Why do such a book? What was really left out from all other earlier efforts?
The man’s stature is such that it warrants another portrait. When a figure has played such a large role and the influence will remain strong in the future, it’s preferable to have multiple portraits. The establishment of the game in America was undoubtedly a collective effort. However, a careful read of the materials points to the fact that no one did more to establish the American game than Ross. That’s a fundamental shift of his place in history. The research turned up a ton of information even Ross experts didn’t know. The book is filled with information, anecdotes and factoids you will not have seen before – including several courses that have never been credited to him.
What do you think was the biggest regret Donald Ross had?
I suspect his biggest regret was that he didn’t get to spend more time with his family in Scotland – and Scotland itself. I would imagine when he took a break from his office right on the shore of Little Compton, RI he would look out across the Atlantic and feel a sense of longing for his homeland. That’s the cover of the book, in fact.
In your estimation — the ten finest hands-on Donald Ross designs existing today?
Having read through over 700 articles from those early days, I’ll offer a list based on how those courses were commented on at the time.
1. Pinehurst No. 2
3. Aronimink – Ross: “I intended to make this my masterpiece but not until today did I realize that I built better than I knew.”
4. Scioto – It was so well conceived and realized the USGA only spent about $100 dollars getting it ready for the 1926 U.S. Open.
6. Oak Hill (East)
7. Country Club of Havana – Ralph Kennedy of the New York Times rated it one of the six best in the world. (Kennedy played over 4,000
8. Belleair No. 1 – Ross said: “I consider these links to be structurally perfect”
9. Oyster Harbors – “Indirectly, one gets the impression that he is most proud of the No. 2 Course at Pinehurst, Seminole and Oyster Harbors as examples of his handiwork” – from a 1940 interview
10. Pinehurst No. 3 – A 1915 Outing Magazine had it in their top twelve. It was actually considered a beast in those days.
What would Ross say of the revisions made to a number of his key courses — Inverness, Oakland Hills, Oak Hill, etc, etc.?
Each one is different. Some aspects he would find sensible, such as lengthening, other elements he would not like. For instance, the narrowness of Oak Hill is not what he had in mind. He was very much into making the golfer think. If there is only a narrow landing strip for a tee shot then there is no choice whatsoever. That is not what he was trying to do. This is not to beat up on Oak Hill. They were doing what everybody else — including Pinehurst — was doing for major championships. They wanted to test driving accuracy. The thing is, you can penalize someone without having thick rough. Mike Clayton taught me about short grass as a hazard. You can leave the wayward driver with a disadvantaged approach angle. That’s vastly preferable to just chopping it back out into the fairway. That kind of shot should be very rare. By the way, Oak Hill is getting ready to have a go at moving their courses back toward Ross.
In the book you mention Ross contributed to the design of Oakmont — do you know what specific elements he did there?
No one, including myself, know the specifics of what he did there. The book looks into the story surrounding his work there with relevant documents provided. Since Oakmont has held nine U.S. Opens, the fact that he worked there is relatively big news. That’s an example of the large number of previously unknown (or rarely known) items the reader will find in the book.
Was the biggest career disappointment for Ross losing the assignment to design Augusta National to Alister Mackenzie?
It’s possible. But we don’t really know so I wouldn’t make that statement outright. I like historic mysteries. It is fun to have a go at trying to discern what actually took place. Some knowledgeable people have stated the ANGC contract was a big disappointment to him. My reading of the scenario was different. The man had built so many masterpieces and been offered so many contracts that I’m not sure he could get greatly worked up about ANGC. Remember, at the time Pinehurst was the supreme king of American golf. Augusta was the upstart. They were practically bankrupt and famously did not pay Alister Mackenzie — and other prominent people. To my knowledge, Seminole was the only course he really campaigned for.
Is Pinehurst #2 by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw the best restoration effort from what Ross originally envisioned?
It may well be. There’s been some excellent work going on out there so I’m not sure that can be said definitively. However, Coore and Crenshaw’s work was absolutely brilliant. It’s such a pleasure seeing many clubs moving back toward the original design. The talent those artisans have is very impressive. And, I haven’t heard of a club being displeased with moving back to the original.
In the area of equipment limitations – most notably the golf ball — how would Ross characterize USGA and R&A efforts?
I think Ross would say the quantum leap in distance greatly diminishes how most of those classic courses were intended to be played. What was the club Hogan hitting in that famous photo at Merion? Ross would not be happy that so many courses have been made borderline irrelevant for tournaments.
How can future architects learn from what Ross did with many of his course creations?
Routing, recovery shots, making the most of the given land, options to make them think, modifying the land in a naturalistic way, if necessary. Seeing that water and flashy elements don’t have to be part of the deal.
If you had one question to ask Ross what would it be?
Tell me how you designed or redesigned some 256 courses in the 1920’s. That I would like to hear from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.