The Pioneer: Donald Ross

Richard Mandell
By Richard Mandell

If ever an architect and a place were unequivocally linked, Donald Ross and Pinehurst, North Carolina were. After all, he spent forty-eight years of his life there. It was at Pinehurst that Ross got his real start in the world of golf course design. Pinehurst #2 is his most famous work and the work everyone sees as defining his design style and philosophy today. Yet at the same time, Pinehurst #2 may be the farthest from a true representation of his talents. In fact, it could be said that Pinehurst #2 has done more damage to Donald Ross’ legacy than good.

Truly one of the giants of our profession, Ross is revered the world over not as much for his great routings and strategic merit as he is for his perceived greens complex designs and trademark grass-faced bunkering. When one looks at a Donald Ross golf course the first thoughts that come to mind are playability yet challenging approach shots to tricky greens. His courses are readily recognisable by the so-called trained eye. Living in the Carolinas, there are many ‘experts’ who will defend a Ross original with vim and vigour, not interested in the fact that what they see as a Ross original may not be so at all – which makes the job of restoring a Ross golf course that much more challenging. After working on five different Ross courses as a golf architect, it becomes clearer to me every day that most people have absolutely no idea who Donald Ross was as an architect and how brilliant and diverse he was in his work.

I recall, in the early nineties, playing in a Donald Ross Society get-together and being amazed at how my playing partners (an attorney, an insurance salesman, and something else) would talk about whether this bunker was vintage Ross or this green was authentic ad nauseam. For one who had studied this medium for years, it was utterly confusing to me until I realised these people really had no clue as to what Ross was truly about. See, they had #2 on their mind. They, and many others (including golf course architects), were lulled into the Pinehurst fallacy which is now considered legend. That legend, to me, is less impressive than the real Donald Ross.

An accomplished golfer as a young man, Donald Ross began a career as a carpentry apprentice in his hometown of Dornoch, Scotland. He mastered this craft as quickly as he had the game of golf. Several locals, recognising his golfing ability and easy personality, sent him to apprentice under Old Tom Morris at St Andrews, figuring his future would be brighter if he crafted golf clubs made of wood rather than furniture. They turned out to be right. Ross’ primary study was in how Old Tom manufactured club heads, shafts, and grips. Yet along the way he learned how a green should be made to drain and how a bunker should be placed so that it would be challenging.

At St Andrews Ross met another young Scot, Robert White. White emigrated to America in 1894 to study agronomy, and, upon his arrival, became pro/greenkeeper at Myopia Hunt Club in Hamilton, Massachusetts. There he first met a man named Leonard Tufts. At that same time, Ross returned to his hometown to become the first professional and greenkeeper of the Dornoch Golf Club. According to Dornoch native Rod Innes (whose father was a schoolmate of Ross’), Donald soon made improvements to the links.

Ross followed White to America in 1899 at the urging of Dr Robert Wilson, a Harvard professor who spent summers in voyage and arrived with just seven dollars and no idea of where he might find a job. With Dr Wilson’s help, Donald found employment as golf professional at Oakley Country Club in Watertown, Massachusetts, where he first met James Tufts (Leonard’s father) and learned of Pinehurst, North Carolina. Mutual friend Robert White may very well have been the bridge between Ross and Tufts.

Ross got his first official taste of golf course design at Oakley. On his first day he began an ambitious plan to overhaul the golf course. The challenge was immense as the site had little space for a course over 6,000 yards. Working with a large contingent of workers, Ross fashioned a new layout that was typical of the era: punchbowl greens, blind shots, and rudimentary mounding. The new layout was completed in time for the 1901 season.

That summer, James Tufts asked Donald Ross to come to his home in Medford to interview for the position of professional at Pinehurst. At the meeting, a gentleman’s understanding was reached on terms of employment for Donald and his brother Alec. The oral agreement would result in bountiful results for Ross, the Tufts family, and the landscape of American golf. Part of a November 21, 1977 letter from Richard Tufts (James Tufts’s grandson) to Herb Graffis recounted Ross’ role in the family business: “Donald Ross came here as club professional, not as an architect or a green superintendent. I am sure he took some interest in the maintenance of the course but sand-clay greens and Bermuda fairways were both new to him at first. He did play in exhibition matches but surely had nothing to do with the design of the original #1 course, which was built before he came to Pinehurst. In 1901, nine holes of #2 were built and their total length was 1,275 yards. In 1903, this nine was extended to 2,750 yards, but I even wonder whether Donald had any part in their design.”

Thus began years of experimentation which led to a career in design officially launched in 1910. By then, Ross had applied his tendency for rudimentary and penal features to the first three courses at Pinehurst, a far cry from the subtleties we attribute to him today.

Ross was not one who simply strove for playability, allowing golfers the chance to play from the first tee to the eighteenth green with a putter. He was not the one who invented the inverted-saucer-plateau green. He certainly wasn’t the first to use grass hollows and swales around greens, nor should he be the only one attributed to such a hazard. His is not necessarily a legacy of subtle design philosophies chock-full of cerebral strategic choices.

In reality, Donald Ross was one of the most innovative, diverse, and risk-taking designers of his or any other era. Unfortunately, the shock value of his work has slowly been erased from everyone’s memory and replaced by low maintenance and simple designs. Somewhere along the line, the world turned to Pinehurst #2 for a peek into his soul and came away with a crooked view. The restoration movement in America over the past fifteen years has further eroded the true legacy of Ross and replaced it with the stereotypical plateau green and grass-face sand bunker.

To this day, architects point to #2 as the prototypical Donald Ross project and Pinehurst is always the first reference point in many a restoration effort. Many of the most highly acclaimed Ross restorations of the past few years in the Carolinas and elsewhere have lent even more credence to the #2 fallacy, even when there is so much available about the real Donald Ross in his own words.

Ross learned on the job with almost no experience. He arrived in Pinehurst as a club maker and not an architect. Like many architects, he learned on the fly and made numerous mistakes as he grew. Only over decades of trial and error did he become the legend that he is now considered. Yet the grass-faced bunkers and plateau greens of Pinehurst have unfairly pigeonholed Ross into a nice little box where experts can conveniently separate him from his contemporaries. But in fact, the grassfaced bunkers and plateau greens are the exception to the rule.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Ross and his bunker style comes from the appearance of the sand bunkers at Pinehurst #2. Although grass-faced, flat sand lines have been the dominant style at Pinehurst for more than fifty years, they do not represent the typical Donald Ross bunker. Upon Ross’ final (and most extensive) renovation of the greens complexes of Pinehurst #2 in 1935, the sand bunkers were dramatic flashed-sand pits which were clearly visible from the shot to be played and more resembled random jigsaw-puzzle pieces than the kidney shapes and rectangles that are prevalent today.

Tired of raking washed bunker faces, and trying to cut costs, Henson Maples, #2’s superintendent in the early fifties, eliminated the flashed sand lines of those bunkers. Over time, like many other legends, the resultant bunkers became synonymous with Pinehurst, and by default Ross, to the point that the variety of Ross’ bunker work was virtually eliminated. Further fuelling the basic grass-faced bunker misnomer is that hundreds of others at Ross courses made similar maintenance judgments to cut cost, time and effort. It is quite understandable how the grass-faced bunkering found at most Ross courses and matched at Pinehurst slowly evolved into the Ross standard.

There is no doubt that the grass-faced bunker was one of Ross’ looks, especially towards the end of his career, but it was not the only tool of his trade. In reality, the variety and randomness of his bunker styles are almost unmatched. It must be remembered that Ross, like all architects, went through a great learning experience throughout his career, yet he had no mentors to serve under nor did he have thousands of golf courses as reference as we have today. What he did have were the memories of his early days in Scotland – playing golf through sandy dunes and other links features – and it was this Scottish seaside links strategy he strove to recreate in America. Links golf is nature at its most random and that is the maxim Ross followed in his work: randomness of size, shape, sand angle, sand depth and bunker faces.

Ross’ own bunker construction details, which show a variety of styles, are all anyone needs to study to understand that he did not just build grass faces and flat sand bottoms. The danger many architects get into is the tendency to create a consistent bunker look from first hole to last, which is just not what Ross was about in his heyday. To think that every single bunker on a Ross golf course had hidden, flat sand lines is a true disservice to the man, even as we see many high-profile Ross restoration attempts further this myth.

Far from flat and hidden sand, Ross was a stickler for visibility. How do we know that? Not from critics or modern-day ‘Ross experts’, but from the man himself. One bunker type he implemented was the ‘scooped-out pit’. He defined it as follows: “To provide this type of bunker, you must have undulating ground, as they can only be constructed on the faces of slopes or knolls. I like them very much as they usually have a natural appearance and are nearly always open to view, a desirable thing in all bunkers. To keep them in condition, sand must be used plentifully. The whole scooped-out surface should be completely covered with it.”

In describing his ‘sunken pits with raised faces’, he advises against a straight, flat appearance: “If the raised part is carefully designed and built, it can be made to appear quite natural. If you use a line and square in the building of this variety of bunker, the result is sure to have an artificialness akin to the hideous.”

If today’s architect were to design a plateau green with severe sloping into random collection areas mowed down as tightly as the collar, critics would hail it as another veiled attempt to replicate Ross and create another Pinehurst #2. It is as if the world has given the plateau green patent to Ross and we must all pay royalties. Charles Blair MacDonald once said: “Don’t seek an original idea in building a golf course,” and the reality is that the plateau green is a very practical design feature that has nothing to do with Ross. The plateau green is very functional in terms of providing visibility of the putting surface on flat ground as well as creating positive drainage. The strategic merit and challenge are (luckily for us) great by-products of form following function.

The plateau green made famous at #2 was not Ross’ sole style. He was known to also seek out natural ridges, saddles, and other topographic features to act as his green sites and then work his holes back to those locations in a high-point to highpoint fashion. Yes, he did create plateau greens, but not for the singular purpose of providing a target that appeared larger than it was with sides sloping severely off in all directions. In fact, many of his plateau greens were large squares with three levels and sometimes even quadrants switching from high ledges to low spots in a variety of ways. #Just like the sand bunkers, the greens of Pinehurst #2 have evolved into something that is not exactly the Ross look. Originally sixty-foot squares of sand, Ross slowly developed manageable contours in his putting surfaces as far back as 1915. When he converted the greens to grass in 1935, they were very undulating, some with even two-three foot back to front elevation changes. But they were not the small, round, inverted bowls most associate with Ross today.

Although the dramatic slopes on top of the putting surfaces reflect Ross’ intentions, the severity of the edges came long after Ross passed away. In the early 1970s, when the Diamondhead Corporation purchased Pinehurst, the greens at #2 were renovated basically by eliminating the ledges at the foot of the putting surfaces with the simple pass of a bulldozer, in the process shaving away the flat spots where a mishit shot once had a chance to settle before rolling into hollows and swales. Mowing practices for ease of maintenance exacerbated the severe slopes even more, allowing balls to run farther away from the putting surface than Ross initially intended.

This also brings up another fallacy that Ross specified closely-mown collection areas around all of his putting surfaces with the best tool for recovery being a putter. In Ross’ day, closely-cropped surrounds were not possible with the grasses and mowing equipment available at the time. Ross’ primary intention for introducing rolls around the greens was to promote the art of chipping and thoughtful decision-making into the game. He never intended for each green complex to be shaved at fairway height as they are today. Peter Tufts (Richard’s son and Donald’s godson) explained Ross’ grassing patterns at that time: “He stopped the fairway mowing at the edge of the green. If you missed a green it might roll a little way down from the green surface but the different heights in the fairway cut and the green cut would stop it so it wouldn’t roll twenty or thirty feet. Chipping was really tough. And that’s what Ross had in mind in building the greens. He wanted to bring chipping into the green in a strong manner.”

I am much more enamoured with the old photographs of Ross’ work than with what are considered vintage Ross courses today. It is the bold and beautiful feature that stands in sharp contrast to its surrounds and the definitive challenges that excite me about Donald Ross much more than the subtle strategies and soft bunkering that most people have falsely attributed to him. As many great Donald Ross golf courses as there are, there are many more that do not deserve preservation in their present state. Golf course restoration has become a dirty word in the industry over the past couple of years because we all have dug too deeply to apply constraints and definition to the concept. Nobody has suffered from this fate more than Donald Ross. Although revered by many, it is for the wrong reasons and sadly, he is understood by few. Frankly if it wasn’t for his daring attempts at individuality while he was alive, he might not be remembered today.

This article first appeared in issue 10 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2007.