North Carolina, USA
Green Keeper John Szklinski

Though located just three miles from city center, Charlotte Country Club is one of the most handsome parkland settings with which Donald Ross ever worked. He did so in four different decades.

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.

The first green is a quintessential Ross push up green pad that sheds water in an efficient manner. Importantly also, as we will read, it is the type pad that can be moved about as it isn’t tied to any particular landform.

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.

Prior to Prichard, Briar Creek had chunky boulders throughout, making it almost an eyesore. Now, each of the four times during the round that the golfer crosses it, he is free to admire its more natural presentation.

The addition of Green Keeper John Szklinski from Southern Hills in Oklahoma was an important piece of the puzzle in completing the transformation of Charlotte. The above photograph is from behind the tenth green and is an example of his excellent work in cultivating various natural areas around the course to give it added texture and charm.

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.

By smartly cutting fairway bunkers into landforms, Ross created depth, making the fairway bunkers at Charlotte act as true hazards that need to be avoided. The one above guards the short way home down the left of the second fairway.

Though the shadows make it hard to discern, the second green drops away to a lower back tier and the best way to access it is by flattening one’s trajectory and having the ball skip to the back hole locations. The centerline bunkers in the foreground are an example of the work that Ross did in 1930 when he remodeled the course.

One of the deepest greenside bunkers is found at the second, which is fair for a hole measuring less than 400 yards.

The tremendous progress made in restoring Ross features to the course is evident by comparing the above two photographs with this 2006 pre-restoration one.

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.”

Ross frequently employed bunkers in the foreground as a way to break up any hint of monotony while climbing a gradual slope.

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.

A big flowing hole, the fourth fairway attractively ambles across the terrain. A draw off the the tee is handy as it keeps the tee ball from being kicked too far right from where the angle in becomes disadvantageous.

Charlotte once again possesses a superb fine set of greens as shown here at the fourth. Improvements in all things (grasses, equipment, and maintenance practices) mean that green speeds of 12 on the stimp can be reached at Charlotte. The question posed to restorers like Prichard are how to create different areas on the green like Ross would have done if he worked with such green speeds. The ‘rolling waves’ captured in the middle of the fourth green is one imaginative answer.

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.

As seen from the elevated fifth tee, the line of charm lures the golfer toward the nest of deep fairway bunkers. Ross’s most prolific use of bunkers at Charlotte comes at the shorter par fours, thus achieving the desired premium for accuracy on holes with modest length.

Charlotte has plenty of length but accuracy is paramount at the fifth to find the fairway and then again to keep one’s approach below the hole on the steeply pitched back to front green.

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 by virtue of Prichard re-opening the creek which Jones had piped underground. In Jones’s day, playing the hole was a straightforward affair.

The creek cuts from front left to back right across the sixth fairway yet the green clearly opens up from the left. What to do?

Ross built stair step bunkers similar to these to the right of the ninth green at Essex County outside of Boston around the same time that he accepted the job at Charlotte.

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.

A good tee shot at the seventh greatly assists the golfer to get past in two these bunkers cut into a hillside some 150 yards short of the green. Once beyond the crest of the hill, ….

… a fine view of the green opens up. This and the nearby twelfth green are two examples whereby Prichard pushed the green pads farther against the edge of the club’s property than Ross had them, thus helping both par fives still play as, well, par fives!

Another excellent putting surface (i.e. a putting surface full of character that still functions well at modern day green speeds) greets the golfer at the seventh.

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.

Hundreds of trees were wisely felled during Prichard’s remodel with the oak trees now serving as handsome backdrops to many of the holes as seen above at the eighth. Beforehand, they encroached into the line of play and created shading/agronomy issues at many of the tees and greens.

Though it feels and plays bigger, Charlotte is set on only 125 acres. Above is the wicked eighth green with the fourth flag in the distance.

Eleventh hole, 205/170 yards;  While other holes at Charlotte better capture Ross’s flair as an architect, this one is interesting in that it tracks Ross’s use of water as a hazard. According to an article written by Mr. C.T. Dunhan in 1913, ‘ A good healthy mashie shot will carry one over the intervening creeks and trouble and onto the eleventh green.’ At some point prior to 1932, the two creeks were made into today’s pond and the hole has played that way ever since. Presumably, Ross had role in this matter and perhaps the creeks were formed into a pond for practical reasons.  Ross was not a ‘do or die’ type architect (no skill can be displayed in recovering from water) and finding a fronting water hazard pressed tight to one of his greens is surprising. Given Robert Trent Jones’s involvement at Charlotte in the 1960s, it might seem likely that he either created the pond or shifted the green to water’s edge. Such is not the case.  Far more unusual in its time than now where water is ubiquitous as a hazard, the eleventh should be appreciated as a forbearer of what would come.

While the masonery work is new as of the 1990s, Ross’s green location smack against the pond is over eighty years old, a startling fact.

Twelfth hole, 590/575 yards; There are several features to admire here. One is the forward tee located past Briar Creek and out of sight of the other tees as it is placed behind a fairway bunker. The second is a fine central hazard that was restored by Prichard. More often than not, if a hazard is controversial, it is extremely well placed! After all, a hazard out of play rarely excites ire, a sign that it may not even need to exist. Third, the three swales in the fairway in the 90 to 150 yard range from the green are a fine feature in themselves and negotiating them is important for those desirous of a level stance for one’s approach. Finally, Prichard pushed the entire green pad well back though few would ever guess that it isn’t Ross’s original location, so good was Prichard’s finishing work around the green.

For the second and final time, the golfer crosses Briar Creek with a tee shot. A 400 yard set of tees is beautifully placed beyond the left bunker ahead.

The single most controversial feature that Prichard restored was this fairway bunker in the middle of the twelfth fairway 205 yards from the green. It’s a real menance to anyone who has found the bermuda rough off the tee.

Thirteenth hole, 520/440 yards; While being a Scot and being frugal are synonomous, Ross wasn’t alone in the Golden Age thinking that the game was best enjoyed when completed with the same ball. That’s what makes the eleventh green complex such an anomaly within the context of Ross’s work. Here at the thirteenth, other architects would routinely use the stream as a fronting greenside hazard but not Ross. In fact, this is the solitary instance where he placed a green even as close as thirty yards of it. There was the practical matter that Briar Creek periodically floods but more importantly, Ross liked to give players of all levels options and a stream that walls off a green doesn’t. Nonetheless, Briar Creek’s proximity to the green still serves the desired purpose of making it crucial to hit the bunkerless fairway if the golfer wishes to have a go at the green in two.

The only green located within one hundred yards of Briar Creek is found here at the thirteenth.

Fourteenth hole, 355/330 yards; The golfer has just played the course’s longest par three, par five, and par four in consecutive order and it is time to mix things up. After all, Ross never intended to brow beat or demoralize a golfer. Not a great hole in its own right, the fourteenth is nonetheless one that blends well within the context of the surrounding holes. The shortest par four on the course is seemingly one of the most inviting off the tee but looks can be deceiving. The right center of the fairway is clearly the prefered angle into second shallowest target on the course (the first green is the only green less deep). Here is what Ross had to say in 1930: “The 14th hole is the only one left that could be described as not up to the standard of the others. To improve it would require additional land for an extension on the green end, and I hope the land can be secured to make this change. With the 14th hole remodeled {accomplished during the 2007 restoration}, I am of the opinion that the course will stand out as one of the greatest courses to be found anywhere. It will have excellent golfing quality for all classes of players and unrivaled scenic beauty.”

Though seemly wide open, the desired approach angle into the fourteenth green is from the right, near the specimen oak tree that creeps into right edge of the photograph above. Though the inviting view from this tee is in fine contrast to the view on the next tee, they share the lack of any cart path to mar the vista. That’s because Prichard removed over half of the cart paths (!) on the course, a huge positive that helps any parkland setting.

Charlotte’s transformation is again highlighted by comparing the photograph above with this one taken of the fourteenth in 2006 which shows a straightaway hole of little strategic interest.

Fifteenth hole, 435/360 yards; Prichard’s new back tee stretches this hole from Ross’s day but the tiger still probably has only the equivalent of a mashie-niblick (aka a seven iron) as he would have in Ross’s era of hickory shafts. That’s a disturbing fact and it highlights the challenge that restoration experts like Prichard confront. Placement of tees and hazards in strict accordance to how Ross had them would render many courses as little more than pitch and putt affairs for the tiger. Latitude must be allowed today so that the architect might interpret what Ross would do given today’s technology. Certainly, finding tee locations that don’t ruin the green to tee walk or a sense of flow are challenging. In addition, the architect has to build the bunkers in a manner consistent with Ross. The placement of pop up bunkers on a site where Ross cut bunkers into landforms is the work of a hack. Here the new tee flows from the back of the fourteenth green well. In so doing, the Ross bunkers that Prichard recaptured in the fairway make sense for how today’s players drive the ball. The fifteenth is a successful restoration on all counts.

Charlotte calls for broad-shouldered hitting and in general the trees are back from play. The sole exception occurs here at the fifteenth where the golfer is keenly aware that he is playing between rows of trees.

Prichard did a fine job in restoring these bunkers down the right of the fifteenth fairway.

Understanding that this was a modest length hole in Ross’s day, it is no wonder that one of the course’s best greens greets the golfer, as seen from behind. This green is another sterling example of Prichard’s use of swales and ridges to create a number of varied hole locations, all of which function well at today’s green speeds.

Seventeenth hole, 175/160 yards; After Trent Jones, the sixteenth was an acute dogleg right and the seventeenth was a modest par three. Prichard softened the angle of the sixteenth and built a fine green site without having much in the way of natural features with which to work. Even better is his newly created seventeenth which was built on land that was previously heavily treed. Prichard waded in and discovered some nice land movement but the hole is most successful in how the well contoured green melds with the greenside bunker that chews into its front edge.

Ross was no stranger to building par threes that played uphill. The only difference is Prichard did this one!

At forty-five yards in width, finding the proper portion of the green is important. Today’s hole location is lower right.

Eighteenth hole, 450/425 yards; The Old Guard, of which Prichard is definitely one, will tell you that it is what is on the ground that matters. Backdrops and distant scenery are irrelevant if the golf is engaging. This may be true (and the green that Prichard built here may well be the best of the best) but a sense of occasion also registers deeply with most golfers. As the golfer rounds the bend of this dogleg right, he is greeted with a full view of the sprawling gleaming white clubhouse proudly poised on the brow of the hill. Plenty of eyeballs are about to take in the action around the eighteenth green and the setting conspire to create for a most satisfying conclusion to the round.

A sense of occasion concludes the round as one rounds the bend at the dogleg right eighteenth.

As seen from behind, one of the best putting surfaces is saved for last. The large practice area in the distance was much improved as part of Prichard’s overall work.

Another view from behind shows the wonderfully random contours now found in the Home green.

After Prichard’s restoration, two things were immediately evident. First, Ross’s best features were successfully reintroduced and the course exhibits a homogeneity to those built during the Golden Age. In particular, the exhilaration of Ross greens is once again at the heart of the design/challenge. Acknowledging this, the club’s new yardage book now lists only Donald Ross as the course architect whereas the prior edition had listed the several architects who had worked here. For Ron Prichard, this means ‘job well done’. Second, the two weakest holes (the sixteenth and seventeenth) have been dramatically improved, which is always the surest way to improve any course. These two facts coupled with the excellent work of John Szklinski as Green Keeper lead many people to conclude that this is the best that Charlotte Country Club has ever been. That’s saying something!

In categorizing golf courses, by one definition, the most important are those courses that get used the most and that are best integrated into people’s lives. In contrast to the game’s origins along the North Sea, the great preponderance of golf in America is played inland. Indeed, the term ‘parkland’ is largely reserved for a type course most commonly found in the United States. Its benefits can be proximity to one’s home/work, the sense of escape from a concrete jungle, and how it accentuates the changing seasons. The appearance of parkland courses reflect with the different seasons to a greater degree than links, heathland or prairie courses. Capturing a course in its changing moods is part of its delight as some of these autumnal photographs suggest.

The Queen City’s skyline hints at Charlotte Country Club’s proximity to downtown.

Charlotte, within the context of Ross’s body of work, is the best of both worlds. First, Ross originally designed the course in 1913. From the beginning, Ross showed an inate ability to route courses.  This never waned and all his broad playing corridors are in use today except for the newly created par three seventeenth. 1913 was a particularly rich year for Ross in North Carolina as he was given three of his best sites in the state: Pinehurst No. 4, Overhills and here at Charlotte.  As an architect, Ross evolved as did the level of sophistication in the construction of his green complexes. When Ross returned to Charlotte in 1930, he was in peak form. The economy wasn’t but he was and he had plenty of time to devote to Charlotte. Steel shafts were replacing hickory and Ross’s work in 1930 reflected as he added forty-three new bunkers and much more sophisticated interior green contours. Prichard’s work has restored these features, reminding us of the genius of the man from Dornoch.

In the end, what separates parkland courses from one another in quality is no different than what separates all courses. How interesting are the landforms? How diverse are the natural hazards? How well did man incorporate the property’s natural elements into a consecutive string of golf holes? Hopefully, the photographs above convey how well all this has been accomplished at Charlotte Country Club. Similar to Aronomik, Scioto and Oak Hill, a series of peaks and valleys coupled with a meandering creek gave Ross as good an inland palette as he ever had on clay soil. He knew what to do from there. As good custodians, the club and Ron Prichard can be justly proud to have brought back the delights associated in playing a Ross course.