Mention the name Donald Ross to an educated golfer and it will surely bring good thoughts to mind. That is because Ross, in the words of Jack Nicklaus, designed golf courses that led to positive thinking. “His stamp as an architect was naturalness,” Nicklaus said. He was, and still is, considered the Michelangelo of golf.
The Ross name is on some of this nation’s most memorable, and playable, courses. His most famous designs are Pinehurst No. 2, Seminole, Oak Hill and Oakland Hills, but Ross was a man of both quality and quantity. He is credited with 600 designs and redesigns, although some were during his “mail order” era when the demand for his work was so high that he would route courses for property he never saw. Ross would take the topographical maps brought to him, lay out a course on the top, and the club’s greenkeeper or engineer would oversee the construction. Ross did oversee work on a good percentage of the courses which bear his name.
"His stamp as an architect was naturalness.'' - Jack Nicklaus
Ross was born in Dornoch, Scotland, educated in golf at St. Andrews under Old Tom Morris and brought to this country in 1899 by a Harvard professor, Robert Wilson. Investing his entire life’s savings into the trip to America, Ross walked off the boat in Boston with only $2 in his pocket, but a job was waiting for him, thanks to Wilson, at Oakley Country Club in Watertown, Mass.
The following summer he was brought to North Carolina by James Tufts, the man who founded Pinehurst, as the club’s professional. Although he had no experience as a golf course architect, Ross was commissioned by Tufts to design Pinehurst’s first four courses and his career skyrocketed to the point where he became one of golf’s cult heroes.
Alternating between Boston in the summer and Pinehurst during the winter, Ross won three North and South Opens, two Massachusetts Opens and finished fifth in the 1903 U.S. Open as well as eighth in the 1910 British Open. It was a notable record, but Ross’ younger brother, Alex, was the best player in the family, winning the U.S. Open in 1907 in addition to five North and South Opens and six Massachusetts Open titles.
Ross eventually gave up playing and teaching to concentrate on golf course design.
Donald Ross was also a quality player, finishing fifth in the 1903 U.S. Open.
Borrowing from what he learned growing up on the links of Dornoch, 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, there is little rough, 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. He wanted to make No. 2 the No. 1 course in the South, and there are those who believe that Ross succeeded. Having already played host to a PGA Championship, a Ryder Cup and two Tour Championships, Pinehurst No. 2, Ross’ masterpiece, returned to glory as the site of the U.S. Open in 1999 and is slated to host the 2005 U.S. Open.