No golf architect from the classic era of design left behind a more impressive portfolio of affordable public courses than Donald Ross.
As if we needed an occasion, I’ll take Ross’ birthday – he was born Nov. 23, 1872 – as a good time to acknowledge his role in providing the public with quality golf that remains accessible to everyday players.
He grew up in humble, working class conditions in the northern Scotland town of Dornoch and never forgot his roots in a game that was always available to golfers of all classes. When he came to the U.S. in 1899 to seek out his fortune, he found that golf was almost exclusively the province of elite private clubs. And yet he made room for everyday golfers, whether it was at the burgeoning Pinehurst Resort, where from 1900 until his death in 1948 he oversaw design of the first four courses; or down the road in Southern Pines, where his work at Mid Pines (1921) and Pine Needles (1927) were highly regarded from the start.
Among the 410 courses in his career-long portfolio of original designs, nine-hole expansions and major renovations are dozens of accessible layouts.
One thing you’ll quickly find out by playing a range of Ross courses is that the notoriously domed, turtleback greens characteristic of Pinehurst No. 2 are the exception, not the rule, in his collection. More so than any set of putting surfaces he ever created, those at Pinehurst No. 2 have been altered through a combination of aggressive top-dressing, sand-build up from greenside bunkers, and successive constructive techniques that exaggerated the vertical lift from their original shape from 1935, the year they were converted from sand greens to Bermuda-grass surfaces.
Beyond the trio of his acclaimed resort gems in Pinehurst (Pinehurst No. 2, Mid Pines and Pine Needles), there are others worth sampling and many are light on the wallet. Here is a collection of the best, selected for modest green fee and quality of design integrity:
We’ll start right up the road from Pinehurst, Mid Pines and Pine Needles, in the once-sleepy but gradually awakening town of Southern Pines. Besides old-fashioned bistros, ice cream shops, bookstores and a train station in the middle of town, there’s one of Ross’ more charming layouts. At 6,354 yards from the back tees, this par-71 looks short on the scorecard, but the rolling terrain and Ross’ penchant for routing the hole so that the prime landing area for a drive forces an uphill approach combine to make it play several hundred yards longer. The intimate, connect-the-dots layout from 1923 is readily walkable. A bonus for everyday golfers: there’s often the option of running the ball up to putting surfaces that have maintained their interest over the decades. $59.
While we’re in state, let’s head out southeast 135 miles to a coastal town that has some of the country’s best 12-month golf weather. Wilmington Municipal, a mile inland from the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean, has been rescued from its once-moribund condition and now displays considerable sharpness of design detail on a relatively flat site. Ross’ design from 1926 relies upon a simple, economical trait of the classic design era – raised fill pads for greens, with flanking bunkers sunk into the base of the modest elevation created for the putting surfaces. $40.
George Wright Golf Course - Boston, Mass.
Here’s a golf course that was the country’s most expensive municipal course when it opened in 1938. It cost a $1 million to build, or, more precisely, to blast the rocky site into submission. Ross designed it but all of the fieldwork was done by his longtime (and by the mid-1930s former) civil engineer, Walter Irving Johnson, with funding and construction by Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. You’ll find a paucity of fairway bunkers on this rolling site, but the greens all present themselves clearly enough, and the sense of raw New England that you get from the exposed ledges and occasional ponds make this urban layout a gem of a golf oasis. The par-70 course, all of 6,506 yards from the back, is enjoying a slow, steady restoration by local architect Mark Mungeam. $57.
Triggs Memorial Golf Course - Providence, R.I.
Another Depression-era layout, this one is only three miles west of downtown Providence and a good example of enjoyable public golf that shows respect for the everyday golfer. Ongoing tree work has done a lot to expose the peripheral mounding and slopes of this par-72 layout, 6,522 yards long. There’s just enough turn in the doglegs now that you hardly notice how many of the holes actually run north-south. $50.
Seaview Hotel (Bay Course) - Galloway, N.J.
Troon Golf now operates golf at the Seaview, with the Pines Course occupying a wooded, inland site and the Ross-designed Bay Course fronting Reeds Bay and looking east across the marsh to Atlantic City. Ross seems to have amended an existing layout from Merion’s own Hugh Wilson, and the course was highly regarded enough to hold the 1942 PGA Championship, won by Sam Snead at match play. The LPGA set up shop here 1986-87, 1998-2006, and since 2010. There’s no mistaking the ambiance of this par-71 layout, 6247 yards. The first two holes, both par-4s, head straight out to sea, into the prevailing wind. $119.
LuLu Country Club - Glenside, Penn.
Formerly private, now open to select public play, LuLu is a sweet example of early Ross, circa 1912, with lots of head-scratching cross bunkers and early hazards. Extensive tree clearance has done wonders for the place. The most memorable hole, by far, on the par-71 layout measuring 6,433 yards is the devilish little par-3 fourth hole, all of 112 yards. Folks call it – or curse it – a “quarry hole,” and for good reason. $80.
Architect Ron Prichard’s restoration of Jeffersonville Golf Club in 2001 rescued a 1931 Ross design whose bunkers were losing shape and whose fairway corridors had gotten overrun with trees. The work proved to be a nationally recognized showcase for the value of reviving classic era public golf and has helped this layout 25 miles northwest of downtown Philadelphia stay busy and vibrant ever since. $55.
Manakiki Golf Course - Willoughby, Ohio
This Ross-designed layout from 1928 occupies 200 wooded acres of an old estate that was a private country club until 1961. That’s when it became the jewel of what is now Cleveland Metropark’s eight-course network. An elegant old clubhouse, rolling terrain, and a par-72 layout stretching to 6,643 yards greet the public here. The popular course has also been prominent as a tournament venue: home to the PGA Tour’s Carling Open in the 1950s, to the Greater Cleveland Amateur since 1994 and recently the three-time qualifying site for the U.S. Amateur Championship. $44.
Ravisloe Country Club - Homewood, Ill.
Daily-fee golfers at this elegant golf course 29 miles south of the Chicago Loop would be excused if they thought they had landed at an exclusive private club. That’s how Ravisloe operated from its founding in 1901 until it was bought out and turned into a daily-fee course in 2018. Ross did a lot of work in Chicagoland around World War One, but his ornamental bunkering here is unusual in scope and has architect David Esler to thank for its restoration. From the Spanish Mission-style clubhouse to the steep-shouldered bunkers and fully restored putting surfaces, this is a special place. $49.
French Lick Resort (Donald Ross Course) - French Lick Springs, Ind.
It’s hard to image a PGA Championship here in the hill country of south-central Indiana in 1924, but this is where they gathered and where Walter Hagen won the second of his five titles. Today, Ross’ 1922 design is a throwback museum piece with fully restored bunkers and some of the most intense putting surfaces he ever created. At the 392-yard, par-4 eighth hole, the green on this dogleg left looks like it’s on steroids, with eight feet of fall from back to front and no apparent way to stop the ball when putting from above the hole. It’s a living reminder of what fun and interest vivid ground features can create. $125.
Bradley S. Klein is the author of Discovering Donald Ross, available at www.discoveringdonaldross.com.