Though he grew up on the Scottish links of Dornoch, and was an accomplished player, Donald Ross’s decorated career in golf really began in earnest when he sailed for Massachusetts in 1899 to take up a role at Boston’s Oakley Golf Club. Ross arrived as a clubmaker, greenkeeper and golf professional, but would soon make his name as a course designer, moving south to Pinehurst the following year and designing more than 400 courses from his base in the North Carolina resort town.
Although he was responsible for creating some of the world’s most famous tournament venues, like A.W. Tillinghast much of Ross’s best work has been radically altered. Oak Hill, Oakland Hills, Inverness and Interlachen have all hosted major championships, yet because of trees, increased roughs, narrowed fairways and stretched tees none looks or plays quite as Ross had intended. Even the layout most synonymous with Donald Ross, his beloved No. 2 course at Pinehurst, changed over the years with more formal bunkering, the loss of native sandy wastes and greens that became both quicker and more crowned than originally planned. Pleasingly a restoration by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw has returned Pinehurst #2 to its sandy, sparse roots and done wonders to remind the golfing world just how talented Donald Ross really was.
Ross’s greatest strength was routing courses across decent ground. He used fairway movement and inverted greens beautifully, often positioning these targets atop gentle crests but without his designs feeling overly formulaic or repetitive. In order to best appreciate his considerable talents, golfers are encouraged to seek out some of his lesser known projects, courses like White Bear Yacht Club, Essex County Club, Plainfield, Wannamoisett and Teugega, all charming layouts that have survived the decades with their core largely intact. Alternatively, well-connected players can visit the storied Seminole layout in southeast Florida, a particular favourite of Ben Hogan.
Donald Ross is an interesting design character, he worked on some wonderful pieces of land and his best holes are extraordinary. Sadly there are too many diminished Ross courses out there to get a really accurate sense of just where he sits in relation to other architectural giants from this era.