Feature Interview with Cob Carlson
1. What compelled you to produce, film and edit a 2 hour movie on Donald Ross?
I had been kicking the idea around since the 2005 Open at Pinehurst #2, when I pitched it to the major television networks (ESPN, NBC, Golf Channel). At that time, no major network wanted to fund the documentary. Over the ensuing years, in casual conversations with golfing buddies and fellow competitors, all seemed to think a tribute film about Ross would be interesting. So this past fall I began to set the wheel in motion to finally make the movie. With two historic U.S. Opens scheduled for Pinehurst #2 in 2014, I thought the timing was right. I contacted Bradley Klein, whose book DISCOVERING DONALD ROSS is the bible on Ross, and he suggested I come film the Golfweek Magazine conference “The Legacy of Donald Ross” which was being held at the Pinehurst Resort in November of 2013. Well, I showed up and filmed some amazing interviews, including Tom Doak, Audrey Moriarty of the Tufts Archives, Bob Farren, Kevin Robinson, Rees Jones, Peggy Kirk Bell, Kelly Miller, Bonnie Bell McGowan, Ran Morrissett, Chris Buie and Bradley. I was on the hook, and there has been no looking back. In my mind, I was always thinking one hour documentary, but it has swelled in a good way to be coming in at just under two hours. A two hour film doesn’t seem too long, considering Donald Ross’s accomplishments and his impact on the history of golf in America.
2. He is already accepted as a saint and the father of the professional golf course architect – why even make such a film? Did anything negative emerge from your interviews?
I felt that while Bradley Klein’s book, and other books that have been published on Ross have given us a treasure trove of info on the man, a documentary film, with a wide array of voices and opinions discussing Ross, would not only shed a bit more light on this golf hero, but expose him to thousands more viewers. We live in a visual world, dominated by the media giants of television and the internet, and no movie has ever been made about an individual golf course architect. I felt that much of Ross’ work is still unknown, under-valued, and under-appreciated by many, and that a film could be an entertaining vehicle to illuminate his great contributions to the planet.
Nothing negative emerged from my interviews. Ultimately, his life and body of work ring positive.
3. As far as I am aware, no one has ever made a 2 hour, uninterrupted film on a golf course architect, probably because most people protest financial suicide. How did you raise money for the project?
This has been the only disappointing part of the project. I was able to raise just enough money to pay crew members, and to cover travel and production expenses….barely. Many people did me huge favors and cut their rates on this project. I broke the cardinal rule of documentary filmmaking which is don’t spend your own money. I have not paid myself one penny since October of 2013, and have been living off my savings. I was genuinely surprised that none of the golf manufacturers (Titleist, Callaway, TaylorMade, Cleveland), turf companies, equipment companies (Toro, John Deere), seed companies, sportswear companies, etc. could even make a small donation. On top of that, only a teaspoon of Donald Ross Country Clubs made donations. And I was pretty wired in with connections on all fronts. In my mind, it was a no brainer. I had twenty-five years experience making documentary films under my belt and being affiliated with a 501c, Documentary Educational Resources, here in Boston, made it simple, because all contributions were tax deductible. But, we live in tough economic times and people are barraged incessantly to give money to reputable causes, so it is what it is.
4. And yet, you pressed on. Why?
As I mentioned earlier, I was on the hook once I had the great interviews in the can from 11/13 in Pinehurst. I could have almost done a short film from those. But I wanted the story to be complete and comprehensive. I had to do it. It is about honoring Ross and achieving my artistic goals. And, no surprise here, I have grown even MORE passionate about Ross over the lifespan of this project. To boot, every time I teed it up in a competitive championship tournament on a Ross course, or even playing a leisurely round with old or new friends on a Ross course, I found myself involved in an inner conversation to the tune of…”it is imperative that you make this movie…”
5. How many people did you interview? Did anyone decline your request for an interview? How much film was left on the floor?
I interviewed 29 people. The shooting ratio is an efficient 46 to 1, meaning that at the end of the day, we have a finished two hour film, plus 30 minutes of DVD extras…on the editing room floor – about 23 hours of material.
6. Who is the target market?
As much as I would like to say the general public, realistically, I think there is a niche audience for this film consisting of all golfers, not just architecture buffs. The DVD will make a great Christmas gift.
7. Please outline for us the two hours.
I start off with a tease/coda followed by Part One – twenty five minutes on Donald Ross…bio on the man. Part Two is the meaty part of the film – The Ross Legacy….his design features and highlights from courses around the United States. This section comes in at about an hour. Part Three is his Crown Jewel, Pinehurst #2…15 minutes worth. I finish with a poetic Epilogue.
8. Your film fleshes out Ross the person. What did you learn about Ross the Man that surprised you?
I learned that he had hobbies outside of golf, and personal tragedy in his love life. But the biggest surprise of all was that although an ardent capitalist, he despised greed. His written words sound like those of a socialist…share the wealth!
9. All the architects that you interviewed – from Nicklaus to Jones to Doak to Franz to Prichard to Crenshaw et al – sang Ross’s praises. What does such uniform praise signify to you?
That I am on to something with this film. Those designers I found to be brilliant…incredibly smart. I could see the twinkle in all their eyes when talking about Ross. People genuinely admire what this guy did for the game of golf. The love is authentic.
10. Who were the key people to comprise Donald J. Ross Associates, Inc?
His design associates were his secretary Eric Nelson, J.B. McGovern of Philadelphia, Walter Hatch of Amherst, Ma, and Walter Irving Johnson of Pinehurst, N.C. They were instrumental in implementing his vision. It was a collaborative effort…like much great art is.
11. Many original quotes emerge from your work. What are a couple of favorites? Please tell me the Nicklaus one on No.2 being rustic for the 1959 North-South is one of them!
I don’t want to give away too much here. After all, I want people to be curious and buy the DVD. Ben Crenshaw states “…Yes, Ross wanted golf to be a challenge. But he wanted it to be a pleasure, not a penance…” Jack Nicklaus absolutely gushes endearingly at the rough and tumble conditions at Pinehurst #2 during the late fifties/early sixties. Precious stuff.
12. Are there misconceptions of Ross that your film dispels?
He wasn’t a teetotaler, but rather he enjoyed the occasional scotch.
There is no such thing as a PURE Donald Ross course. His design style was constantly evolving and adapting as the game of golf was changing.
13. Talk to us about mounds and Ross.
I’m no expert, but what I learned during the making of the film was that while they evolved into fascinating design features, the mounds, often referred to as chocolate drops, were actually a practical way of disposing of debris and waste (rocks, stumps, tree limbs, dirt) and covering the pile with soil and seed to produce grass cover. The more I play Ross courses, the more mounds I notice. They are everywhere.
14. Numerous gems are mentioned throughout, from Westbrook in Ohio to Holston Hills in Tennessee to Worcester in Massachusetts. Do you have a particular favorite to share with us?
A very difficult question. I actually asked students in my Film Editing course at Emerson College last week what their favorite movie was of all time, and many responded that they have no ONE favorite. I love virtually every Ross course I’ve been fortunate to play. You are guaranteed a few great holes on even the lessor known ones he designed. So, ultimately, it is very subjective, but I’ll stick close to home here in Massachusetts. I could play The Orchards, in South Hadley, MA, host of the 2004 U.S. Women’s Open, every day for the rest of my life. It suits my eye. It is a great walking course. It has one of the best finishing holes in the state. It has 4 wonderful and varied par threes. Mainly though, I relish it because of the variety of shot options, the green complexes, and the phenomenal short par fours. If only they could pull out a few more trees!!!
15. A constant theme is that a Ross course can test the best while providing fun for the rest. The same can’t be said for most architects – where do they go wrong?
Simple. Designing courses that were too penal, for both the good player and the average player. The penalties we suffer? Pinched in fairways, abundant water hazards, forced carries over hazards, bunkers across the entrances to greens so that you have to fly everything in, all four par threes over 175 yards long, parallel fairway bunkers, and double penalizing designs…i.e. hit the ball in a fairway bunker and still have to fly it over a tree to recover to the green.
16. Another theme is how quickly and efficiently he built courses, generally with construction lasting under a year. What does that tell you about course construction then versus now?
Ross’s design teams focused on the tee pads and the greens, and spent little time on the in-betweens. Modern architecture employs too much wall to wall shaping. Costs and time are exponentially higher for the modern designs. Plus, many modern designs appear to be artificial manufactured environments, and are more expensive to maintain, usually with poisonous chemicals. Ross designed courses are always connected to nature, and you can look all around you and see the natural shapes and grades to the land. All too often, modern architecture has no connection to nature, especially ones chock full of asphalt cart paths winding through housing and condo developments.
17. You watched the 2014 Pinehurst Opens from Boston as you began editing your work. How did the material you were editing resonate with what you saw on television?
It was simply heavenly. The rustic nature of the course, the wide playable areas, the ability to recover when challenged. I think Ross would have been delighted. My only criticism was that Martin Kaymer, who played magnificent golf, was able to use his putter from all the closely mown areas greenside. I thought the USGA was going to mow and brush accordingly to prevent that from happening, so that in certain instances, a bump and run, a lob wedge, or a hybrid putt would’ve had to be used.
18. What lessons should course owners/architects and golfers walk away with having seen your Ross documentary?
Lobby for wide fairways. Encourage golfers to walk. Play more nine hole rounds, which is easy and fast to do on walkable Ross courses. Restore closely mown areas around putting surfaces. Make bunkers playable. Stop building testosterone tee boxes.
19. Were your personal views on architecture modified as a result of this undertaking? If so, how?
I’ve become more of an architectural snob. Whether I’m on a Ross course that has been modified, or a course designed by another architect, I’ve found I can be overly critical, because my consciousness has been raised. I find I have to take great care to reign in the negativity, because I find many things wrong with the kind of design features I often see and bump up against.
20. What’s your next project?
I will be editing a documentary film, “SENSE THE WIND,” about blind sailors who race.
21. How can one order the Ross DVD?
The cost of DVD is $30 with a running time of 1:55. There is also 35 minutes of extras and deleted scenes. People can pre-order on the website http://www.donaldrossfilm.com/ and it will begin shipping between October 21st – Nov.1st.