The history of golf and golf courses, though not especially old in the main, is not always as clear as it might be. Mostly, that is simply because for most of the time that golf has existed, history has not been a significant concern. The number of clubs which have little or no archive material from their early days, even without the clubhouse fires that have wiped out so much documentation, is, from today’s perspective, pretty amazing.
The Country Club of Orlando (CCO) is one such example. Founded in 1911, it is among Florida’s oldest courses, older than luminaries such as Seminole and Mountain Lake. At its foundation, the club had nine holes built by architect Tom Bendelow; it expanded to eighteen in 1918. CCO has long believed that the legendary Donald Ross was responsible for that expansion, but evidence for Ross doing that work is hard to find. It appears that Ross may have visited the site and submitted a routing for the new-look course, but clear evidence from local papers of the day suggests that Bendelow returned to re-plan the course. One of the definite consequences of the club’s age, though, is that the course is golf-only, with no associated real estate; this is, nowadays, relatively unusual for Florida.
Whoever did that work, there is no doubt that the course changed extensively between 1918 and the present day. Robert Trent Jones built three new holes (the fifth, sixth and seventh) on some new land in the 1950, and time wrought its usual changes. A few years ago, therefore, the club decided to return to a more historic look and feel, and hired architect Ron Forse and his associate Jim Nagle to do the work.
Forse, who has worked on 54 Ross courses during his long career as a restoration specialist, thought long and hard about the best solution. If the club had always believed its course to be a Ross, he concluded, best to give them one. He and Nagle therefore resolved to renovate the course, using some of Ross’s best holes and greens – a sort of Donald Ross greatest hits collection – to inspire the new work. They made use of 1931 photographs of Seminole GC, combined with their own great experience of Ross’s work, to act as a guide. The hole corridors remain basically as before, but virtually everything else is new. The greens are now mostly slightly elevated using fill, with plenty of movement as was the master’s style.
Along with contractor Landscapes Unlimited, Forse and Nagle oversaw the reconstruction of all eighteen holes. This was not without its difficulties: in the area of the course that had been added by Trent Jones in 1950, the construction crew came across a large number of cedar trees. These had been removed by Jones and buried under the holes. Surprisingly, they had not decayed, except on the surface. “You would not believe how much trouble they caused,” says Forse. “The construction crew had to dig a number of them up and discard them, while the rest of them were chainsawed through, then we went in and recontoured, and installed drainage and irrigation.” The regrassed course is no longer overseeded in the winter, which offers obvious environmental benefits.
The course opens with a fairly gentle 350-yard par four. The kind start doesn’t last long, though, because the second hole is a toughie. Not hugely long at 428 yards, the green is offset to the left of the corridor, with a pond on that side of the fairway threatening the approach. The pond stops a little short of the green, so should catch only bad misses, but the putting surface is also protected by two flanking bunkers. The trap on the left is the deepest on the golf course; fortunately for golfers’ sanity, it should not come into play that often.
The excellent, fairly short par-four third doglegs to the right around a large bunker. Two bunkers on the left side pinch the fairway, making it extremely narrow. Golfers will need to take a decision on the tee. Can they carry the bunker, in which case they will only have a short approach to the green? If not, they are probably best advised to take an iron club and lay up short of the bunkers – trying to hit into the neck is a fool’s errand. The green, inspired by Ross’s fourteenth at the Country Club of Buffalo, features a broad swale running through it.
Forse refers to the par-three sixth, originally a Jones hole, as a ‘Ross Redan’. The long diagonal green is inspired by the fourteenth at Peninsula G&CC and the sixth at Hyannisport, both of which are par fives, which I guess shows the flexibility of the Redan concept. The par-four ninth has perhaps the course’s most memorable green, a double punchbowl, with the two hollows separated by a spine. The punchbowl concept comes from the twelfth hole at Wannamoisett and the ninth at Cohasset, but the double bowl is Forse and Nagle’s own doing! The enormous home green, the largest on the course, is heavily inspired by the finishing hole at Oyster Harbor Club on Cape Cod.
The renovation work, which has been extremely well received by members and guests alike, has also transformed the condition of the course. With new turf, and corresponding little thatch, it can now be kept properly fast and firm (as well as no longer needing winter overseed, as mentioned above). Although the vegetation to be found around the course at CCO makes its Florida location fairly obvious, the course itself feels rather unlike typical Sunshine State golf – its core nature and the undulations on the greens introduced by Forse and Nagle, give it a proper authentic vintage feel, as befits a club of this age and history. After a hundred years, Donald Ross is now unarguably present at CCO.
This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.