September 10, 2007

View FromThe Bunker

Rethinking Ross

I laugh when clubs hire an expert to "restore" their grand old Donald Ross course, using original plans and old photos to make it play the way Ross had intended. I want to ask: When you're done, are you going to play it with wooden shafts and Haskell balls? Will you mow the greens at half an inch so they'll putt at 5 on a Stimpmeter? Because if you're truly going to restore the course, that's what you ought to be doing.

Restoration is the narrow-minded substitute for imagination. It doesn't honor Ross (below), it insults him. It presumes the man never grew, never evolved as an architect in his 50-year career.

A dozen years ago, I came upon a set of Ross plans for Oakland Hills. The course was built in 1917. These were dated 1947. I'm guessing Ross had visited the course in preparation for the 1951 U.S. Open. (Of course, he died in 1948, and Robert Trent Jones got the job, created a monster and established his reputation.)

Ross' 1947 plans show dramatic changes. Clearly, he recognized the game was far different in '47 than it had been 30 years earlier. He proposed filling in bunkers that were 150 to 190 yards off the tee and adding new bunkers 250 yards out. He suggested moving bunkers closer to collars and reshaping greens, adding narrow extensions for nasty pin positions. He wanted to add new tees at new angles. He saw nothing sacred in his original design.

So why do club members today treat a Ross design as sacrosanct? Because they think it's a piece of art, a Rembrandt or a Monet, and not a living, breathing, daily-changing golf course.

The extremes some take in the name of restoration are hilarious. One architect rebuilt a bunker using a horse and dirt scraper, because, of course, that's what Ross would have done.

Not true. In the Dec. 10, 1947 issue of Golf World was a report of a winter meeting of the newly formed American Society of Golf Course Architects. Ross had been named honorary president. Addressing the troops, Ross said he was enthusiastic about "great earthmoving bulldozers" that could reduce building time (from 15 days to two) and save money. He also recounted how his staff rebuilt six holes at Allegheny CC in Sewickley, Pa., by cutting away several hills. (Donald Ross knocked down mountains? Who did he think he was, Tom Fazio?)

Anyone contemplating the recovery of a rundown or wretchedly remodeled Ross course must do more than simply unroll the original blueprint. The best architects who specialize in Ross recoveries -- Brian Silva, Kris Spence (see page 36), Ron Prichard, Ron Forse and others -- know that. Old plans, old photos are merely a starting point, and these architects extrapolate what Ross might have done were he alive and building today. They know he changed with the times. His features wouldn't look like giant horse droppings anymore. He would know glass has replaced grass on most greens and would contour his putting surfaces accordingly. He wouldn't put bunkers at 250 when pros hit to 350.

Silva calls it "sympathetic restoration." Good name.