2001: Ross’ designs preserved by words, images

Review By Tom Doak

With the advent of “signature” golf course designs in the past 20 years, many older clubs have felt the need to attach a designer label to their own 18.

So it is that Donald Ross, who designed 400 American courses in the first half of this century, has become a much more prominent name today than he was at any time during his prolific career.

At the same time, the sheer volume of Ross’ work causes certain people to discount his contribution. Certainly, they say, he could not have devoted much time to each of those courses, within the context of 1920s travel.

Brad Klein’s meticulously researched biography of Donald Ross answers both factions. For the doubters, Klein has traced Ross’ busy years with the help of his personal diaries. Ross spent his summers in New England and his winters in Pinehurst, N.C., so projects in these areas nearly always received his personal attention. He made regular train trips across New York and Ohio, to Detroit and Chicago, leaving behind clusters of excellent Ross designs.

For those who swear by the Ross label, Klein’s book is replete with examples of how poorly his work has been preserved. Before-and-after aerial photos of many Ross layouts drive home how much has been allowed to change, particularly in terms of trees encroaching into play. One chapter is devoted to the simple fundamental design principles which make Ross’ work enduring; another is devoted to detailing restoration efforts at several Ross courses around the country.

More than 50 Ross courses are examined in some detail, from well-known venues such as Pinehurst and Seminole to hidden gems such as Teugega and Essex, plus a few that have since disappeared. In the back of the book, each of Ross’ 398 American designs is documented, including whether Ross is confirmed to have made a trip to the site.

In the end, though, what shines through Klein’s book is a much clearer picture of Donald Ross, the man. In 1899, carrying a suitcase in one hand and his golf clubs in the other, he walked four miles from Boston’s South Station to the door of Prof. Robert Willson, the only man he knew in America. The very next day, he started work as greenkeeper and professional at Oakley Country Club, which he redesigned and rebuilt within a year. He lost his wife Janet in 1922, leaving him to care for their 12-year-old daughter, and then lost his new fiancee the following summer. Yet during the same period he completed more top-notch courses than anyone in the history of the profession.

Donald Ross’ work ethic and his love of the game endure to this day, and nowhere more clearly than in the pages of Discovering Donald Ross.

– Tom Doak is the lead architect for Renaissance Golf Design Inc. of Traverse City, Mich.

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