Donald Ross changed the history of golf

Photos courtesy of the Tufts Archives

The summer he was brought to Pinehurst by founder James Walker Tufts, Donald Ross had no experience as a golf course architect. Originally, he was there to be the area’s first golf professional, but was soon commissioned by Tufts to design Pinehurst’s first four courses.

It was a moment that changed golf history.

Borrowing from what he learned growing up on the links of Dornoch, Scotland, Ross made the crowned green his trademark. He was a detail man who took great patience to make sure every slope and break met his approval. All his bunkers looked like they hadn’t been built at all, but had been made by the hands of nature. There is a seamless, timeless quality to Donald Ross golf courses that required very little earth-moving to construct.

Pinehurst No. 2 is a perfect example. Water comes into sight on only one hole, and it is not in play. The course is not particularly long, the rough is native sandscape and wire grass, and it is almost impossible to lose a golf ball. Yet any golfer who goes around close to his or her handicap will have had a good day.

Ross spent more time tweaking this layout than any other of his designs, if not for any other reason than Bob Jones selected Alister Mackenzie over him to design Augusta National.

That was a moment that changed Pinehurst history forever. But it’s also a story for another day.

No Laughing Matter

“My friends laughed at me,” Ross said in 1930. “They said it was folly to try to make a winter golf colony down in the jack pines and sand of Carolina.”

But in Pinehurst Ross discovered land forms that harkened to his homeland; to wit, pure sand. He set about retooling Pinehurst’s modest golf offering and expanding it. Golf’s popularity was spreading like wildfire in the early 1900s, and Pinehurst was at the epicenter.

“Pinehurst absolutely was the pioneer in American golf,” Ross said. “While golf had been played in a few places before Pinehurst was established, it was right here in these sandhills that the first great national movement in golf was started. Men came here, took a few golf lessons, bought a few clubs and went away determined to organize clubs.”

And when those new clubs were formed, Ross was invariably hired to design their courses.

-Lee Pace

A Life Lesson

Old Tom Morris was against gambling in golf and advised Ross to never bet on the golf course beyond a small wager. “Why make a horse race out of a game like golf?” Morris posited. Ross took Old Tom’s words to heart and for the rest of his life rarely played for stakes beyond a quarter Nassau. Ross said that Calcutta pools “don’t belong in such a fine, clean game.”

Once at Pinehurst, a young man who didn’t know Ross asked him for a game and a $25 Nassau.

“Let’s just play for the fun of the game,” Ross countered.

The young man insisted, so Ross relented, played the visitor and beat him soundly.

“I built the course,” Ross told his opponent. “Let this be a lesson to you: Don’t play for high stakes with a stranger.”

-Lee Pace

In Ross’ Words

“If you use a line and a square to build a bunker, the result is sure to have an artificial-ness akin to hideous. It’s just as easy to break up all the lines and avoid such a regrettable result.. Man cannot do in a few days what nature took years to accomplish.”

If you want to know a man, take him out on the golf course.
Donald Ross

“Often the very highest recommendation of a bunker is when it is criticized. That shows that it is accomplishing the one thing for which it was built: It’s making players think.”

“The repeated loss of balls by those to whom the hazard is difficult is apt to create dissatisfaction.”

“If you want to know a man, take him out on the golf course.”

“I believe wholeheartedly in golf. I consider it a game of honor. It does more to bring out the finer points in a man’s character than any other sport.”

“A country which gets golf-minded need not worry about the honor, the integrity and the honesty of its people.”

“Every golfer is on his honor. As long as we keep golf a game of honor, we’re on the right road.”


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