This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.
It is appropriate that Harry Colt and Donald Ross should have met, early in both their careers, on the Old Elm Club job in Chicago in 1912. Ross really was at the start of his long march to bring quality golf to much of America, while Colt, as I guess is inevitable since he was working several thousand miles from home, had already earned himself a reputation as an expert in the nascent world of golf design.
The aptness of the story is ruined a bit by Colt’s well-known failure to get Ross’s name right – in his report to the founders of the club he referred to him as ‘Douglas’ Ross, though he did speak with enthusiasm about his abilities. Nevertheless, despite their radically different backgrounds – Colt, captain of Cambridge and an R&A member at 22, Ross the son of a Dornoch stonemason who arrived in America in 1899 with two dollars in his pocket – the two men went on to play remarkably similar roles in the story of British and American golf. They were the men who brought quality golf to the ordinary golfer; to this day, if you are playing an old British course that you don’t know much about, and you find it way better than you expected, odds are it has a Colt heritage. Similarly, in the United States, the almost 400 Ross courses make him by far the most important architect in the country’s golfing history.
Whether by intention or by necessity – because they were both so busy – Colt and Ross both evolved the golf industry’s first systemised construction models. Colt, by persuading road builders George Franks and Claude Harris to start the world’s first specialist golf course contractor in 1914, was of central importance here: throughout his incredibly busy period during the 1920s, up to the Wall Street Crash, Franks Harris built the majority of Colt’s courses (and lots for other architects too). Ross, too, pioneered the use of contractors in the US, though he never had so close a relationship with one firm of builders as Colt with Franks Harris. However, via his trusted associates JB McGovern and Walter Hatch, Ross was able, even at his busiest, to exert a reasonable degree of control over the teams that were building his courses, so he got the results he wanted.
Ross came to the newly incorporated city of Coral Gables, Florida, in 1925. Coral Gables was one of the first planned communities in America, and at its heart was an enormous luxury hotel called the Biltmore, designed by the New York firm of Schultze and Weave, part of hotel magnate John McEntee Bowman’s expanding chain of the same name. For two years the tallest building in Florida, the hotel was a popular hangout of the great and good but was requisitioned and served as a hospital during the Second World War and was later used by the University of Miami and as a VA hospital until 1968 when the building was abandoned. The city of Coral Gables took ownership of the building in 1973, but it remained unoccupied until 1983 when the city started a full restoration; the hotel reopened in 1987.
The hotel is a delight, with a feel very like a European grand hotel, and extremely unusual, in my experience, for America, where posh and old don’t often go together. Its hospitality is exemplified best by the frankly over-the-top Sunday brunch, where dozens of stations serve all manner of treats.
Now, to the golf. Florida, as is well known, is mostly very flat, and that is certainly true of the Biltmore property. The only real feature – apart from a few grand old trees – is a waterway (a river) that passes through the site, and Ross’s genius is clear to see from the amount of value he gets from that watercourse, for example on the seventeenth hole, where the green is set right on the water’s edge. Unusually for a south Florida course, though I suppose less surprising given its vintage, there is no other water on the course. Had a modern-day architect been presented with the same site, he’d surely have dug a number of ponds to provide fill to create some contour. While contour is worthwhile, it is a pleasant change to be in the Sunshine State and not dealing with water hazards on every hole.
Instead of water, Ross used fairway bunkering quite extensively at the Biltmore. It’s these bunkers especially which have been restored in the recent project under Brian Silva. Biltmore director of golf Bob Coman spent time in the Tufts Archives at Pinehurst – where many of Ross’s papers are held – and found the original plans for the course. This discovery prompted the hotel to call Silva, who had led an extensive project on the course in 2007, back in to complete the job.
In that 2007 project, Silva said, the absence of documentation meant he was proceeding essentially by feel – restoring greens to the size and shape that the original fill pads implied, and restoring bunkers that had just been grassed over and therefore could still be seen (proof these were originally bunkers was obtained when the construction crew, having removed the grass, hit sand). But, he explained, the plans found by Coman in Pinehurst showed where additional bunkers that were not restored in 2007 had been. It’s this now-complete set of Ross fairway bunkers that primarily defines the strategy and challenge of the golf course.
Additionally, Coman’s discovery – which, as well as plans, included Ross’s handwritten notes on the design – inspired some additional works to greens. For example, on the par-three fourteenth Silva put back a thumbprint depression in the rear centre, creating a far more challenging putting surface. And, speaking of challenging putting, he was also able to restore the magnificent eighteenth green, by a distance the course’s most exciting and exacting. Tucked into the left of the corridor, on a hole that already has a substantial right-to-left dogleg, the 10,000 square foot putting surface is compartmentalised – high on the right, low on the left – and means that a game is far from over when the player reaches its expanses. It’s a fitting end to a fine round planned by a great architect.