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Year of Birth1872
Year of Death1948, aged 75
Place of BirthDornoch, Sutherland, Scotland

Donald James Ross was born in 1872 to Murdoch Ross, a stone mason by trade, and his wife Lillian Campbell. Their first child had died soon after birth that same year so Donald became the eldest in the family, followed in subsequent years by three brothers and two sisters.

Murdoch was a member of a masonry crew that worked on the New York State capitol building during the 1870s so he was away from home on the other side of the Atlantic when his son was just a toddler. Who’d have guessed Donald would later follow in his father’s footsteps to find fame and fortune in the United States?

At the age of fourteen, he completed his formal studies and took up an apprenticeship with carpenter Peter Murray, who had an arrangement with the local Dornoch Golf Club to build the wooden boxes for holding sand on every tee.

Ross worked with Old Tom Morris at St Andrews in 1893 then spent part of the following season at Carnoustie before returning to serve under the Dornoch club secretary John Sutherland for six years as head professional, club maker and green keeper.

In 1899, Ross took a steamship to New York then a train to Boston to join up with Robert Wheeler Willson, an American professor of astronomy who he’d spoken to the year before about starting a new life in the New World. Within a year of his employment at Oakley Country Club, Ross had reworked the club’s original Willie Campbell-designed course.

He returned to Scotland in 1904 to marry Janet Kennedy Conchie, from Moniaive in Dumfries and Galloway, who he’d met in Dornoch before heading abroad. They would go on to have one child, Lillian Grace Wilson, named after her paternal grandmother.

Though not as good a golfer as his brother Alex (who won the US Open in 1907), Donald could play a bit too, evidenced by his two victories at the Massachusetts Open (in 1905 and 1911). He also competed in seven editions of the US Open, with a best placed finish of 5th in 1903 at Baltusrol. At the 1910 Open in St Andrews, Ross finished joint 8th, ten shots behind the winner, James Braid.

Shortly after taking up his position at Oakley, James Walker Tufts, the owner of the newly opened Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, engaged Ross to serve there during the winter months as golf professional, caddie master and club maker but he was soon helping superintendent Frank Maples with maintenance and construction duties.

By 1907, the old ‘Pyramids of Pinehurst’ – chest-high chocolate drop fairway mounds – had been removed from the property and the 18-hole No.2 course was in play, measuring just over 6,000 yards with a bogey score of 80 (closer to a par of 72 by modern standards) and sand putting surfaces in operation – grass greens didn’t arrive at Pinehurst until the mid-1930s.

Ross remained at Oakley for eleven years before moving thirty miles northeast to Essex Country Club. Of course, he immediately set about redesigning the club’s course, retaining only two holes, but the project wasn’t completed until 1917, four years after he’d left the club.

As Ross’s architectural work expanded during World War I, he hired J.B. McGovern then Walter B. Hatch as design associates to assist with the ever increasing workload. Walter Irving Johnson, a draftsman and engineer, was assigned the task of drafting final plans. Ross’s brother Aeneas also worked as a construction supervisor from 1922 to 1932 before returning to Dornoch. All told, it’s reckoned Ross was involved in around 400 projects during a thirty-five year design career which ran in parallel with his responsibilities at Pinehurst.

In fairness, it’s reckoned Ross only personally visited around two-thirds of all the courses he’s attributed with, which proves he must have had great faith in his associates to ensure that high standards were maintained across the board in a consistent manner.

At the height of his design powers in the 1920s, Ross oversaw one of the biggest landscape contract operations in the country, with around 3,000 men working on his jobs through sub-contacted companies. How he managed to juggle his architectural workload with his Pinehurst responsibilities is anybody’s guess.

Eric Nelson, Ross’s long-term personal secretary (who succeeded him as general manager at Pinehurst Country Club in 1946) was the man who, from late April to late October every year, would follow Ross out of Pinehurst to wherever he was staying in New England. He’d then continue to look after the day-to-day operations of the design company, handling accounts and correspondence, as well as organizing train travel for the many site visits that had to be made. Without this administrative assistance, Ross would have really struggled to keep on top of things.

Frank Maples was Ross’s golfing right-hand man at Pinehurst. Joining the resort in 1902, he eventually became the director of grounds and maintenance, a position he held until he died in 1949. It was Maples who put the Donald Ross plans for the No.2 course into practice, with no drawings or formal plans required. His first son Ellis became a designer in his own right and a second son, Henson, joined his father in 1940 at Pinehurst, where he stayed for thirty years.

Ross’s wife Janet died of heart failure in 1922. Donald's granddaughter Elizabeth picks up the story:

"In the spring of 1923, Donald was engaged to Susie Aldridge of Rome, NY. She died on August 31, 1923 of breast cancer. My sister Susan was named after her as my mother had adored her.

DJR then married widow Florence Sturdy Blackinton of North Attleboro, Mass. a few years after Janet died and about two years after Aunt Susie had also died. Florence was a widow of Roswell Blackinton, owner of a silver items manufacturing company.

They married at the home of a friend which was located in Framingham, Massachusetts. Donald had been taken to that home as he had fallen very ill with a throat ulcer. He was expected to die. My mother Lillian was brought to him from her school, Emma Willard in Troy, NY. She had just turned 15. He recovered there and married Florence in that home while sick.

In a letter he wrote to his brother, he revealed that Florence would be a “good guardian” should anything happen to him.”

Donald Ross suffered a heart attack on 25th April, 1948 and died in Moore County Hospital the next morning. The following week, he was buried next to his first wife Janet in Newton Centre cemetery, Massachusetts and both his daughter and son-in-law were laid to rest in the same plot after they died in 2000 and 1982.

Donald Ross was a founding member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects which held its first meeting (on home turf for him) at Pinehurst in December 1947. Members of the society have worn red plaid jackets at formal gatherings since 1973, when the distinctive Ross tartan was adopted as a tribute to their honorary first president.


From architect Kris Spence, who specializes in restoring Ross courses: “Ross realised he was introducing a new populace to the game and felt a responsibility to teach the game in a balanced manner and examine a player’s ability to hit a broad spectrum of shots. His use of bunkers to direct a player to the proper line of play or suggest a shape of shot spoke to the player’s abilities.

Ross didn’t force the player around the course; he gave them multiple options and let them choose. Often the shortest route was fraught with danger but the longer route was more visible and comfortable. The approach from each would present a different requirement and difficulty.

His work is so unique because he designed and routed what he was given. His courses seldom look alike due to the way he connected each and every hole to that piece of property. He designed holes by visualising golf shots and knowing how the ball would react on the ground. He placed bunkers and angled his greens to interact with what he perceived the ball movement, drainage and other factors to be.”


From Donald Ross in the book Golf has Never Failed Me: “When I was a young man in Scotland, I read about the American businessman absorbed in making money. I knew the day would come when the American businessman would relax and want some game to play, and I knew that game would be golf. I read about the start of golf in the United States, and knew there would be a great future in it, so I learned all I could about the game: teaching, playing, club-making, greenkeeping and course construction. And then I came to America to grow up with a game in which I had complete confidence. Golf has never failed me.”

From Ron Whitten in the Introduction to the book Golf has Never Failed Me: “Ross was both a playing and teaching professional, but by 1910 he had made golf course architecture his primary occupation. Within ten years, Donald Ross had become the first superstar of American golf. His name was a designer label and appeared in advertisements for resort courses, calendars, grass seed and other turf products. He designed a set of signature golf clubs, produced by Bristol Golf Equipment.

No architect in his day had more influence on his craft. When Ross really started devoting his energies to golf architecture, the job was still considered to be that primarily of an engineer. The competition at the time – C. B. Macdonald, Devereux Emmet, Willie Park Jr. – were competent at supervising golf holes onto sites, but the results were startling artificial.

Ross transformed golf design into an art form and the profession into one for an artist. He produced marvellous routing plans that merged golf holes comfortably into the landscape. The small details were as important to Ross as the grand, design, especially the finesse shots around the greens.”

Author Keith Cutten, in the book The Evolution of Golf Course Design, made this comment when profiling the architect: “Donald Ross was the first American-based golf architect to advocate and create naturalness in the construction of courses. Incorporating a design philosophy similar to that of Harry Colt, Ross’s routings took full advantage of each site’s best, natural features. His greens were bold and full of variety, not unlike those at his home course in Dornoch.

However, and perhaps more tellingly, Ross paid as much attention to a green’s surrounds as he did to its internal green contours. Ross believed in moulding green contours seamlessly into the existing terrain; and his green sites almost always put a premium on short, recovery shots.”

Bradley S. Klein in his book Discovering Donald Ross: The architect and his golf courseswrites: “Throughout his work, Ross’s golf courses were to embody a particular vision and brilliance. This has allowed many of them to stand out 75 or more years after their inception. Nor did his work remain static or formulaic. A close appraisal reveals a modest if discernible evolution that might even be interpreted as following into phases or stages.

His early work includes a number of quirks or oddities that, while distinctive, appear to be the result of certain design and construction limitations. It’s not that Ross should be faulted; rather, these works, built basically between 1900 and 1918, suggest a designer who was conscious of certain site limitations and who was struggling to accommodate his designs within them.

In many cases, he was able to compensate for constraints in routing with bold and creative putting surfaces. During this period he experimented with or deployed a number of unusually shaped bunkers that by no means can be said to look formulaic or predictable. This period might be termed his “’Formative Era.’

Among the representative works of this era that remain in relatively pristine form today are Essex Country Club (MA), Rhode Island Country Club, Wannamoisett Country Club (RI), Brae Burn (MA), White Bear Yacht Club (MN) and French Lick Springs Golf Course (IN).

After World War I, Ross developed a more mature, flowing style in which features were more carefully integrated – ‘floated out’ in the parlance of construction shapers, whose task it would become to ‘tie in’ contour lines that adhered to natural topographic features.

This work was greatly aided by hiring of design associates Walter B. Hatch and J. B. McGovern. Ross’s plans also became more technically adept thanks to the professional engineering and drafting provided by Walter Irving Johnson, who came on board in October 1920. The lines are smoother, more economical, and incorporate more mechanical construction.

Again, at the risk of oversimplification, we can call this his ‘Mature Phase’. Representative works that still embody these features would include Broadmoor Country Club (IN), Franklin Hills (MI), Holston Hills Country Club (TN), Salem Country Club (MA), Seminole (FL), and Mountain Ridge (NJ).

These works of the 1920s are more elegant, with smoother transitions from fairway into the green and fewer bunkers but more strategic in nature. There is a certain grace to these layouts, reflected in the more carefully fashioned contours of the greens and their positioning so that they were visible from a standard area of approach.

Ross’s workload, the busiest in the country through the 1920s, quieted dramatically the last 15 years of his life. What work that did come his way was sporadic, and done with greater concern for economy of production than for aesthetic effect. This can be termed his ‘Functionalist Phase’ – a concern more for playability and maintainability that with a particular aesthetic or strategic effect.

His works during this era really bridge two different modes of building. In the 1930s his work consisted largely of municipal projects that were impressive feats of construction. After World War II, Ross found more work – for two years or so, until his death in April of 1948. The few projects he designed throughout this era do not readily show the same attention to detail of his Formative and Mature phases.

How could they, as Ross was limited in his travels, and he has also slowed down physically and mentally owing to ageing and declining health? This work was almost entirely taken up by J.B. McGovern, with assistance from Frank Maples’s son, Ellis. That Ross’s work was in such good hands helps explain the substance and elegance of Raleigh Country Club (NC), the last course he ever did.”

Pete Dye commented as follows in the foreword of Bradley S. Klein's book Discovering Donald Ross: The architect and his golf courses: “The mystique about Donald Ross starts with his marvellous routings. When I see Ross courses, and I mean the ones he was seriously involved in, I’m amazed how he could take an old topographic map and route the holes with such variation. Many of the Ross courses that we’ve heard about and that have come into national recognition were on good pieces of ground to start with. They were all on self-contained lots, where you didn’t have to cross roads or walk around areas that you couldn’t build on.

He was the first designer to make the opening shot play one way, then switch the kind of play needed on the second shot. Whatever he had done on the first hole, he’d flip on the second. He might set up a bunker on the right-hand side and expect you to cut your tee shot. He would then reverse that around the green and expect you to draw your approach.

That’s the thing about Ross courses: for all their genius, they vary. He designed them one way, but the builders had to be really skilled at construction to interpret them correctly. It often depended on who was hired to build them. Some of his courses are good because they were built by people who got their hands dirty and made his plans come alive. Other Ross courses look different and are a little extreme because they were built by people who weren’t very good at making sense of his sketches.

I wonder what Mr. Ross would say about the game and the about how his courses play today. I wonder if, or how, he would have changed his designs. In some ways, design was easier for him because there wasn’t such a big difference between good players and average resort players. Ross could also count on firm, fast fairways back then, but today’s courses are much more lush. Which means it’s become a different game, and the difference between midrange golfers and professionals is bigger than ever.”

From Ron Forse, another Ross restoration expert, in a interview, November 2020: “Donald Ross didn’t do the same architecture his whole career (people make a fatal error of logic by thinking an architect’s career was monolithic and did not evolve). His first era we call primitive, which was marked by arbitrary features and sometimes and sometimes a slightly clumsy but fascinatingly quirky design. The period is from the early 1900s to 1919.

His second era was from 1920 to WWII. We call this his mature work. It is now very strategic in nature. This period is also more beautiful in that the features blend better with nature. Ross has evolved beyond the primitive. His third stage of work was his Post War Era, which was very short – 1945 until his death in 1948. At this time his associate J.B. McGovern did most of the work.

Essentially, this era was marked by what looks like a blending of 1920s Ross with the architecture of William Flynn. The bulldozer was being used and bunker design had sand flashed in many cases all the way to the top of the feature (McGovern built courses for Flynn at times as well as working for Ross).

As a designer I think he was a very quick study, an instinctive architect. Ross could be a very good artist as well. His mounding features and green complexes were simply beautiful. And his bunker artistry is on display in old photos of Seminole in Florida, where he had plenty of time to work his craft due to the onslaught of the Depression.

His field notes for changing Wannamoisset were done in one day in June 1927. He said this was his best course and was yet still making improvements. This is instructive about the man. He was also flexible. At the Sagamore in upstate New York he allowed himself to route the first hole into the morning sun because the layout was so spectacular.

James Harrison of Pittsburgh who worked for Ross as a young man at Edgewood Country Club remembered Ross as being somewhat quirky in that he liked to go to the 5 and 10 store and look at the little trinkets (I don’t know how identifying this would be of his actual character).

Ross’s humility was shown in his acceptance of Jim Harrison’s criticism of his routing at Edgewood. Holes 13 through 18 all have out of bounds on their right hand side. Harrison thought he should have routed them in the opposite direction and told him so years later. ‘Well maybe you are right,’ Ross replied.”

From Richard Mandell in the introduction to the book Great Donald Ross Golf Courses Everyone Can Play: Resort, Public and Semi-Private: “Donald Ross strove for originality in all his work, and knew that originality comes primarily from utilizing the lay of the land to its utmost potential. How else can one maintain that unique quality within such a long list of works? As each piece of property is original to the world, so too does each Donald Ross course fit the needs of its location.

The more Donald Ross golf courses one plays, the more this originality and variety in design precludes the categorization of his work into tight confines. Surely many are familiar with his more-famous layouts, such as Seminole or Pinehurst No. 2, yet the many other courses that are more accessible to the everyday golfer truly demonstrates Donald Ross’s unique place in golf history.

He was a great advocate of public-access golf, and knew that success lay in the universal appeal of the game to players at all levels. His designs reflect those tenets very well by leaving the lavishness to others and simply revealing the attributes of the ground itself in each golf hole, being sure to give the golfer a myriad of options.

Donald Ross weaved rhythm into his designs: long holes followed by short ones, left-leaning holes followed by right-leaners, or a bunker to carry followed by one to avoid altogether. Sadly, all this artistry can be easily destroyed over time by exuberant renovations in the name of ‘modernisations.’ That is why it is vital to preserve his works, allowing golfers not only the opportunity to enjoy the simplicity of his designs, but also the realization that a round of golf can be a round of pure pleasure.”


Golf Has Never Failed Me: The Lost Commentaries of Legendary Golf Architect Donald J. Ross, a collection of short essays by Ross written between the two world wars but not published until 1996

Golf as It was Meant to be Played, published in 2000, by Michael Fay

Discovering Donald Ross: The Architect and his Golf Courses, published in 2001, by Bradley S. Klein

The Life & Times of Donald Ross, published in 2016 by Chris Buie

Great Donald Ross Golf Courses Everyone Can Play: Resort, Public and Semi-Private, published in 2017, by Paul Dunn and B. J. Dunn

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