Its story began 700 miles from the Arctic Circle on the east coast of Scotland at Dornoch, north of the Highlands and fast by the sea. But the Scottish immigrant who arrived in America at the turn of the 20th century and became one of North Carolina’s greatest ambassadors didn’t come straight to the Tar Heel State.
Donald Ross first arrived in Boston in 1899 and was hired almost immediately as a club professional and greenkeeper at Oakley Country Club in Watertown, Mass. Golf had only been played for a decade in the United States, but had become popular, especially among the wealthy.
Among the wealthiest was James Tufts, whose fortune came from the invention and manufacture of the beautiful marble soda fountain. Tufts has made its money grow by establishing a winter spa resort away from the harsh New England weather just off Highway 1 and the East Coast rail line from Florida to North Carolina – five miles of the village of Southern Pines – which he named Pinehurst.
In 1900, Tufts convinced Ross to accompany him on a trip south to become golf manager at Pinehurst. It turned into a lifelong commitment for Ross, who eventually designed and built four courses for the resort – none with more affection than his No. 2 layout, which he called “a pet of mine. and “the best championship golf test I’ve ever designed.
The decision also set a precedent that Ross would follow for the rest of his life: he worked in New England in the summers, in North Carolina in the winters.
At Pinehurst, Ross has spent the last half-decade of his life orchestrating the lion’s share of his stupendous design work from his 4,500-square-foot home on the third fairway of No. 2 along Midland Road, while helping to reshape the Sandhills deserts – whose sandy soil he likened to that of his homeland – into a world-class golf destination.
No. 2 was originally laid out and built in 1907 with flat, square, uncontoured oiled sand greens. Ross then spent years leveraging his experience in turf management to revolutionize southern green space maintenance practices as he slowly transitioned from putting surfaces to Bermuda grass.
Its new product was unveiled just in time for the 1935 PGA Championship and its courses became favorite venues for professional and amateur tournaments. From 1919 to 1930 the National Open was played on no less than seven different Ross models.
Praised over the years by everyone from professionals to presidents – Jack Nicklaus calls the No. 2 his “favorite golf course in the United States from a design standpoint” – “the devil” has also hosted the championship PGA Tour of 1936, the Ryder Cup of 1951 and the Tour Championships of 1991 and 1992 among many other world-class competitions.
Yet No. 2 is perhaps best known as a US Open site highlighted by one of golf’s most enduring moments – the triumph of the late Payne Stewart in 1999. After his second US Open in 2005 and many architectural changes over the years, in June 2014 the No. 2 made history once again by hosting back-to-back men’s and women’s US Opens.
Also in Moore County, Ross has built beautiful developments in Southern Pines for Pine Needles, Mid Pines and Southern Pines Country Club, all within a six mile radius.
Mid Pines is a peaceful location often listed as a favorite of Ross’ courses in the Sandhills, a delightful walk through mature stands of longleaf pine. Pine Needles, its larger sister course across the street, is where Ross played most of his golf for the last 15 years of his life. It has hosted three US Women’s Opens – 1996, 2001 and 2007 – and is now hosting its fourth US Women’s Open.
Former Pine Needles champions represented a trio of gaming greats at the height of their powers: Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Cristie Kerr. “I’ve been playing The Open for almost 20 years now and (Pine Needles) is one of the best Open golf courses I’ve played on,” said another former Women’s Open winner, Pat Bradley. . “It flows from start to finish. There are no gimmicks there.
Ross’ designs each possess a cohesive, timeless quality and are known for their natural beauty, intelligent development of strategy and meticulous attention to detail. Continuity was another important tenet of Ross’s philosophy. His classes had to be uninterrupted. He wanted the player to feel that the holes were occurring naturally, without the intervention of an architect.
Ross believed that less was more – that golf should be fun, not penance. With this in mind, he has designed courses that are accessible to almost all levels of golfer.
“It’s Donald Ross architecture in a nutshell,” said Greensboro-based architect Kris Spence, who has carved out a niche around the Carolinas by renovating Ross-designed courses. “It’s about the game of golf. It’s not about aesthetics, about this superfluous attempt to create photographic opportunities. It’s about the game. It’s about the wide variety of golf shots that are necessary, or at least possible. This is why Donald Ross is such a great architect and why so many people love him.
Of course, Ross’ presence in the Tar Heel State extends far beyond Pinehurst. According to research by the Donald Ross Society, he has shaped more than 50 courses between Asheville and Wilmington, of which around 40 remain in play with their attribution intact – and the public has access to around half.
Ross didn’t design North Carolina’s first golf course, but it will eventually bear his name. What began as Swannanoa Country Club later became Asheville Country Club and Ross’ name was adorned on the golf course after it was revamped in 1924.
Today, the Country Club of Asheville is owned by Raleigh-based McConnell Golf, which has more Ross-designed private golf courses in its portfolio than any other owner team in the country. In North Carolina, McConnell Golf also owns Sedgefield Country Club, annual site of the Wyndham PGA Tour Championship, as well as Raleigh Country Club, Ross’ final design. McConnell Golf has another classic Ross course, Holston Hills, in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“Donald Ross is the single most influential person on the world-class golf courses we enjoy in North Carolina,” said John McConnell, founder and CEO of McConnell Golf.
During the first three decades of the 20th century, Ross’s practice was in such demand that he employed some 30 construction crews and 2,500 men. His design assistants also became his legacy – Ellis Maples, Dick Wilson and Robert Von Hagge to name a few. He called them, along with his construction engineers and draftsman, “my right and left arms”. When Ross died during the construction of Raleigh Country Club, Maples took over and remained at the club as chief superintendent until 1953.
His followers are also countless, including Pete Dye, who rarely goes a day in his life without referring to Ross or Pinehurst No. 2, whom he considered the genesis of all courses. “Not only did he design great ones,” McConnell said, “but Mr. Ross also trained proteges such as Ellis Maples and Pete Dye, who created outstanding courses after his passing.”
The story followed Ross’ designs around the state. The Highlands Country Club was Bobby Jones’ summer home and home run for many years. At Hope Valley Country Club, Byron Nelson won the Durham Open on his incredible 11-game streak in 1945.
In Morganton, Mimosa Hills is a place where golfing tradition and nostalgia run deep. A 1929 Ross design beautifully nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Mimosa, as it is known, was the home course of the North Carolina Golf Hall of Fame inductee and three-time North and South American champion. South Billy Joe Patton, who fought and lost to Ben Hogan in one blow at the 1954 Masters.
Ross teamed up with Leonard Tufts, son of James, to create the engaging Roaring Gap Club near Sparta. Another famous Ross mountain course is the Linville Country Club. Located in a valley below North Carolina’s famous Grandfather Mountain, guests of the famed Eseeola Lodge have access to this peaceful retreat that can be the pinnacle of challenging yet scenic and relaxing golf.
Having designed as many or more classic courses than anyone in his profession, Ross is considered the patron saint of American golf course architecture. He is also one of North Carolina’s most influential ambassadors, as countless golfers have visited the state delighted to experience a Donald Ross creation.
Ross died of a heart attack in 1948 at the age of 75, leaving behind a legacy of more than 400 golf courses in 30 U.S. states and Canada, Nova Scotia and Cuba, as well as dozens others remodeled. Always a perfectionist, Ross polished the number 2 from 1901 until his passing.
Today, historians credit Ross with nothing less than transforming the American sports landscape in the first half of the 20th century – transforming its industry into an art form through deceptively simple designs that not only stood the test of time, but also continue to confuse the best players in the world.
“My work,” Ross said, “will tell my story.”