Golf Chicago!
Golf Chicago! features Donald Ross

Discovering Donald Ross

Excerpted Portions from the Winner of the USGA 2001 International Book Award

Last year Golf Chicago! excerpted portions of what was then a new book, a unique dual biography of Bobby Jones and Walter, written by a Stephen Lowe, a professor of history at Olivet-Nazarene College. Thereafter the USGA also saw fit to honor Lowe as their Book of the Year recipient. Well, this year the USGA beat us to the punch by giving Brad Klein’s “Discovering Donald Ross” their 2002 award before we could give you portions of it. Undaunted, we still want you to get a least a glimpse of this book about this great golf course architect. Klein has done extensive research on Ross and also found a way to make this a fascinating examination of the man whose influence goes far beyond that of any other architect. What we have excerpted are portions of Klein’s introduction and the discussion of some of the Chicago area courses designed or influenced by Ross. The book is published by Sleeping Bear Press, Chelsea, MI


The name Donald Ross carries considerable weight throughout the world of golf. That is no small achievement for someone whose main contribution to the game was as a designer and builder of golf courses and who last worked half a century ago. Most of the game’s legendary figures established their reputations as great players. Ross, by contrast, never won a national championship. Nor did he compete on the professional tour. He conducted his life in relative quiet—relative, that is, to the more crass elements of media hype and consumer culture that have come to define our modern sports worlds. Instead, Ross worked a more modest landscape—that of the earth’s contours. And he made his mark in an era when golf, like sports in general, was just beginning to establish itself as part of everyday culture.

He was a quiet man, resolute in his vision of the land and unshakable in his personal commitments to friends, colleagues, and family. He was by no means educated by modern standards, though he was sustained by a certain native intelligence cultivated through close association with many of the game’s pioneers. Most importantly, he was born to humble origins, to a family whose strength was shaped less by wealth—for there was none—than by a steadying, religious sensibility of right and wrong.

Between his birth in 1872 in Dornoch, Scotland and his death in Pinehurst, North Carolina in 1948, Donald James Ross nonetheless managed to help reshape the face of American sports. He left behind a legacy of 399 golf courses that he either designed or redesigned—a far cry from the 600 or more that have mistakenly been attributed to him. During his heyday in the 1920s, he was the country’s most prolific creator of golf courses. From 1919 through 1931, eight of the thirteen U.S. Opens were contested on layouts he had designed or redone. He also presided over the making of the country’s first substantial golf resort at Pinehurst. Along the way he pioneered developments in turfgrass that dramatically altered the playing texture of the country’s golf layouts. Small wonder that in December of 1947, during the founding meeting of the American Society of Golf Course Architects held in Pinehurst, Ross was named honorary president. Today, the ASGCA’s highest award, presented annually, is called the Donald Ross Award.

And his work continues to inspire today. A list published annually by Golfweek of “America’s Best” golf courses includes two separate rankings: a top-100 list of Classical layouts that predate 1960, and another top-100 list of Modern courses that debuted in 1960 or later. Ross, with 22 courses on the Classical list, has 10 more than the next most honored traditional designer, A.W. Tillinghast. His 12 design credits on the 1999 Golf Digest list (including Congressional CC, where he added nine holes in 1930) give him one more than Robert Trent Jones Sr. and two more than Tom Fazio. His dominance is confirmed on the Golf Magazine list of top-100 U.S. courses as well, where his 12 design credits exceed all others, living or deceased. Despite substantially different selection methods, all three national lists affirm Ross’ place in history (see comparative rankings sidebar).

Just to name his most famous courses—Pinehurst No.2, Seminole, Oakland Hills, Oak Hill—is enough to induce fanciful thoughts among golfers. But it’s also an awareness of his more esoteric gems—Franklin Hills in Michigan, Holston Hills in Tennessee, Wannamoisett in Rhode Island—that gets itinerant golfers thinking lovingly about the brilliance of classic course architecture which Ross championed.

If Ross himself knew that his work was legendary, he never betrayed it in his letters or in the records of his conversations and relations with colleagues. Everything he did was undertaken in his own self-restrained manner. Ross was by no means publicly celebrated. Indeed, he was no hero at all—except, perhaps, to his immediate family, who to this day revere his memory. When interviewed for this biography of her father, for example, 89-year old Lillian Ross Pippitt was almost apologetic for not realizing at the time she was growing up that her father was so well respected or that he would become famous for his achievements. “I didn’t know him as a famous person,” she told me. “I just knew him as Dad.”

In his day, Ross was deeply respected by those who worked around him, whether in the fields of course architecture, agronomy, resort operations, or club making. Most impressive is that a half century after his death, he is revered for the boldness of his vision and for the clarity with which he designed, shaped, and built golf holes. Generations of golfers are indebted to him for his having made their idle pursuit so enjoyable. And his work is still carefully studied by would-be practitioners of the trade who are searching for the secrets and principles that made his designs so enduring.

This design biography explores what made his work so impressive. If this doesn’t result in a precise list of golden rules to follow, it will reveal the kind of creativity and persistence needed to create a substantial body of work. Even in golf, it is possible to have artistry. The only difference between the traditional arts and golf course design is that the creativity has to be blended with sound engineering, good agronomy and drainage, and lots of tender loving care. Ross had all those skills—plus the ability to convey it to those around him. The result is a body of work that 75 years after its apogee continues to thrill golfers and to inspire those interested in the craft of course architecture.

Unfortunately, it is no easy matter interpreting such a vast body of work. Earlier in my golf writing career, I would regularly walk a golf course and speak notes about it into a small tape recorder. “Interviewing the golf course,” I used to call it, and it had its merits as a means of gaining an understanding of what the land was suggesting by its various folds and contours. I well remember a cold, wet Monday in early May of 1989, when I was forced to experience the Oak Hills East Course this way, without playing it, because that day’s U.S. Open media preview round was snowed out. I’ve since been fortunate to have played the course twice, but actually never gained a better view of the holes than during that otherwise miserable day more than a decade ago.

For better or worse, it has not been possible to conduct an extended enough series of interviews to cover all of Ross’s work. Had that been the case, the book would have been delayed even longer. What I have attempted here, however, is an interpretive biography in which I place Ross’s life in the context of his own evolving design work. My interest is less on the everyday facts of his life than on how his experiences shaped his work and how, in turn, his golf courses influence us today. For that reason, I have also avoided a hole-by-hole or course-by-course narrative. The point of this exercise, after all, is not to reproduce Ross but to make sense of him for us today. In that tradition, there is an element of “how to” in this book that might actually be of some use to golfers seeking to improve their game.

I never fail to be stunned by how bullheaded many golfers can be—regardless of handicap—in playing a hole a particular way when it clearly suggests another line or angle of play. An attention to the architect’s purpose is important. No bunkers or swales are there by accident. “Every contour has a story,” an architect once told me. Paying attention to those stories might actually help us play better. It will certainly make the walk in the park more enjoyable, and that alone is a worthy achievement. Indeed, as far as I can tell it is the main purpose of playing golf at all.

Ross was more of a designer and builder than he was a reflective intellectual about his work. His sole musings on architecture, published in 1996 as Golf Has Never Failed Me, is a suggestive set of observations. They do not, however, represent the kind of boldly unified or systematic approach to the game found in parallel books by such contemporaries as Charles Blair Macdonald, Alister MacKenzie, George Thomas, or Tom Simpson. Nonetheless, Ross does betray a coherent and admirable sensibility about the game: that it should be kept simple, diverse, and enjoyable for all classes of golfers, and that architecture must draw upon the principles of links golf and adapt them to parkland circumstances.

Ross wrote in an era when handwritten letters were commonplace, and when legal and business matters were handled on the basis of exhaustively detailed correspondence. The convenience of the telephone had not yet registered its mark. In short, his was a world where the pace of communication and life was extended over space and time and there was more time for matters to unfold at a pace that enabled thought, planning, and response. How different it was from today’s world of real-time communication, instantaneous responses, and electronic, web-based information.

The altered tone of contemporary life is reflected in the nature of course design. Today’s design values seem governed by a certain immediacy in which first impressions of visual appeal are the standard of architectural judgment. In such a world, it is understandable, if not excusable, that the older, more enduring virtues of classic design might be considered quaint, old-fashioned and of mere historic interest.

There are many golfers today who find traditional or classic design unexciting or even boring. Their tastes, cultivated by a flashy, cover-girl approach adopted by certain glossy magazines, value the appearance of a golf course rather than its more enduring playing values. The result has been a concern to make a sudden, immediate impression rather than to build layouts that would speak to the heart of the game.

While players cannot be blamed if they find such new works appealing, the same cannot be said for architects. Amazingly, there are all too many course designers today with little tolerance for traditional works like Ross’s. Not that all architects need to uphold his values in their own work. But they should at least have made a careful study, and if they find his work objectionable or uninteresting, they owe the golf world the decency of simply refusing to touch such works. Instead, too many designers today have been willing to ply a heavy hand in improving, updating, renovating, or simply changing (for its own sake) the work deeded to us by Donald Ross.

Bad enough that so many designers have never even bothered to look carefully at the classic courses. A philosophy professor unfamiliar with the works of Plato and Aristotle would never secure university employment in the field of ethics. Why, then, are benighted architects—some of them indifferent on principle to history—allowed to practice course design? Worse yet, why are they allowed a free hand by green chairmen and course owners to tinker, alter, or improve upon the traditional masters without having made a thorough study and shown respect for the genre? An attitude prevails today that sees the golf course as a piece of property that can be dispensed with or abused as the owner might desire. Yet when it comes to recognized works of art, an attitude of respect for the painter’s or scupltor’s intent counsels far more caution and limits intervention to painstaking efforts at restoration. If the same attitude were more widely cultivated among golfers and within the course design industry, many regrettable butcheries of classic courses might have been spared.

To be sure, there is no licensing in the design business when it comes to judgment and taste. Market principles prevail, and if there is demand for services of a particular sort, then a designer will fill that niche—even if, in doing so, he ends up destroying classic work. But not all of the choices that clubs and officers make are informed ones. Many come by way of deference to the architect and to his presumed expertise as a practitioner, especially when h

e has won many tournaments on the PGA Tour and impresses by virtue of his celebrity.
In this case, some education would help. The point is to cultivate a different taste among consumers of golf courses and to promote a more refined taste that would embrace the virtues of classic design.

Today, greater respect, even awe, is beginning to find a toehold across the industry. There is a discernible movement among certain architects and among club officers toward preservation and restoration rather than toward wholesale renovation in the name of “modernization.” Evidence for this can be found in the many new books devoted to classic design. There are also several websites devoted to the praise of traditional golf, and preservationist societies devoted to the work of a particular architect are having a modest if growing influence.

Many of the most egregious examples of classic golf course renovation are being viewed not as exemplary but as unfortunate, to be avoided rather than emulated in the future. To that end, many courses are beginning to peel back layers of secondary tree growth and planting. Flashed-up bunkers are being built with lower profiles. Native grasses as well as fescue are making a return. There is also evidence that the virtues of the short game in and around greens are gaining new prominence. “How can we modernize?” is not what clubs are beginning to ask. They’re asking, “What can we do to enhance, preserve or restore our classic heritage?”

If the pages that follow contribute toward that appreciation, this design biography of Donald J. Ross will have succeeded. It is not that all of his work was brilliant. But much of it was thoughtful, well executed, and at times ingenious. In short, it merits careful study. Three-quarters of a century after Ross’s heyday and a half a century after his death, his work continues to inspire golfers and to encourage designers on the merits of classic landforms.

Ross quickly flourished—to the point where “Douglas” was taking work from Colt in the Chicago area. In 1913, for example, the year he was designing Old Elm, Colt was engaged by another club in Highland Park. Exmoor Country Club wanted him “to go over our course and to make plans and suggestions for its betterment.” It is not known what happened to Colt’s proposal for Exmoor’s 5,880-yard layout (designed by H.J. Tweedie in 1901-02). But in 1914, Exmoor turned to Ross to undertake a thorough remodeling that resulted two years later in the opening of a 6,502-yard, par-72 layout.

Other area clubs, both new and prospective, lined up quickly. Within a 10-year period, 1913-1923, Ross built or renovated nearly a dozen courses in metro Chicago. The spurt of activity and the frequency with which he had to be in town ultimately gave rise to reports that he had an office in the city. But if so, there is no direct reference to it in any surviving letters and no address on stationery or working documents (such as blueprints and sketches). On the basis of all available evidence, it can be confidently stated that Ross was working very much on his own, or only with casual arrangements with foremen hired for discrete jobs and without benefit of a local office in Chicago.

At Oak Park Country Club in the city of Oak Park, Ross created a links-style layout replete with split or alternate fairways and cross bunkers. The site was low-lying land alongside the Des Plaines River. The soil, predominantly clay, was on the heavy side and drained poorly, but Ross deliberately avoided using a densely wooded six-acre copse on the east-central side of the property and allowed his huge bunkers with moderate faces to create the strategy (along with a burn that was an element on more than half of a dozen holes).

Ross was on site at Oak Park and finished his layout plans on July 18, 1914. Construction, overseen by a W.J. Matthews, led to the first nine opening the following July 3, and the second nine debuting on May 31, 1916. A vast, prairie-style clubhouse reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work soon graced the site. However, its location some 200 feet north of where Ross assumed it would be led to a modest resequencing of the front nine holes to simplify the walk—and perhaps to avoid the awkwardness of a first hole that Ross had routed into the morning sun. One dramatic hole, the 390-yard par-4 seventh (now the fifth), incorporated the brook on a long diagonal line from left to right. Mature oaks lining the left side effectively forced golfers to the right, from where they would have to cross the stream again on the approach.

One of Ross’s more inventive creations was the 403-yard, par-4 15th. It offered a split-fairway option around a massive bunker that bisected the landing area. Changes suggested by Ross himself in October of 1921, however, led to a much revised 14th hole and abandonment of the double-fairway 15th. What started as evidence of an unusual double-option defined by a serpentine bunker became transformed into a far more conventional pathway to the green flanked by small, circular bunkers.

While working on Exmoor and Oak Park, Ross also redesigned Skokie Country Club in Glencoe, on the north side of Chicago. The club was founded in 1897, with the course having evolved from a member-designed 9-hole layout to a full 18-hole layout by Tom Bendelow in 1905 that measured 6,115 yards. Ross was commissioned in 1914 to remodel the course. His extensive renovation work, which debuted the next year, produced the course that hosted the 1922 U.S. Open, won by 20-year-old Gene Sarazen. The Ross version was substantially altered in 1938 by William J. Langford and Theodore J. Moreau. This was necessary because the club gave up a parcel on the north side for real estate development while enjoying a net gain through land acquisition on the southwest side. Of Skokie’s current routing, just over half the course—holes 1, 2, 8, 10, 14,15, 17,18 and the last half of No. 7—can be said to be Ros’s work. As Skokie presently undergoes an extensive restoration program, the membership and architect Ron Prichard face the intriguing issue of two distinct design styles, one overlaid upon the other. In this as in all restoration work, the effort involves a substantial degree of interpretation and creativity in deciding which (hybrid) style to adopt.

In nearby Highland Park, Ross designed Bob O’Link Golf Club in 1916. His 6,348-yard layout featured two returning nines, the outgoing side arrayed on the southeast side of the property and the incoming side set on the northwest half. The fairways were wide enough and so unencumbered by trees that nearly a dozen bunkers served double duty on adjoining holes. This is a far cry from the densely treed layout that exists today. Indeed, little remains of Ross’s design work following three separate waves of renovations, the first involving major work by H.S. Colt and C.H. Alison in 1925 that kept only a handful of the original Ross’s fairway corridors and green sites. The layout was also subjected to an ambitious tree-planting program, largely overseen by superintendent Bob Williams during his reign at Bob O’Link between 1955 and 1976.

By 1997 Skokie had become a densely planted parkland layout. The view here is to the northeast toward the clubhouse. The club is now undergoing a restoration program, overseen by architect Ron Prichard, and 400 trees have already been removed. (c. Tony Roberts)
In 1918-1919, three miles south of Bob O’Link, Ross designed an 18-hole layout at Northmoor Country Club in the town of Ravinia. His work is well-preserved, not only in a period-piece blueprint of the original design but also in the fact that the club preserved the original holes during a nine-hole expansion in 1965 on land to the southwest that included an area marked off ominously by Ross as “Skokie swamp.” Ross’s 6,511-yard design was largely arrayed in north-south fashion. Both nines ran out and back from the clubhouse and required a crossing of Clavey Road—in those days a dirt road, but now a busy four-lane highway. Today, the original front nine is split between Northmoor’s Red and White nines. The Blue nine has preserved Ross’s back nine in excellent form. What his 1919 design plan shows as bunkers are now easily seen in the land as dramatic hollows and scooped-out areas. Many of these intended fore-bunkers in front of tees were likely never filled with sand. A January 2000 tree survey revealed 1,632 hardwoods and evergreens on the grounds—a far cry from the virtually open field that Ross worked upon. Yet his distinctive landforms are still in evidence. Despite its heavy clay soil base and its lack of much elevation change—only 10 feet in all—Northmoor provides compelling evidence of fascinating ground game features.

There isn’t anything low-profile about the land on which Beverly Country Club sits. This Chicago layout 11 miles southwest of the downtown Loop includes the highest point in Cook County (at the second tee), as well as 40 feet of elevation change. For years, it was claimed that Ross designed this layout in 1908—almost five years before any other work of his in the region. But historical research by club archivist Paul L. Richards and others has now shown that this attribution is misleading, and that while the club and golf grounds enjoyed their inception that year, Ross’s work almost certainly did not ensue until at least 1919.

The rectangular 157-acre site, a mile long and one-quarter mile across, lay on a north-south axis between 83rd Street and 91st Street, with Western Avenue on the east side and the B&O Railroad tracks on the west. A ridgeline of glacial deposit formed an upslope that traverses the ground and formed a natural basin for what was once known as Lake Chicago. Much of the site consists of well-draining sand—a rarity in Chicago.

Resident golf professional George O’Neil laid out the original course in 1908. He either had the help of Tom Bendelow or Bendelow made some subsequent suggestions for alterations. There is, perhaps, some outside chance of Ross’s involvement at Beverly prior to 1919, but if so, there is no mention in any area golf publications. A clubhouse fire that Beverly suffered in 1917 may have destroyed the chain of evidence pointing to earlier Ross plans or work. In any case, a running record of Beverly’s proceedings only begins in January of 1919. Ross’s name first appears under the date of March 4, 1919, when mention is made of “contemplated alterations on the links as outlined by Donald Ross.” That and subsequent references over the next five years confirm the fact that Ross’s involvement came a decade or more after the layout was opened and that the work he did consisted of considerable modification. Moreover, the work was not done all at once; it appears to have been undertaken in at least two stages, with the bulk of it completed by 1922 and some subsequent work in 1924-25.

When Beverly hosted the 1910 Western Open, the course played to 6,050 yards—a length bolstered considerably by a 600-yard third hole and a 565-yard 11th hole. For the 1931 U.S. Amateur, a rendition of the golf course that exists today was in shape and measured 6,702 yards. Unfortunately, there are no drawings or sketches of either the original Beverly layout or of Ross’s plans. The only detailed contemporary drawings of Beverly came not from Ross but from Chick Evans in 1931-32.

The Ross version of Beverly played to a par of 71, with five par 3s and four long, demanding par 5s. The course was extraordinary for its reliance upon length in the par 5s: they averaged 568 yards. The shortest of the par 5s was the 545-yard second hole. Chick Evans’s 1932 “topographical plan” of the course shows a feature that is highly unusual for Ross: a string of five pearl bunkers on the left side of the tee shot landing area. It is not clear if Evans was working from Ross’s original drawings or whether he was presenting what amounted to a proposed revision. In any case, the bunkers do not appear in either of two aerial photographs taken in the early 1930s. The 568-yard seventh hole demanded an uphill tee shot to the top of that transverse ridge and brought the short hitter within all-too-easy reach off the tee of three traps built into the upslope. The 590-yard 11th hole, only slightly longer but still in the same place as the one from the O’Neil layout, was legendary in Chicago golf circles for its uphill blind tee shot to a tree-lined fairway that doglegged left, away from the train line that flanked the right side of the hole.

Oak Park C.C. in October of 2000. The effect of heavy tree growth is obvious. (Ralph Chermak)
As with many older, blind holes, the drive on the 11th hole was eventually softened. In 1955-56, the crowned section of the fairway 150-yards off the tee was leveled and the tee raised to make the landing area visible. As much as Ross might have regretted such a move, he would have been far more upset about a very substantial change to Beverly in 1932, when the county extended 87th Street through the very heart of the golf course. An early plan—whether it was O’Neil’s or Ross’s is not clear—had called for a modest internal driveway along that path to be used by club members and staff. Beverly was already divided evenly, with the front nine on the north side of 87th Street and the back nine (and clubhouse) on the south. The establishment of what became a four-lane road is not something most golf courses can withstand. In Beverly’s case, it required relatively minor modifications, primarily a foreshortening of the first tee and ninth green. “Unless absolutely necessary,” wrote Ross in Golf Has Never Failed Me, “don’t for a minute consider a property divided by either a street or a railroad. The very intent of a golf course is to get away from just such things.”

Despite the road crossing, Beverly has stood up well. The club’s routing has remained intact since the 1920s. Both nines sport a similar formation: each comprises a twin, counterclockwise loop that returns to the clubhouse relatively late in the sequence. On the front nine it’s the seventh green, on the back it’s the 15th green. Only a single two-hole sequence—numbers 11 and 12, the longest and the shortest holes, respectively—is routed in the same direction. Despite an altered green or two and some undue bunker work in the 1980s that softened the definitions of the bunker edges, the club retains its character. Indeed, like many vintage Ross layouts, it has sought to deepen its Ross heritage by an ambitious program of restoration. The string of pearl bunkers on the second hole were installed, some trees have been removed, and a coterie of several highly motivated and ambitious members has helped educate other members about the club’s architectural heritage. Recently, designer Ron Prichard has been retained to oversee a master plan that is oriented around restoration. Plans call for recapturing lost hole placements, regaining lost fairway areas through a tree removal program, and rebuilding the bunkers so that they will sport the classic look of low-lying concave bottoms and turfed walls that lead down to the bunker floor.

Perhaps Ross’s most idiosyncratic design in the Chicago area was Ravisloe Country Club in Homewood, 20 miles southwest of downtown. The course dates to a 1901 layout by James Foulis Jr. (1896 U.S. Open champion) and his brother Robert. Ravisloe was updated twice—by Aleck Bauer and Robert White, then by Willie Watson—before Ross was brought on board in 1916. Ross’s plan took four years to implement and yielded a layout that is virtually intact today in terms of routing, but not in bunkering.

An aerial photograph of Ravisloe from the early 1920s shows a remarkable sprinkling of bunkers throughout the layout, perhaps 200 in all, though not all are visible in the photograph. The first hole, a mid-length par 4, has six oval bunkers across the entrance about 15 yards short of the putting surface. There appear to be about 20 bunkers—most of them of the pot variety—on the second hole. The seventh hole (on the left side of the photograph) features a dozen or so long, snaky bunkers down both sides of the fairway. A necklace of half a dozen bunkers circles across the 17th fairway well out of the reach of most drives.

Over the years, Ravisloe, like many Ross courses in the Midwest and Northeast, has become a heavily treed layout with only a few dozen large, circular bunkers. In some cases, the trees overhang or even block the bunkers and there is scant evidence on the ground of the links-style scattershot bunkering that used to characterize the course.

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Last Updated: 7/11/02