Pinehurst is no stranger to accolades—in our last Reader Survey, for example, the North Carolina resort finished first in its region and third overall. And it's pretty easy to account for its leap to the top this year: the attention it garnered as the host of the U.S. Open on Donald Ross's masterpiece, Pinehurst No. 2. When it comes to the resort's appeal—spectacular spa notwithstanding—this course is at the core.
Indeed, if the measure of a golf architect is the number of important events staged on his designs, this has been another great year for Ross. The U.S. Open in June was the 111th national championship or Ryder Cup to be held on a Ross layout. So many of his courses host majors or appear on various top-100 lists that a few questions beg to be answered: What did Ross understand about design that eluded other architects?What brings crucial events back to Ross courses so often?And why do average players love them so?
Ross himself was laconic and modest when he spoke of his own talent. He shunted the credit to nature. "Give me some slightly rolling terrain and sandy soil, and I'll give you the best courses," he wrote in Golf Has Never Failed Me, which was published in 1996 from a partial manuscript and various notes he left when he died in 1948.
But that doesn't answer the questions. Other architects have worked in similar conditions to much lesser effect.
Ross designed many famous private courses (Seminole, Oak Hill, Aronimink, Oakland Hills) but also created resort layouts that remain faithful to his intent and are accessible to all golfers. They stretch from New Hampshire to North Carolina and could be said to form an unofficial, but very playable, Donald Ross Trail.
So I hit the highway, in search of something I wasn't sure I could find. Devotees of Donald Ross insist there's a subtle genius in his courses. They challenge good players. They accommodate beginners. They're fun. They're unique. Along the trail, I hoped to discover why.
Balsams Grand Resort Hotel
Dixville Notch, NH
One of the things you'll read about Donald Ross courses is that they lie gently on the land. Sometimes this praise is delivered faintly—it's said that he had no other choice but to use the terrain he was given because he worked, by and large, before the era of bulldozers. Ross was born in Dornoch, Scotland, in 1872 and trained as a carpenter. His skills with wood led him into club making, in those days the mainstay of a golf professional's livelihood. After apprenticeships at St. Andrews and Carnoustie, he became the pro at Dornoch, a job he held until the prospect of earning $60 a month led him to the U.S. in 1898, where he found Americans interested in hiring him to lay out courses. And it's true that when Ross came to the uplands of New Hampshire in 1912 to design the Panorama, his crews worked with shovels, mules and scrapers.
But walking down the third fairway of the Panorama course, I saw something to suggest that there is more than happenstance in the way Ross courses blend with their surroundings. Number three is a 403-yard par four that plays down the western slope of Keazer Mountain. It has a large bunker in the fairway about sixty yards shy of the green. As I looked at the bunker, then at the horizon beyond it, I saw a bit of Ross's art. The horizon line is dominated by the green peak of Mount Monadnock, whose profile is echoed perfectly by the contour of the bunker's lip. Beyond the bunker to the left, the back of the green complex perfectly echoes the ridgeline to the left of Monadnock. After my round, Steve Barba, formerly the general manager, told me: "You almost always see the horizon behind the green if you're hitting your second shot from the right spot."
The Balsams, like most of the stops I would make on the Ross Trail, is a resort that speaks of another age. Little girls in summer frocks frolic with fathers in blazers on the lawn in front of the veranda. When Barba took over the place in 1971 the hotel was in a state of genteel decline and half the golf course had reverted to pasture. But Barba remembered every hole, because he had caddied here in the 1950s. Under his direction the course was restored, and the resort regained prosperity.
Despite its antiquity, the Panorama still charms and challenges hotel guests, largely because of the way Ross used the mountain slopes to make his greens deceptive. "People had difficulty reading the greens when I was a caddie. They still do," Barba said. "The course is set up to allow for a wide variety of drives, and the bunkers are not that close to the greens. But once you're on them, it's tough to make par." In New Hampshire, Ross was all about terrain and how to use it—harmoniously.
BALSAMS PANORAMA: 800-255-0600, thebalsams.com. Yardage: 6,804. Par: 72. Slope: 136. Greens Fee: $60.
Bolton Landing, NY
Ross has a fan club—the Donald Ross Society—that was founded in 1989 by some members of Wampanoag Country Club in West Hartford, Connecticut, who were unhappy with a renovation of their 1926 Ross course. The Society, which has grown to about 1,400 members, funds scholarships, helps preserve the records of Ross's designs and fights against architects who want to "renovate" Ross's work rather than carefully restore it.
A recent summer meeting of the society was held at the Sagamore, a white frame hotel on the shores of Lake George, a few hours southwest of the Balsams. The course, which sits on a plateau about a mile above the lake, begins with a par four that gives the player a view of a checkerboard fairway that falls away and then rises to a distant green. Beyond is Lake George, dotted with rocky islands, and beyond that lie low green mountains. On an August morning when the mist rises off the water and the sun gleams on the fairway, there are few prettier sights in golf.
This opening hole epitomizes one of Ross's design tendencies. Many of his par fours begin, like this one, with an elevated tee that drops off to a valley fairway, then rises again to a green perched on a ridge. I heard a story about this hole, though, that suggested Ross was quite capable of deviating from his standard ploys. Tom Smack, the Sagamore's director of golf, told me that in 1986 he was visited by Ross's only child, Lillian Ross Pippitt. She recounted how, as a teenager, she had accompanied her father to the area in 1926. (By that time, Ross was well established as an architect. Five U.S. Opens had been played on his layouts, as well as two on courses he had renovated.)
In a car, Ross and his daughter scouted the hills above Lake George, looking for likely golf terrain. Finally, Ross came upon the property where the Sagamore Golf Course now sits. He set off on foot, leaving Lillian in the car. In about an hour, he came back and told her he had found the course. One can easily imagine Ross, dressed as usual in a three-piece tweed suit, returning to the car with a sheen of perspiration on his mustache and a few burrs on his trousers, quite pleased with himself.
He showed his daughter where the first hole was going to be. Like most architects, Ross tried not to lay out a first hole facing east, lest golfers would have to squint into the morning sun. But the first at the Sagamore does. "I can't start it anywhere but looking right out at that lake and those mountains," Lillian remembered him saying.
Part of Ross's skill, evidently, was knowing when to break the rules.
THE SAGAMORE: 800-358-3585, thesagamore.com. Yardage: 6,821. Par: 70. Slope: 137. Greens Fees: $105–$135.