Type your email address below to join our newsletter
Search our site below:

"Discovering Donald Ross"

Bradley S. Klein would seem to be uniquely qualified to write a biography of Donald Ross. As an architecture editor at industry bible Golfweek, he possesses the necessary background to write about one of the most famous golf architects in history. Should anyone doubt his technical knowledge of day-to-day golf course maintenance, he can point to his tenure as founding editor of Superintendent News. His Ph. D. in Political Science puts to rest any concerns about his methodology and thoroughness. Klein holds memberships at Royal Dornoch, the course where Donald Ross learnt the game of golf, and at Wampanaog, the home of the Donald Ross Society.

With this pile of qualifications, it would have been a shame if Klein had turned in anything less than a stellar work. Fortunately, the book is beyond reproach. 

Klein relates in fascinating detail the life of the young Donald Ross. Ross grew up poor, with the almost clichéd devoted mother and hard-drinking father. His childhood seemed to be free of excessive trauma, however, as his mother provided a warm environment. One of my favorite sentences from the book gives a sense of this — Klein notes that “Always, there was soup.”

Ross’ great fortune was growing up a half mile from Royal Dornoch; one of the oldest and finest links courses in the world. Instead of living a forgettable life as a partner, Ross learned about golf courses, golf equipment, golf club politics, and the golf swing, working his way up to head professional before eventually moving across the Atlantic to run several courses, most notably Pinehurst. Ross served as professional at Pinehurst and designed the ever-hanging layouts at the seven-course complex. One of the more interesting assertions comes from Pete Dye, who in a lively forward argues that the famous “raised” greens of Pinehurst #2 are the result of years of top-dressing. We also find out that the famous Pinehurst greens were oiled sand until 1935.

Klein eventually shifts his focus from Ross’ life to his architecture, giving a good sense how early contributions while acting as club professional shifted in to more formal design work. One of the great lessons of the book is how little time was often spent at a given course, and how the degree to which a golf course can be termed a “Ross” course varies greatly. 

One of the most impressive aspects of the book is the section at the end in which Klein valiantly attempts to quantify the degree of Ross’ involvement at some 400 courses. Fans of Ross’ work may be shocked to find out how little time (or indeed no time at all) he spent at some of his courses.  Klein also does a commendable job condemning unfortunate restoration attempts and praising others.

For me, the book becomes slightly less interesting as it moves into a detailed discussion of Ross’ course architecture. Perhaps it would take a true Ross fanatic or a member at one of the courses discussed to remain fully engaged. Despite this, there are plenty of stunning photographs, which work well with the text to illustrate various design points. Klein does a good job of showing how his work developed in loosely observable phases, from “Formative Era” to “Functionalist Phase,” but always with the utmost respect for the terrain he was working with.   Many consider this to be the hallmark of truly great golf course architecture. Modern artists may groan that some of the sites they must work with necessitate a certain degree of theatrics. That complaint contains some measure of truth, but the way the courses of classic architects have stood up, working without benefit of modern earth-moving equipment, shows the value of the doctrine of minimal interference.

Klein’s writing isn’t without the odd quirk. He has a curious fondness for the word “distaff,” and his exploration of various branches of Scottish Presbyterianism may not interest some readers. At other times, this detail is a boon; Klein’s willingness to explore issues of race, segregation in the south and its relation to Pinehurst, and the anti-Semitism prevalent in some golf courses deserves special mention. This thoroughness and an obvious love for the work of Donald Ross makes Bradley Klein’s “Discovering Donald Ross” one of the finest golf books I have read.

The book is published by Sleeping Bear Press.

-- McGregor Sainsbury

| Golf Package | Golf Destinations | Virtual Tours | Cityscapes | Join our email list | Interviews | Contact Us |