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Playing in the footsteps of a Legend: Donald Ross Courses of the Sandhills

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. - Thomas Jefferson and Charlottesville, Walt Disney and Anaheim ... some places and historical figures are virtually inseparable. And if ever there was a marriage meant to last through the ages, it's that of the Village of Pinehurst with legendary golf course architect Donald Ross.

Ross designed the first four courses built at Pinehurst Resort, including the world famous No. 2 Course where he made his home in a cottage behind the green on the third hole. He also crafted the memorable layouts at Pine Needles and Mid Pines Golf Resorts in neighboring Southern Pines, two of the state's most popular golf courses.

Just as important as Ross' design credits is the legacy he left behind for this bucolic region. Ross' traditional design techniques and sensible routing plans have served as the basis and inspiration for numerous courses around the Sandhills and the U.S.

Just how did the relationship between this hardy Scotsman of "common stock" and this quaint outpost in the south central region of North Carolina begin?

Ross was born in the coastal town of Dornoch, Scotland, where he grew up playing Royal Dornoch, one of the world's most revered links layouts. After developing a love of "greens keeping" at his home course, Ross apprenticed for a year at St. Andrews for Old Tom Morris. The times called for a true Renaissance man and Ross was quick to answer. During his brief stint with Morris, he learned the ins and outs of course design, club making and golf course maintenance.

Ross came to America in 1899 to assist in the design and operation of the Oakley Golf Club outside of Boston. It took less than a year for soda fountain mogul and philanthropist James Walker Tufts to track and discover Ross and commission him with the design of series of resort courses in the newly created Village of Pinehurst. Tufts quickly fell in love with Ross' work and Ross, in turn, with the area. He would go on to design over 400 more golf courses throughout the country, but he kept his primary residence in Pinehurst until his death in 1948.

What was it about the Sandhills that endeared itself to the transplanted Ross? According to the majority of historical documents, it was the region's rolling topography and sandy soil, both of which reminded him of his home back in Dornoch. However, some sources intimate that it say it was Ross' obsession with perfecting his No. 2 Course that kept him steadfastly anchored in the Village. Perhaps it was a combination of both.

Whatever the case, true fans of traditional golf course design and students of the game's colorful history owe it to themselves to discover these Ross designed courses when visiting the Sandhills.

Pinehurst No. 1

Dr. D. Leroy Culver, an armchair golf course architect, actually designed the front nine on this, the resort's first layout in 1899. Ross would follow up by designing the back nine and reworking the front three years later. Ross would never be completely content with the track, making major changes to the course in 1913, 1937, 1940, and even as late as 1946, two years before his death.

The challenging layout and sound design of this venerable course are mind boggling considering that No. 1 was, for all intensive purposes, Ross' first solo design. The course is over 100 years old and was constructed by mules and men, so as you might expect, it's not overly long (6,100 yards from the back tees). Still, any low or mid handicapper will tell you that with its steep faced traps and its grass-faced bunkers around the greens, No. 1 is a worthy challenge.

Pinehurst No. 2

Ross completed the first nine holes at this world-famous course in 1901 and the back nine five years later. Despite the fact that his name is tied to some 413 golf courses in the U.S., the No. 2 Course at Pinehurst Resort has become Ross' public golf legacy. No. 2 has hosted several major professional and amateur tournaments, including the 1999 U.S. Open and has been tapped by the USGA to host the 2005 Open as well.

The course is also home to one of the World's oldest, most respected amateur tournaments, the North and South. Exactly what it is about No. 2 that makes it one of the country's best golf courses? It doesn't have the setting of Pebble Beach or Cypress Point or the views of a Pacific or Bandon Dunes. What many recreational golfers don't realize, however, is that Ross made it his life's mission to mold No. 2 into one of the world's truly great "tests of golf."

He made major changes to the course in 1922, 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1946 and hardly a year would pass when he didn't tinker with the layout in some way or the other. Ask anyone who's played it what they remember most about No. 2 and the answers will probably sound eerily similar: Diabolical, turtle shell greens. Not only do your approach shots here have to hit the green, they have to hit the right section of the green or else three, four and even five putts become a possibility.

Pinehurst No. 3

No. 3 is one of Pinehurst Resort's least talked about courses. From tee to green, it's similar to No. 1 and like its older sibling, is a short course by modern standards. The emphasis here is hitting fairways and greens and the latter are crowned just enough to make putting the bread and butter of the track. Word on the street is that golf historian and Masters champion Ben Crenshaw is a big fan of the course, having studied the greens before embarking on what has become a wildly successful design career.

Pinehurst No. 4

Donald Ross started it, Robert Trent and Rees Jones tweaked it, and Tom Fazio finished it three years ago, and finished it in style, we might add. For those who are still not convinced that Fazio can work miracles with a piece of land, the defense submits Exhibit A: Pinehurst No. 4. Instead of putting his personal stamp on the course, Fazio checked his ego at the door.

He opted to craft a tribute to the Sandhills region, its championship golf courses, and its father emeritus, Ross. After studying the property for months, Fazio's chief discovery was that there were generous portions of unused land around the course that could be incorporated into the original layout. Like a cardiologist during a bypass surgery, he created five new holes by combining existing holes with the newfound chunks of land. Many locals and a handful of Resort employees will tell you that this is their favorite course in the area, bar none.

Pine Needles

If there is one area golf course that can hold its own with the big boys over at the Resort, it is Pine Needles. The course hosted the 1996 and 2001 Women's U.S. Open, and is a Ross original that exemplifies Sandhills golf. Pine Needles' design is as traditional as sipping lemonade on the front porch - everything is out in front of you and there are no gimmicks.

There are six par-4's that play over 420 yards, but Ross is nothing if not fair -- all the par 5's are essentially reachable in two. Pine Needles opened in 1927 and was originally thought of as an "overflow" course for Pinehurst Resort. Today, the resort can go mano-a-mano with any in the Southeast and is owned and operated by legendary LPGA teaching professional Peggy Kirk Bell and her family.

Mid Pines

The Ross designed golf course at the Mid Pines Golf Resort in Southern Pines opened in 1921, and the Bell family and some other local investors purchased the property in 1994.

During the 73 years in between, Mid Pines earned a reputation as one of the best stay and play facilities in the Sandhills. In terms of design and conditioning, Mid Pines has historically played second fiddle to Pine Needles. A couple holes are quirky, yet interesting, and truth be told, the course is probably a couple shots tougher than Pine Needles. Ross fans will take comfort in many of the designer's familiar trappings: generous fairway landing areas, challenging greens with tricky undulations, and a good mix of hole lengths.

Thanks to the Donald Ross Society for its never-ending wealth of information on this topic. Find out more about the DRS at www.donaldrosssociety.org.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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