Ellis Maples: doing more with less

Ellis Maples: doing more with less
Sean Dudley

A protégé of the great Donald Ross, Ellis Maples was a key part of one of golf’s most enduring dynasties. Architect Richard Mandell, who originally trained with Ellis’s son Dan, profiles his work.

There is little dispute as to the king of North Carolina golf course architects: Donald Ross. But after Ross, the competition for next best architect is wide open. In fact, some may say there is a void after the top spot that has yet to be filled. Time will surely tell who occupies the rightful position of runner-up, but for now a logical choice may be his Pinehurst protégé, Ellis Maples.

Not only did Donald Ross expose Ellis to the profession of golf architecture, he also was a guiding light in his growth as a person, directing young Maples to follow the golden rule in everything he may encounter. In a letter dated 24 May 1927, Ross stressed the importance of character to Ellis: “Give consideration to others, do some good, however small, every day of your life. Act as a gentleman under all circumstances. However humble our work may be, we all have our little niche in this world’s work.”

Ellis Maples’ niche as a golf course designer in the middle decades of the twentieth century certainly appears to be the work of humility – in working with the lay of the land and respecting the wishes of his clients as he so artfully accomplished at such courses as Grandfather Golf and Country Club in Linville, North Carolina and Orangeburg Country Club in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

As an intern with Dan Maples Design in 1990, one of the first projects I worked on was a sand bunker renovation at Grandfather. At the time, very little had ever been done to mar Ellis’s routing and it was Dan’s job to return the bunkers to his father’s original design intent, which begged the question ‘what was Ellis Maples’ design intent – not only at Grandfather, but throughout his breadth of work?’

Almost two decades later I once again found myself contemplating that very same question as I was charged with the task of restoring the lustre to Orangeburg Country Club. Over the past half century, Orangeburg’s greens lost over one-third of their square footage and time slowly eliminated the character of Ellis’s bunkers. Prior to my commission, the course had not been touched by another golf course architect.

Ellis Maples was the second generation of arguably the first family of golf course design and construction in the Carolinas. His father Frank was the golf course superintendent at Pinehurst Country Club from 1907 until his death in 1949. Son Dan took over the family design business full-time upon Ellis’ passing in 1984. In between, Ellis ran the gauntlet of industry jobs – golf professional, construction project manager, golf course superintendent – until finally settling in as a leading golf architect of his era.

Describing Ellis Maples’ design characteristics constitutes a version of Donald Ross’ design approach modified for a different time, yet with the same basic tenets in mind. The beginning is a strong routing as the linchpin for timeless design. Ellis learned directly from the master the art of an everlasting routing, the basics of economical design, and fool-proof drainage in one simple concept: Route golf holes from high point to high point to high point. This is the same ideal that was passed down from Ellis to his son and is what I learned in my time with Dan Maples Design as well.

The result is golf courses that take advantage of the natural lay of the land not only by minimising earthwork, but by expounding upon the natural drainage patterns of a given site, instilling inherent economy in construction and daily maintenance as well. An added bonus is strong golf holes from the first tee to the eighteenth green, whether they are breathtaking strategic gems or just simply solid designs asking the golfer to perform under everyday circumstances.

How does one define a strong golf hole? First and foremost, one which the lay of the land dictates what club to hit based not only upon the length of a golf hole, but on the character of that particular site. Just as Ross used natural ridges and high points to be negotiated by the golfer to gain an advantage, Ellis followed that same idea in his own routings. Natural green sites were anchors of his designs as Maples used the most logical site features to position a green complex. The appropriate flat or high point not only helped develop the holes’ strategy; it also minimised awkward earthwork and excessive drainage measures.

The high point to high point routing strategy always kept natural drainage patterns out of the primary play areas, which is clearly evident on the back nine at Orangeburg. As a result, our restoration efforts required few drainage improvements. This simple routing philosophy has led to many solid Ellis Maples golf courses elsewhere throughout the southeast.

Ellis’s primary strength was in his ability to route golf courses first and foremost, a trait he shared with Ross. But the second contender for most distinctive design characteristic was his bunker work. That too was borne out of his relationship with Donald Ross, but with one difference.

The one characteristic that Ross strove for was always some visibility of sand. Ross created a variety of different looks to his bunkers (flashed sand, grass-faced, concave bottoms, flat bottoms), yet still ensured visibility. This same goal of visibility was true for Ellis as well. But unlike the various ways Ross explored to get to his end result, Ellis Maples went directly to high-flashed sand bunkers as his primary means of visibility. This may in part be attributed to his frugality as a builder, but it may also be just a simple sign of the times.

The decades in which Ellis performed the majority of his work were those in which earthwork was first seen as a prime tool to achieve design intentions. Borne out of the desire to move dirt, a different approach to bunker drainage was followed than that which the golden age architects followed.

The tendency to ensure proper drainage of sand bunkers in the mid-twentieth century was to build fill pads on top of the natural lay of the land and then cut sand bunkers into those fill pads, the floors of which still remained above original grade – the theory being that as rain falls, it will infiltrate the sand and quickly move away per the existing drainage patterns preserved underneath these complexes. In those days, there was very little (if any) drain tile in sand bunkers and the means described above was the best method of keeping sand bunkers dry.

It was a logical extension to build high sand flashed bunkers into the fill pads because of the extra elevation created by the fill material. The combination of fifties drainage ingenuity and Ellis’ acceptance of his former boss’s need to provide visibility led to much more dramatic and differently appearing sand lines.

As a young designer, I learned from Dan to create a series of mounds and then cut a sand bunker into the mounds, using the high points to locate the bunker noses. The shape and location of those mounds led to the specific sand lines of the hazard. This was how Donald Ross taught Ellis and what Ellis passed to his son. Use of mounding (whether artificial appearing or not) led to a modified cape and bay bunker line that defined much of Ellis’s work. This one aspect of Ellis’s work exceeded the drama of Ross’s bunkers.

At Orangeburg, we strove to recapture Ellis’s dramatic high flashing style. Yet at the same time, we did take advantage of subsurface drainage improvements by massaging those fill pads and reconnecting mounds as a guide for our bunker construction. A great effort was made to conceal the high grade of the bunkers within the natural roll the ground, giving the hazards a more comfortable appearance. By re-establishing the mounds, we were able to recapture the lost noses and bays that gave Ellis’s bunkers distinction.

Critics may say that the bunkering of Ellis and Dan Maples has very little in common with that of Donald Ross. True as it may be, this revelation is through a slow evolution of construction techniques over three separate eras of design more so than diverging viewpoints. Whereas Ross took advantage of a variety of looks, as the ability to move more dirt necessitated a different approach to bunker design, Ellis’s bunkers became a larger feature with prevalence for dramatic flashing. As internal drainage became a more accepted and refined practice of construction, the evolution of bunker construction returned to a bit lower profile in Dan’s work.

Returning to his roots of frugality was Ellis’s great ability to follow a mantra of ‘less is more’ in his hazard locations. This is especially true in his mountain work, where he wisely allowed the drama of the surroundings to take the lead and not dominate the site with sand just for the sake of design. The natural features of the land developed such strong strategic choices that few additional hazards were necessary. His use of the creeks at Grandfather is a clear example.

Ellis rarely used fairway sand bunkers to determine strategy, instead using sand more for framing and direction. Almost never did he locate sand on the inside of doglegs. Armed with this knowledge, I quickly recognised one particular case in point at Orangeburg. A bunker placed on the inside of the dogleg of the par five eighth hole made me question its legitimacy. An aerial photograph from 1961 confirmed my suspicion. It was promptly replaced by a low profile self-draining swale whose shape was created the same way Ellis formed his bunker shapes – by random placement of mounds.

Another product of Ellis’ era was the tendency to create larger greens than typically found in golden age courses. Maples’ design details strayed from the intricate contouring of Donald Ross’s putting greens mostly due to his era of challenging the pro golfer with length and narrowness. Along the way, it wasn’t necessary to create the fine character found in a golden age green. Nonetheless, Ellis took his cues from the character of the land in designing putting surfaces, yet focused mostly on visibility for the golfer and surface drainage in more than one direction.

Learning the practicalities of routine golf course maintenance and drawing upon his background as a construction superintendent led Ellis to a more frugal manner of golf course design than his mentor. The results were a simplified approach to the details of design that Ross so painstakingly drew into his plans and executed when he was on site. The Maples legacy may not have been as deliberate as Ross’s work. Yet the coupling of the basic Ross routing philosophy and Ellis’s ‘less is more’ philosophy led to a proliferation of simple, yet timeless golf course routings that cemented Maples as an expert in his field. GCA

Richard Mandell is a golf architect and historian based in Pinehurst. A noted expert on the work of Donald Ross, his book Pinehurst: Home of American Golf was named International Network Golf Book of the Year in 2007

This article was initially featured in the April 2010 issue of Golf Course Architecture.