Donald Ross: A Golden Age Great

Donald Ross, one of the giants of the golden age architecture era, became 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 during the golden age era. He has more top 100 courses than any other architect and has had over 100 major championships and USGA events hosted at his courses, far and away the most of any architect. Ross’ transcendent skill was his 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 and got into the game of golf by caddying at Royal Dornoch Golf Club. Later, Ross became a club maker and met Old Tom Morris on a visit to Royal Dornoch. Ross served as an apprentice to Old Tom and shortly after, received the head professional job at his home course, Royal Dornoch. 

After a little over 5 years as the professional at Royal Dornoch, Ross decided to take his talents to the United States. Upon arriving, Ross found his first job as the club professional at Oakley Country Club in Massachusetts. At the time, the course had only 11 average golf holes. Ross changed that quickly. His first golf course design would be the new course at Oakley Country Club which opened in 1901. Today, if you visit Oakley Country Club, you will find 11 original Donald Ross designed holes.

Quickly after arriving in the states, Ross was able to pick up a winter job at the James Tufts’ Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina to serve as the golf professional. With the popularity of the resort and the game of golf rising, Ross’ duties went far past just being the pro. Upon his arrival, he was tasked with building a new 9 hole loop for guests in addition to its already 18 holes (Pinehurst No. 1). From there, history was made as Ross would have a large hand in everything as the club became a preeminent resort in America. His crowning jewel was Pinehurst No. 2 which opened at the end of 1907. 

While in the States, Ross also built up quite the reputation as a player, winning the inaugural Massachusetts Open in 1905 and the 1911 championship as well as the North - South Open three times (1903, 1905, 1911) and finishing as high as 5th at the U.S. Open. 

As he aged, his playing career diminished and his architecture career began to flourish. Today, Ross is credited with the original design or redesign work of over 400 courses in the United States before his death in 1948. With such a heavy workload, it’s estimated that Ross was only able to visit about half of his sites, instead doing his work off of land surveys. By the 1920’s, Donald Ross was offered more work than he could handle and he had a 2-3 year backorder of work. When the Great Depression hit, golf course projects were few and far between and business slowed. Had the depression not occurred, Ross’ course totals would likely be close to 700. 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 chose. 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 dominate shot type to reach the green, an aerial approach in this case.
Ross' work is so unique because he routed and designed from what he was given at each and every piece of property.  His courses and or 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 the best aspects of Donald Ross was his ability to create a challenging course without any gimmicks. Ross perfected the skill of designing a hole that is playable for all but presents unique challenges for the great player. His designs test a great player’s ability to hit an abundance of different types of shot shapes with different clubs in order to score well.  It’s hard to draw similarities across common hole designs in Ross’ 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 that Ross was a master of.

Switchbacks

A switchback is employed on par 4s and par 5s and is observed when a different shot shape is preferred off the tee then on 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 would be able to employ this subtle strategy to test to a great player’s game without tricking up the course for a lesser player.

An aerial of the 11th at Ross' Gulph Mills in Philadelphia. Off the tee an ideal shot is right to left, but coming into the green a fade is preferred, a "switchback".

Diagonal Hazards

Ross was a big believer in implementing cross hazards either with creeks or bunkers at his designs. A cross hazard is a great design, as it allows a player to play safe over the shorter carry, and often times leads to a longer next shot. All while challenging the great players to take the more aggressive line to set up a shorter approach.

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.

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’ brilliance stood out around the greens. 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 Number 2, his double plateaus or the punchbowls, Ross was a master of building phenomenal green complexes. 

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), Skokie C.C. (IL), 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 C.C. (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 you can play:

Pinehurst (NC), Asheville Golf Course (NC), The Resort at French Lick - Ross Course (IN), The Broadmoor - East Course (CO), Ravisloe C.C. (IL), Banff Hotel Golf Club (CAN), Belleview Biltmore (FL), Forest Hills Golf Club (GA), The Biltmore (FL), Balsams Grand Resort Hotel (Panorama) (NH), Buck Hill (PA), Fort Myers Country Club (FL), Mid Pines (NC), Pine Needles (NC)