After moving from Scotland to the United States at the turn of the last century, Donald Ross spent nearly a third of his time in the state of North Carolina until his death in 1948. Wider than tall, this southern state offered diverse palettes that enabled him to create three distinct type courses. First, there are the courses that he built for people to escape the cold, centered around the Pinehurst area whose sandy soil drains so well, especially in the winter months. Secondly, Ross built courses for people to avoid the summer heat (remember: Air conditioning didn’t exist when Ross built the lion share of his courses). These courses are mostly located in the western foothills and mountains of the Tar Heel state. While the lower humidity was conducive for grasses good for golf, the rocky soil wasn’t. Sand capped fairways were impractical at the time and the concept only arose decades after Ross’s death. Finally, instead of retreat courses, Ross also designed courses in population centers that were intended for regular daily as part of primary club life. From Charlotte to Greensboro to Raleigh, these courses were constructed on clay. The only’ population based’ courses on sand are found at the port city of Wilmington.
The natural landforms available to Ross varied according to their soil content and Ross’s construction techniques adapted, based largely on how to manage water flow and create drainage. The grassed, turtleback greens that evolved at Pinehurst No. 2 were excellent for surface drainage, quickly shedding water on all sides. Once removed from the putting surface, the water percolated through the surrounding short grass, easily penetrating the ground through the sand particles. Yet, the construction of similar green complexes on clay or rocky soil would be foolhardy because green surrounds would become trampled mush as the heavier soil would restrict the water to the surface. Hence, Ross’s green pads were different when working with clay as opposed to sand.
A typical Ross green pad of this type in clay is found at Charlotte’s first green (below). Note that it is of the pushed up variety so that it will shed water efficiently. However, there are key differences between the ones found here versus the ones in sandy soils. Ross cut his bunkers very close to the greenside edges as he built his bunker drainage to accommodate such water flow. The slopes greenside are covered in rough high grasses to help dissipate the water and the slopes are broad to allow drainage over a larger area.
Of the Ross greens built in clay in North Carolina, far and away the best are now found today at Charlotte Country Club. This should come as no surprise as Ross visited and worked at the course in each of the four decades that he lived in America and his personal attention is evident in its greens. Yet, what is surprising is that none of the putting surfaces are original to Ross. In the 1960s, Charlotte brought in the lead golf course architect at the time, Robert Trent Jones, Sr. Though he knew Ross, Jones was already well established and didn’t have any reservation about putting his own stamp on the course. Bunkering patterns were altered, pinching in the fairways and reducing playing width. Interior green contours were flattened or softened in part due to faster green speeds and in part due to Trent Jones’s philosophy about putting’s disproportionate role in scoring. Trent Jones had an alternate design philosophy from Ross; he believed in placing pressure on the tee shot and not as much at the green via interior contours. Ross believed in giving the golfer more room to operate tee to green with the challenge stiffening at the green.
When Charlotte determined to renovate/restore in 2007, they needed to decide upon one architectural style/philosophy over the other. The green committee, board and membership chose wisely, first in going back to Ross and secondly by whom they selected to carry out the work. Having studied nearly 200 Ross courses in his twenty-eight years as a golf course architect, Ron Prichard was intimately familiar with Ross’s work and knew where and how to search for lost Ross features. Working from only a 1930s aerial that was uncovered by a member, Prichard had to interpret many of the sophisticated green contours that Ross had begun to employ in the later stages of his career. Prichard explains the process below:
When I reflect on the restoration work carried out on the Charlotte Country Club Golf Course, my heaviest responsibility as always was to work to re-establish the character of the golf course in a fashion which accurately represented the brilliant and unique talent of Donald Ross. This indeed is what I chose as my life’s work when 28 years ago I opened my own practice as a golf architect; to save and safeguard the superb old work of the early master golf architects who spread golf across the population centers of early 20th century America. So many of our most wonderful early architect’s works were being altered, and sometimes erased, to suit the fashion of more contemporary architects, and I was not only disappointed, but determined to reverse this very sad trend. At Charlotte Country Club, the golf course, as you have mentioned, was “renewed” by the work of Robert Trent Jones Sr., approximately a half century ago. This included the complete reconstruction of the greens and putting surfaces. These greens had also been rebuilt again just a few years ago, and this effort again was not particularly successful. And then it happened that one of the members, Nolan Mills, decided to pursue serious efforts to locate some early photographic documentation of the original golf course. He found one great aerial photograph which clearly illustrated the layout as strengthened by Donald Ross in 1930. The members felt they finally had proper documentation, and this led to my being engaged to undertake the restoration. In our early discussions, my challenge to the Restoration Committee was to ask them to accept that it was my intention to eliminate the characteristics which I felt clearly established their course as a “resort course”, with tees all over the ground and to re-establish Charlotte Country Club as one of the fine old southern country clubs with the great old golf course provided by Donald Ross. The challenge then was to “read” the original photograph not only re-establish Ross’ bunkering but also to develop greens with putting surfaces which would work with today’s mowing heights, and represent the creative wisdom of Ross. It is the restorers absolute duty to remove himself from the procedure, and work constantly to reveal the original architect’s efforts and I truly hope we were successful in achieving that aim.
When he completed his routing in 1913, Ross had this to say: “The out half of the course measures 3,156 yards. The in half 3,110 giving a total of 6,226 yards. The layout affords a variety of golf strokes of excellent quality. I have made no plans for bunkering except where it is necessary for the procuring of material to do the required grading for greens. No successful plan of bunkering can be made until the course is in playing condition. The natural hazards are plentiful and well spaced.” By 1930, Ross, now fully mature as an architect, built new tees and greens on every one of the existing holes except for the seventh and ninth, where he kept the existing green contours. He added forty-three bunkers. Interestingly, the board of directors had to remind him that they hadn’t been billed for the work, so close was their relationship at the time.
As portrayed photographically, Charlotte exudes a pleasant air for the enjoyment of a game but it has greatly changed from the days of hickory golf and its 6,300 yards from the back markers. Courtesy of Prichard’s work, the championship tees now measure 7,355 yards from where the course is a beast and very capable of testing top level players. Two yardages are given below, one for the Championship tees and one from an appealing set in the 6,400 yard range.
Holes to Note
Second hole, 390/370 yards; Rarely does a golfer play an approach looking down at a green at Charlotte as many of the greens are pushed up and/or that they are located on high spots. That’s good from a drainage perspective but how to avoid any hint of sameness of elevated greens that slope from back to front? One way is to seize upon opportunities when they present themselves like here. From back in the fairway, the land slopes gently away from the player so that’s what the green does as well.
Third hole, 185/165 yards; This was ‘build a hole’ time for Ross as he didn’t have any natural features with which to work. Ross faced this situation literally hundreds of times in his career and what he accomplished generally far exceeds the work of other architects who try too hard and contrive something out of place with the rest of the holes. Not Ross and not here. Ross wrote the following to the club in 1930: “A few days ago I made a final inspection of the changes on hole Nos. 1, 2 and 3. I have always thought that those three holes, with No. 14, were probably the least attractive and certainly had the least golfing quality. The remodeling which has been done placed them among the best on the course.”
Fourth hole, 490/355 yards; A bear, made supremely difficult by the new back tee which brings the fairway swale into play as most tee balls hit into the upslope, thus killing much run. Up ahead, Prichard’s restoration of a rollicking Ross green with waves kicks the hole up a notch to a top tier. Putting surfaces of such unique character are what distinguishes one parkland course from another.
Fifth hole, 375/350 yards; A plethora of bunkers on the inside of a fairway as it bends creates great playing strategy. Does one flirt with the bunkers and gain the shorter way home and set up the best angle into the green? Alternatively, does one shy away from the hazards and be content with a longer, tougher approach? The important thing with Ross’s design philosophy is that he gave each player the option to decide for himself. He didn’t dictate or force the player to play a certain way. Contrast this with what architects did in the 1960s with bunkers on both sides of the fairway. Such tee shots provide little for the golfer to mull over as his only option is a rifle straight tee shot.
Sixth hole, 420/385 yards; Just too diificult to invite love, the sixth green is the single toughest target to regularly hit. Located atop a knoll, this knob of a green is the high point of its surrounds as everything falls away. Balls blocked right face a near certain death and how to best play the hole continues to confound the membership. Drive it long right and have a shorter iron in, albeit from a worse angle? Lay back left in order to avoid carrying the bunkers on one’s approach? There is no ready agreement as to which makes more sense. Such indecision was re-introduced to the hole by virtue of Prichard re-opening the creek which Jones had piped underground. In Jones’s day, playing the hole was a much more straightforward affair.
Seventh hole, 565/495 yards; Wouldn’t it be a shame to play a course on such diverse property as this and never gain an appreciation for it? Out of disdain for blind shots, many modern architects readily bulldoze important natural features that might block the view of where a ball lands. Such practitioners slavishly insist that a good view must be afforded on each and every shot so that the player sees what needs to be accomplished. What rubbish! These holes rarely excel and eventually run together in one’s mind.
Eighth hole, 495/410 yards; Ross’s skill with a topography map is well evidenced by the sheer number of courses associated with his name. At over 400 designs, he didn’t visit half of them but that didn’t mean he couldn’t route courses from afar. This hole is typical, repeated countless times where the golfer tees off from on high, plays to a fairway below, and then hits to a green back on high. Its superlative green is what distinguishes this hole from so many others and its elaborate putting surface is evidence of Charlotte’s relative proximity to Ross’s base in Pinehurst and his many site inspections over four different decades. Still, it was Prichard who brought this green back to life after Trent Jones had snuffed out the interesting interior movement. How did Charlotte know that Prichard was the right man to bring back such contours? The board was most impressed with two site visits that it made, one to Ross’s Mountain Ridge in New Jersey and the other to Aronimink in Pennslvania. And guess who is the restoration architect on record at both clubs? Ron Prichard.