A Comparison and Contrast of the Donald Ross and William Flynn Routing Plans
for the Country Club of York

by

Wayne Morrison
Robert Crosby
Craig Disher
and Andrew Green

January 2020

If a list of great Golden Age Golf Architects is considered, William Flynn and Donald Ross would arguably be part of anyone’s top five. It is often said that golf architects of this period rarely competed directly against each other for design commissions. But on a quaint parcel of ground overlooking York, Pennsylvania we are given a tremendous opportunity to see how two of the best designers the game has ever known approached the exact same piece of ground. Why is this important? Well before mass earth movement was possible, the way golf architects used the ground shows us clearly how they used their vision and experience to create a journey over the available property to inspire a game that is defined by their routing.

Golf was introduced to York, PA by Mr. Grier Hersh in 1894 with a nine-hole course of 2,281 yards on his Springdale estate. Hersh introduced Mr. A.B. Farquhar to the sport and the two purchased 67-acres of land, leasing the grounds to the Country Club of York. A new nine-hole golf course was opened for play on July 1, 1900. By 1923, the club was interested in moving to larger grounds for a full eighteen-hole golf course and modern clubhouse. On January 12, 1924 the board of directors, led by Elmer Smith, authorized a committee to locate new grounds for the club. In early 1925, the club located the grounds in York and began the search for a golf course architect.

In late 1925 William Flynn and Donald Ross were asked to submit routing plans to the Country Club of York. Each visited the property and each completed his proposed routings at approximately the same time. Whether or not they knew it at the time of planning, they were participating in a design competition. To add an additional element to this story, another giant of the time, A.W. Tillinghast, was brought in to evaluate two separate properties – apparently prior to the commission of Ross and Flynn. Tillinghast seemed to value an alternate piece of ground from the one Ross and Flynn were asked to consider.

Local golf historians point to the preexisting Flynn courses at the Country Club of Harrisburg and especially the rival Lancaster Country Club as influencing the membership in York to select Ross. Lancaster Country Club hired William Flynn to modernize their golf course in 1920. Flynn produced a solid design, which he continued to improve, as consulting architect, over the next twenty-five years. The men of York wanted a design by a different architect, the most famous one in the land, to differentiate themselves from these other two clubs. It is ironic to consider the central Pennsylvania clubhouses of Lancaster and York in the early part of the twentieth century were rivals like the houses of Lancaster and York in fifteenth century England.

The new course for the Country Club of York was constructed in 1926 based upon the plans submitted by Donald Ross. Now, more than ninety years later, that competition provides a unique opportunity to compare and contrast aspects of the Flynn and Ross design philosophies. At York it is possible to hold constant the things that typically make comparisons of architectural styles so elusive. The location of the clubhouse, maintenance buildings, parking lots and access roads were all set at the time the two designers submitted their work. The differences in their routings are solely the result of different design preferences and philosophies.

As will become apparent in the discussion to follow, Flynn and Ross took remarkably different approaches to the County Club of York property and two remarkably different golf courses would have resulted.

DONALD ROSS PLANS FOR THE COUNTRY CLUB OF YORK, 1926 (Tufts Archives)

 

OBLIQUE AERIAL PHOTOGRAPH OF THE COUNTRY CLUB OF YORK, 1930s

 

FLYNN PLAN ON TOPOGRAPHIC MAP, NOVEMBER 1925

 

ROSS PLAN (GREEN) AND FLYNN PLAN (GREY) – Courtesy of Andrew Green

 

FLYNN PLAN (GREEN) AND ROSS PLAN (GREY) – Courtesy of Andrew Green

 

FLYNN ROUTING (RED), NOVEMBER 1925 WITH ROSS ROUTING (BLUE)

 

COUNTRY CLUB OF YORK 1938 SHOWING ROSS (blue) AND FLYNN (yellow) ROUTINGS – courtesy of Craig Disher

Ross versus Flynn – A Comparison and Contrast

Routing Plans

The routing plans submitted by Flynn and Ross were prepared in different formats and focused on different kinds of information. Flynn overlaid his routing plan on a topographic map of the York property.  Flynn normally worked from a detailed base map and his York drawing reflects the specifics of the property’s contours and other features Flynn liked to have prior to construction.  Ross did not usually overlay his routings on a topo, so the absence of a topo in his York routing was not unusual.  His routing uses tick marks and hatching to indicate what he considered important landforms, providing less detail than Flynn, but perhaps giving a better sense of the flow of his proposed course.  Ross also submitted detailed drawings for each hole.  Like his routing plan, contour lines are not shown.  We are unaware of any Flynn hole drawings though it is reasonable to assume that he prepared detailed drawings of individual holes precisely as depicted in the routing plan as he had in nearly all the plans in the collection retained by David Gordon.

The York Property

The Country Club of York property is dominated by an elevated plain beginning at the clubhouse in the southwest and continuing northeast for several hundred yards through the heart of the track.  Another high ridge exits the property at its northeastern border.  Two creeks mark the lowest elevations.  It is an attractive setting for golf.  Along the northern and western boundaries, the player would have overlooked an urban setting that was booming in the 1920’s.  South and east of the property offered views of a pastoral landscape at the time the course opened and as it exists today.

The Golf Course

The very different golf courses Flynn and Ross proposed for the County Club of York in 1925 seem to belie the axiom that routing is destiny.  Flynn and Ross came up with dramatically different routing solutions for the York property.  The differences in their two routings highlight some of the distinctive architectural preferences of each.

Those preferences show up most obviously in the areas of the York property where the two architects concentrated their holes.  The areas where Flynn located numerous greens and tees – in the rugged slopes, ravines and creeks found in the northeast and northwest – are the areas that Ross’s routing tends to have fewer holes.  Conversely, the broad, relatively flat ridge in the middle of the property that served as the backbone for the Ross routing is an area that the Flynn routing seems anxious to move past.

Also striking is that few Ross and Flynn holes share the same ground while some were routed in opposite directions and others more or less perpendicular to each other. Note, for example the hole routings that cross in the northeastern and northwestern parts of the property. Part of the reason for the different hole orientations in those areas is Flynn’s desire for more dramatic holes that traverse or track along a ravine, a creek or other severe contours. Ross chose to orient more holes parallel to contour lines, suggesting a preference for less punishing and more walkable holes.  Generally, Flynn used the difficult terrain while Ross tended to avoid it.

The two routings are so different that only one hole corridor occupies the same ground and also plays in the same direction.  Flynn’s and Ross’s 9th holes take a similar path back to the clubhouse.  Flynn’s 3rd and Ross’s 2nd also overlap to some extent. But that is pretty much it for similarly routed holes, something all the more surprising given the fact that the both routings had to use the same clubhouse location for the returning nines.  It is also notable that even though the first tee is located at the same place in both plans, Ross’s first hole traverses an area Flynn reserved for a practice range while Flynn’s first hole traversed an area Ross wanted for his practice ground.

There are several holes where Ross and Flynn routed their holes in opposite directions.  These include Ross’s 18th hole and Flynn’s 2nd, Ross’s 15th and Flynn’s 12th, Ross’s 16th and Flynn’s 11th, and Ross’s 18th hole and Flynn’s 10th.

Ross used more of the property’s periphery than Flynn did.  The green for Ross’s 4th hole, much of the 5th and all of the 13th and 14th holes lie completely outside the perimeter of the Flynn routing.  A great deal of this ground was gentler than the ground slightly to the west.  It seems likely that Ross felt that holes at the edges of the property made for more flowing hole sequences.  Flynn was more inclined to venture across and through some of the bold contouring, creating hole and green sites that would have been quite dramatic.

A key natural feature on the eastern portion of the property is a creek bisecting that half of the parcel that rests at the bottom of an amazing ravine. This is one of the defining landscape elements of the course.

Ross chose to orient holes 11, 14, 15 and 16 (bold blue lines) parallel to the creek while Flynn took the route of playing both along and over its dramatic contour. Flynn planned holes 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 (bold red lines) using diagonal lines of play to get the player across the creek and up the low to the high point of the back nine. These angles were important to traverse the property effectively without it feeling too severe. It is surprising that Ross avoided that area completely. His 11th taking the most advantage of the low ground. However, when you stand on the current 11th tee, it feels that playing more from the right is comforting, similar to the way Flynn positioned his 14th.

It is hard not to conclude that the Stream Valley was a feature Flynn saw as having the most design potential. He was not a stranger to crossing streams in his hole designs. Several examples include Manufacturers Golf and Country Club which has eight holes crossing streams, Lancaster Country Club has six, Lehigh Country Club has four and Huntingdon Valley originally had eleven of twenty-seven holes crossing streams. At these courses, the angles of play and use of water rarely forces a player to play a particular shot but gives them a chance to pick a line of play and distance to be bold. If successful they are rewarded…if not, trouble awaits.

Ross tended to be less likely to take such routes. But it is clear that he used creeks in some of his most widely regarded designs. He used Allen’s Creek at Oak Hill to route the East Course around the same time as his Country Club of York design. It makes one wonder if he even saw the opportunity Flynn saw in the low ravine, or he felt holes like 14 and 15 were too compelling along the higher ground?

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