kirk)

He’s referring to the use of bunkers at diverse distances and angles, with the effect a tableau of sand rather than what we see so much of in recent architecture – tightly circumscribed sand pits at predictable distances left and right of a prescribed landing area. That only promotes aerial play down the middle; Ross encouraged play along angles selected by the golfer according to skill level, all the while engaging the ground game.

The problem, of course, is that courses designed with bunkers left and right at a formulaic distance off the back tee – say 230 yards in Ross’ day, 275 in the 1990s – become outmoded as distance improves for elite players. Diagonally arrayed bunkering like Ross’ can stay more relevant because there’s often another bunker that comes into play behind it, and the fairway slopes (and mowing patterns) bring those hazards into play as the ball is rolling.

Such scattershot bunkering was common to Ross’ work. When Green undertakes a restoration, he makes sure to bring back those offset bunkers, many of which, whether short, diagonally or across the middle, have been eliminated over the years. Green points to the bunkering on the par-4 ninth hole at Oak Hill’s East Course as an example.

Ross’ original plan from 1923 had a bunker short right in the face of the hill on the inside of the dogleg at 150 yards, and another one on the outside left at 300 yards out. The short right bunker had been removed, but the one downfield, which would have been out of reach off the tee when Ross designed it, lived on and got Green’s full attention during his work there in 2019. To recreate its strategic intent Green rebuilt the bunker in place, nestled into a perfect little upslope, then lengthened the hole by 40 yards with a new back tee. The average golfer will never reach it; the elite player might just have to keep it in mind.

Offset and “in-between” bunkering has a psychological impact as well as a strategic one. “They get in your head. They make you ask, why is that bunker there?” said architect Ron Forse. His restorations of
classic-era courses include three Ross designs that have held USGA championships: Newport (R.I.) Country Club, The Broadmoor
Resort in Colorado Springs, and Salem Country Club in Peabody, Mass. Working on these courses allows Forse to appreciate the many ways in which Ross gave his courses visual vitality. That’s a hard-to-articulate dimension of strategy; it is what distinguishes a mechanically constructed course from one more organically embedded in the land.

There’s also the scale of the features – their depth, width, boldness and angularity. That’s how you can tell if Ross was really there on-site to begin with, and whether the course has retained its character. Tyler Rae, a course restorer who likes to shape his own work in the field, says he is constantly in awe of how Ross made his features so pronounced. Rae speaks with considerable authority, thanks to a portfolio of over two dozen Ross courses, including two that have hosted USGA championships: Beverly (Ill.) C.C. (2009 U.S. Senior Amateur) and Barton Hills C.C. in Ann Arbor, Mich. (1998 U.S. Women’s Amateur).

Sometimes it was simply by Ross installing a bunker in a rise formed by the surrounding land that made the feature look ominous; or greenside, he would raise slightly the fill pad on which the putting green sat and put protective bunkers into the base of that elevated formation while leaving short-grass rollout areas on the side and behind. That, in essence, is the formula at Pinehurst No. 2.

As for those putting surfaces, every designer who has worked on a Ross course comes to admire, maybe even worship, their subtlety and contours. Ross defended par at the green. No matter how long or direct a path one took to get there, there was always the challenge of those artfully carved surfaces and how they rolled out and away into sand, a hollow or short grass.

A lot of Ross’ original surfaces might have lost their shape through years of topdressing and inconsistent mowing patterns, their edges abandoned. That’s why restoration designers spend so much time recapturing lost hole locations and gaining back those areas on the perimeter. That’s how you regain width, interest and variety.

It’s also how you keep the everyday golfer interested while testing championship-caliber players. That will be true again this year, and for many years to come.