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.
Did you find a close examination of his architecture surprising?
The studies were more than surprising. They bordered on the shocking. It reminded me of the building of Central Park in New York. Did you know they used more dynamite building that park than in the Battle of Gettysburg? Like Ross’s courses, it looks so serene and natural. One does not think of them as the result of much heavy lifting.
Here is one of many examples of what occurred during course construction:
One of the key parts of the Ross tale, as we’ve known it, is that the courses appear very natural. That perception is a tribute to his skill (and that of his team) because there was a lot more shaping of the land than one would think. This shaping has received little notice because, starting in the mid-1910’s, he started to emphasize blending his work within the terrain.
Just now I can’t see any further advances in sight beyond the best courses…the main development from now on will be in the way of landscape effect, of building for beauty on a course as well as the right test of golf.
– Buffalo Courier Interview 1917
Certainly, he was brilliant at incorporating natural features. But, at times, to present the best golfing tableau possible, he would shift the land to one degree or another. Given the general narrative that has been around for some time, this was all eye opening. After digesting that I thought “well, I guess he really did break with the traditional Scottish ways.”
The sanctum sanctorum of golf – St. Andrews…was largely manufactured!
As Kevin Cook wrote in his fantastic book “Tommy’s Honor“:
When Tom became Custodier of the Links, the ground in front of the clubhouse was often underwater, swamped by high tides. Storms sent saltwater sloshing up the clubhouse steps.
They had to make the Bruce Embankment (with old boats and refuse) to keep that area playable. Most interesting to me was the fact that the 18th green was a burial ground. When they were digging it up they pulled out a lot of skulls and bones which they stacked up in front of Forgan’s shop! The rest of the Old Course received extensive attentions (like hacking away the whins), as well. All of this flew in the face what I’d previously thought to the point I was hesitant to write about it. Sometimes if people are happy with a myth then is it always so great to dispel that? There are instances where it is best to leave well enough alone. But, in this case, these facts could not very well be left out. Plus, as previously stated, it is a great tribute to those guys that naturalism is what people sense out there.
Beyond these specific points, the book takes an extensive look directly at the varying elements of Ross’s architecture. As the book is a biography rather than a technical manual, the focus is on the man. But, obviously, architecture was a large part of who he was. One could write a sizable trilogy about the technical aspects of his architecture alone.
The book contains several views of what he achieved that are different from how he has been considered. For instance, I gather from your writing that Ross elevated the status of the club golf professional?
An examination of the materials strongly suggests no one in the United States did more than Ross to change the status of club professional from working class to middle class. It was very similar to what Hagen did with the touring professionals. It’s well known that Sir Walter was the primary guy who upgraded the status of the playing professional. It’s also well-known that he managed this far reaching transformation through his personality. Hagen did it by being effervescent and irrepressible. Ross essentially did it through gravitas.
It was undoubtedly a collective effort but, like Hagen, the evidence points to Ross as the key figure in effecting this change. Considering the fact that there are approximately 28,000 club professionals in the U.S., it was a change of some magnitude.
You say he did this through ‘gravitas’?
There were a number of elements involved. He was ultra reliable and the prospective clubs knew they were guaranteed to get a well-designed course. So, that credibility mixed with his largely amiable relations with the leaders of clubs made them look on the man with high regard. But, yes, it was the gravitas which shifted the way golf professionals were viewed in those days. Ross was not demonstrative. He just carried himself in such a way that it simply would not have occurred to any of the social register types to treat him with anything other than some sort of equitable relationship.
Do today’s club professionals realize how much Ross uplifted their status?
Probably not. But since this has not been part of the narrative for a long time, that is entirely understandable. It would, perhaps, not be such a bad idea for them to take a moment and reflect on what the club pros’ world was before and after Donald Ross. He lived in crowded boarding houses for years. The profession itself was looked down upon – even by his own parents. But, obviously, beyond the proper exterior, he was more than formidable. There was something steely there.
You maintain that one of the ways he guided the development of the American game was through his assistants. Tell us about that.
He trained dozens of exceptional club professionals and had them installed at prestigious posts like Aronimink and Essex. From the book:
When Ross’s former protégés grew in stature, they became mentors themselves. It was an unbroken chain which originated in Scotland and carried through for generations in the United States. Although the succession of men who filled the ranks may not have been entirely aware of it, each was reflective of the ancient Scottish brotherhood.
How would you characterize Ross the golfer?
In the earliest days, exhibition matches were one of the primary ways the game was spread. Among the club professionals duties of the day, playing well was a fundamental part of their job. Ross was what would be called a ‘tour level’ player. In addition to playing in innumerable exhibitions, he finished in the top-10 at the U.S. Open four times. And, perhaps his most interesting experience was finishing in the top-10 in the Open at St. Andrews. It’s an interesting story which ended up with him being livid about how the tournament was run.
That spurred him on to make his tournament (the North-South Open) impeccably run from every angle. Along with the Tufts family, it became the most well run tournament of the day. In fact, it became a primary template for the modern golf tournament where players and spectators are taken care of so well. All the elements of presenting a tournament were fully thought through and refined over and over for decades. As Dan Jenkins said, it was essentially “the Masters before the Masters”.
Beyond the tournament was Pinehurst itself. GCA readers are all too familiar with the transformation of the remote and desolate wasteland into the country’s primary golfing destination.
I first ventured there shortly after my arrival in the States, I believed I must be golfing in a dream.
– Tommy Armour
St. Andrews Links Trust: Of all the golf centers in the world, Pinehurst is the only one that comes close to sharing the ideals and aspirations of St. Andrews.
Of the thousands that visited the golfing paragon, hundreds insisted on having a smaller version of it in their own hometowns. In this way, Ross brought his golfing vision and ethos to a national level.
I take it his attention to detail didn’t stop with course construction?
The accounts of his interactions with some of the emerging clubs show that it was not uncommon for Ross to be involved with the overall club picture – not just the architecture. One of the reasons for Pinehurst’s phenomenal success is that every aspect was expertly tended to – from the courses to the cutlery. Once they built it up to a certain point there were no weak links in the village experience – nothing to break the spell.
To conjure one of the nation’s most shining points out of a dusty wasteland was an achievement so profound that it should rank notably in terms of general American culture – not just golf.
At that point he had reached the stature of ‘elder statesman’. His words carried a lot of weight in all parts of the American golfing world. He led primarily by example, but did not hesitate to speak out on a range of issues which confronted the game. His counsel became a key element of his influence on American golf.
Along with the micro issues were the larger ones. His main concern was the game be pursued properly. Anything which did not seem in keeping with view of how the game was supposed to be received sharp criticism.
From a Ross 1939 interview with the Elmira Star Gazette:
In my long association with golf, covering practically the entire life of the game in the United States, there has never been a scandal in connection with professional golf…This is a glorious reputation for golf and must be maintained if the game is to continue to hold the respect of the public, and continue in the unusually fine atmosphere it has created.
When finished writing the book, one of the points that continued to linger was how hard he worked to instill the right spirit in the game. He worked about as hard on that as he did with his routings.
These are some examples of how his efforts went beyond the architectural in developing the American game.
Ross lived and worked across several eras. Tell us a bit about how the book examines the nature of those times.
In Ross’s day, the pace of progress was virtually unprecedented. He grew up in an almost medieval village of about a thousand people. The railroad did not even arrive in Dornoch until years after he left. To move from that world to an increasingly electrified one with cars and planes spinning around was a contrast modern people would find difficult to imagine.
The accelerated tempo of cultural changes was behind the unprecedented level of opportunities he and other architects had. Golf was something of a tonic to the increasingly urbanized country. Those who could afford it joined clubs which were set in the countryside. It was largely intended as a healthful counterpoint to the crowded and cluttered cities.
Golf as a tonic is a concept that is nowhere near as prominent as it once was. These days the so-called Average American does not view the game as a health prescriptive. Given the state of the nation’s health, we would do well to rethink that. Also worth considering is the fact that children spend more than six hours a day in front of electronic screens. It should be excruciatingly obvious that is not an advisable approach to living. We’ve got to get them out there trotting around. The consequences of not doing that in one way or another are not a pleasant thing to consider.
From both a reader and a writer’s point of view the symbiotic nature of sporting life and cultural forces gives the story richly layered textures. Ross did not view golf in a vacuum. He viewed it within the context of the broader culture. He thought it brought disparate sections of civic life together in a particularly effective way. And, as stated, the moderate exercise in pleasant surroundings was viewed as a necessary tonic. Ross was not the only architect who viewed these matters with a broad scope. The book includes that quote by Dr. Alister MacKenzie:
How frequently have I, with great difficulty, persuaded patients who were never off my doorstep to take up golf, and how rarely, if ever, have I seen them in my consulting rooms again.
Originally, the book went into theories of how cities could be designed in such a way that health was promoted rather than compromised. But that was moving too far away from biography. It fit in with the story to a degree but not in an integral way. The biographical tale always takes place within a collection of external influences. In this case, the story takes place against a series of shifting cultures.
How he lived and worked within those dynamics was fascinating to trace.
What would you say is the significance of his full body of work?
If you look through the information of those early years, you’d be hard pressed to say that anyone else did more to establish and foster the American game than Ross. That makes him a notable figure in terms of general American culture – not just golf. This was the era when golf became a fundamental part of American civic life. To be the leader in establishing this healthful component in his adopted country was a phenomenal overall achievement. Although his architectural pursuits have been properly praised, his overall gift to the country has not been recognized for what it actually was. That his work has retained an extraordinary vitality (and that is no exaggeration) all these years later makes it all the more remarkable. Given these facts, it appears we may well owe the man more credit than he has received.
Again, this was not even a vague concept when starting the biography. But the information reached a critical mass which pointed so strongly in this direction that making this rather large statement seemed mandatory.
Therefore, how would you characterize his overall role in American golf?
His place in history has essentially been that of a prolific architect who created some of the finest examples of the form. Actually, what he did was much broader than that. Once the wide range of facts were taken into account, it looked like it would be difficult to say anyone else exceeded his role in establishing the game in America. Surprisingly, the facts led to a portrait of a man who was something like an American version of Old Tom Morris.
Both were virtuosic with the varied duties of the professional. But there was a less definable quality they shared which was key to what they ultimately achieved. A New York Herald profile of Morris from 1898 expressed it best:
There is something about the old man’s quiet, dignified bearing, always the same, whether brought face to face with a laird, a humble-born caddie or in dealing with his own workmen which commands respect and calls forth personal attachment.
With their vast portfolios, experience and unimpeachable characters, they did much to frame the agenda. What they were shaping as much as the courses and the characters of their many protégés was the game itself.
The book makes it clear Ross was adamant that all elements of the game be done properly. It was not in his nature to tolerate matters being handled insufficiently. He also never stayed with the status quo. He was continually looking to find improved approaches to any issue, including agronomy, running tournaments, course design, maintenance, club business, etc., etc. When an issue crossed his desk, he naturally gravitated toward looking for more efficient and effective methods of processing the matter at hand. He was on a perpetual quest. That was one of his core traits. Clearly, that almost relentless drive was a large part of what led to the towering portfolio.
Your descriptions of Ross and the game are sometimes quite lofty. I have to ask: Are you sure you didn’t get carried away?
Excellent question! There are a number of hazards which face any biographer. When the subjects’ productions are extraordinary, one cannot help but be impressed. This gets magnified when the achievements are considered in depth. But, as long as a biographer is aware of this dynamic, a well done rendering can still be put forth. From the beginning I was keen not to do a hagiography or be a Pinehurst based Ross apologist. That wouldn’t be doing anybody any favors. So, the characterizations are as accurate as I could make them. Plus, the entire piece was thoroughly vetted.
During the vetting process, one reader pointed out a specific fact which “doesn’t do much to enhance his stature”. I said “enhancing his stature is not what I’m trying to do.” I was simply trying to tell the man’s overall story in a way that would hopefully be compelling. The modified place in history was a byproduct of the attempt to discern a rather enigmatic personality.
Chris Buie is also the author of The Early Days of Pinehurst.