Donald Ross - Course Architect Extraordinaire
In a design career that spanned the first half of the 20th century, native Scotsman Donald J. Ross created 23 golf courses in Michigan. Only Massachusetts (52), North Carolina (48), Florida (38), Pennsylvania (38) and Ohio (34) have more Ross layouts within their borders. That's a remarkable amount of work, a total made all the more impressive since Ross managed to do his work - 399 original or renovated courses - without benefit of airplane transport. He drove, or more commonly, made his way around by train.
Some courses he visited sparingly. Some he did not visit, relying upon his map-reading skills or entrusting the work to his team of veteran associates. But the fact is that Ross managed to create some impressive and enduring designs. If he had a formula, it was a good one. And it has held up over time.
Born in 1872 in the coastal town of Dornoch, Scotland, Ross trained as a greenskeeper and golf pro before coming to the U.S. in 1899. He was an accomplished golfer, having played in half a dozen U.S. Opens and having a top-10 finish to his credit in the 1910 British Open. He spent his summers in Massachusetts and wintered in Pinehurst - where he helped establish that resort as a golf mecca. For much of his life until his death in 1948, he was on the road.
Detroit was an easy access point given the railway lines. His first work in the Great Lakes State was Muskegon CC in 1911. The last work he did came in 1936, when Ross made some changes to Bloomfield Hills CC and tinkered with Detroit Golf Club's North Course (where he had done a 36-hole routing in 1916). His most famous work came at Oakland Hills CC-South in 1917, but his purest, untouched work is actually at Franklin Hills (1926). Daily fee golfers know Ross' handiwork from such stalwart municipal layouts as Rackham Golf Course and Rogell Golf Course in Detroit and Warren Valley Golf Club in Westland.
Most of Ross' layout were in the 6,500-yard range. They sported modest greens, often tipped toward the line of play, with difficult (though not deep) chipping areas surrounding. His fairways would often be bunkered on one side only, and the smart player could discern a way around or over his bunkers since Ross was intent upon providing angles of play rather than heroic carries over hazards. Perhaps that's why his courses are still so enjoyable today.
Oh, and there was one other matter. His courses were designed to be walked. He worked before the advent of golf carts. And before golf holes got cluttered up with real estate.
Bradley S. Klein, architecture editor of Golfweek, is the author of the new biography, Discovering Donald Ross (Sleeping Bear Press, 2001).
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