Feature Interview No. 2
The Life & Times of Donald Ross is a multidimensional book (which can be ordered here) that covers the full spectrum of the man’s life experience. As this is a golf architecture website, tell us one thing about Ross the architect that we don’t know.
When Oak Hill moved out of downtown Rochester, N.Y., they asked Ross to build them a new course. He came back with a design for 36 contiguous holes.
It was structured so that 18 holes could smoothly be played…in eight different ways.
Conceiving, designing and advising the building the unprecedented eight layered masterwork is a challenge most would find to be well beyond their abilities.
Ross opened 21 other courses the same year Oak Hill made its debut.
Wow – you’re right, that is a revelation! Moving on, please talk about the breadth of the book.
It is three books in one: a story, an informational book and an art book.
The first priority was the narrative/story of Ross. Like any story, it has to roll along well and give a satisfying amount of detail without lingering too long over a particular point. There can be the occasional extended vignette but pacing cannot be allowed to wane.
The trouble with a storytelling approach is that it left a mountain of extra material. It seemed like it would be better for the reader to have those materials than to just leave them on the cutting room floor. How does one handle this? The solution was to have a huge appendix. It’s over 100 pages. I plucked out the more interesting items and they are available for the reader to meander through at their leisure. Usually, once you’re done reading a story, that’s pretty much it. On the shelf it goes to gather dust. But the appendix has so many factoids and whatnot that the reader has the option of being entertained for many extra hours.
The third tier ended up being a large amount of imagery. Some of those early graphics were fantastic and we went to great lengths to include them. Also, there are a number of modern photographs from some extremely talented people like Larry Lambrecht. Some of the best imagery is printed full page or full double page. GCA readers, in particular, will be glad to see several of your terrific photos on fine paper in a finely bound book. And, by the way, a number of GCA commentators made their way into the text. When approaching certain points, it was evident that various bright lights from the forum had already done so with remarkable insight and eloquence. Given the quality level of GCA at its best, I was only too happy to include these in the record. All kindly granted permission and have been fully credited. Fine lads!
What was Ross like?
Answering that question was the real point of the book. It was an attempt to provide a fulsome portrait of the man. There were no grand preconceptions. As it turned out, the facts propelled the book toward some expansive conclusions.
On first impression, he could appear to be just another well-to-do, somewhat stuffy man. He wasn’t demonstrative or flashy; “proper” would be a good word to characterize how he appeared to be. He was, in fact, proper. This was no façade. The only thing out of the ordinary one might have picked up at first was an uncommon gravitas.
As you kept uncovering information, how did your perceptions of him change?
In starting out, I suspected that possibly he wasn’t quite the genius he’s been called so many times. I also suspected I’d like him a bit less after a hard close-up look. Those two notions turned out to be entirely wrong. He really was staggeringly brilliant. He was also very balanced with an active sense of humor. He was reported by many sources to be a likable man whose eyes sparkled regularly.
At the same time, he could be rather stern with employees, boorish guests or whomever he thought was out of line. “Rabble” was the term he used for such people. It would be a mistake to say he walked around glowering though. The tough side would come to the fore primarily in relation to work as a way of motivating employees to sharpen up. When you’re the boss of so many people (sometimes thousands) it is not possible to get the team moving along while being a softy.
So, the tough side was there and it was a part of who he was. However, he once remarked that although few would know it, his brother (Alec) had a heart of gold. Almost certainly, beneath all the layers that would have been the case with Donald, as well. His letters to his daughter strongly suggest this.
Please provide an example of how you delve into his brilliance.
There are three known film clips of Ross. One is supposedly a clip of him swinging a club. Another is a brief moment at an award presentation where the characteristic twinkling eyes are evident. But the most substantive piece of celluloid is about half a minute of him walking around Aronimink during construction.
There was something that really struck me on first view. But I could not quite put my finger on what it was. As with most of the other revelatory parts of the book, it came to light later. Have a look for yourself and see what you see. (He comes into the frame at about one minute in.)
What was conveyed in the clip? Well, anyone that has examined his work understands his thought processes were highly advanced. This is particularly evident with his routings. But I am not aware of anyone realizing that his advanced thinking took place…at an extraordinary tempo.
And that was the key to his ability to couple staggering quantity with quality. Deductive reasoning alone points to this. Consider the following: In the 1920’s he designed or redesigned approximately 256 courses. That averages out to more than two courses a month – every month – for ten consecutive years!
Yes, he had an ultra efficient office. There’s a chapter about the core associates who facilitated his architectural pursuits. But at the epicenter of the design firms phenomenal productivity was the quicksilver mind.
This can be told from a brief clip?!
No, it has to be taken into context with other items such as reading a long letter he wrote to Conewango Valley Country Club on the stationery of his associate John Peacock in Canada. The topic at hand was the grassing of the new course. His note does not merely indicate the grass to be used and what time to begin but details the specific brand of seed, the different places the seed can be obtained (addresses included), the individuals at the companies to speak with, what to expect price wise at each place, the precise amount to use in separate sections of the course, the combinations of seed to use in specific sections (Red Top, Red Fescue, Kentucky Blue Grass), etc. The writing and the scratchings beside the text make it clear all of this intricate information (and more) was “off the top of his head”.
Reading that letter was when the thought became ‘oh, that’s what I couldn’t put my finger on about the film’. In the clip he moves around rapidly and decisively – very fast but entirely sure.
Tell us something that helped shape his personal make-up.
His strong, but not oppressive, religious upbringing was a central element in his personal make up. Both he and Old Tom were more religious than is generally known. Mercifully, they never wore it on their sleeve – never made a show of it. But they were absolutely genuine about it. And, to a degree, their religious perspective informed their approach to the game. Golf was far more than a game to both of them. In their bones, they felt it promoted the better aspects of both the individual and the collective.
When you look at the phenomenal amount of work they did you would have to say that indicates uncommon motivation. Yes, they wanted to be successful economically. However, there was something finer which was giving them the call. They saw it as their duty to make full efforts to expand the game, and to do so in the correct way.
The characterizations above are just a thumbnail sketch of the man. The book goes into far greater detail, as one would expect. The early reviewers seem to think a satisfyingly textured portrait was produced. Hopefully, that is the case and the reader will go away with a strong sense of not just what he did, but who he was.
You had the opportunity to talk with five people who personally knew the man. What did you glean?
Since he passed away almost seventy years ago, it never entered my mind I’d have that opportunity. But, in various ways, these interviews did come about. That was due to very kind people who went out of their way to help the book along.
One example was Tom Paul. He has a connection to the game that is profound. Anyway, he’s pals with Pete Dye and he arranged for me to speak with Mr. and Mrs. Dye. It is no exaggeration to say that both are enormously likable. So, Mr. Dye was one boat away from going to Asia for WWII. The war in the Pacific ended right before he was due to leave. He was sent to Ft. Bragg (next door to Pinehurst) and once the officers saw how good of a player he was, he became their ringer. Mr. Dye got to know Ross just from being around the club (“about 40 or 50 times”) and Ross would talk to him about design. Mr. Dye said he wasn’t really interested at first but “it got onto me a little bit”.
Each of the five interviewees brought a visceral sense of the man to the book. In fact, throughout the entire process numerous people contributed in a variety of ways. All were gracious and all remain greatly appreciated by myself. But that’s one of the most brilliant parts of the game, is it not? You meet a lot of exceptionally fine people.
Some of his Golden Age architect peers could be ill-behaved, mercurial and worse. In having read a draft, I gather that Ross led a relatively straightforward life?
It’s true he was not given to a great deal of nonsense. 19th Century Dornoch was not an environment which indulged the less admirable behaviors. They had their hands full taking care of the basics.
Some of the pros he imported from that environment did not meet with universal acclaim in the States. “Dour” was the word used in some complaints. But Ross had a convivial side which was livelier than most from that austere world. He had his buddies and they kept up a nice stream of wry, observational humor.
His personal life appears to have been one of propriety. But there was a striking turn with a young woman he became engaged to after his first wife died. The interesting part is that they spent time together prior to his first marriage. He was engaged to his first wife in 1897 and he left for America in 1899. He did not get married until he returned to Scotland in 1904. But his subsequent fiancée (in 1923) was in Pinehurst during those early years (’01-’02) before he went to retrieve his first fiancée in Scotland. The documents pertaining to the second fiancée are not ones you would have seen before. And yes, you will find those pages most interesting.
Actually, the book contains many things even the most ardent Ross fans would not have heard before. The idea was to try to bring the story to life. But in the course of intensive research quite a few surprising items turned up. They are all in the book for your consideration.