Donald Ross in Florida: A Tour Through Ross's Public Access Golf Courses in North Florida
ORLANDO, FL - Who is the "hottest" golf course architect at the moment? Tom Doak? Kelly Blake Moran? Mike DeVries?
How about Donald Ross?
Ross died in 1948 but over the past three years there has been as much interest in the Scottish-born architect as with anyone living. Much of hoopla surrounding him began in the summer of 1999 when the U.S. Open traveled for the first time to Ross's personal laboratory and home, Pinehurst #2.
Listen in on a typical grill or locker room conversation today and you're likely to hear his name mentioned in authoritative tones by players who, just years earlier, had never heard of him, and quite possibly have never set foot on one of his courses. Several outstanding books about him have also hit the shelves recently, including "Discovering Donald Ross" by Bradley Klein and "Golf, As It Was Meant To Be Played" by Michael Fay.
It's become rather en vogue to speak of Ross and not uncommon to hear this club or that boast that they have a "Ross course". The renewed interest has, however, prodded many old clubs to consider "restoring" courses that have been altered over the years back to the original Ross design or intent. Several contemporary architects such as Brian Silva, Ron Prichard, Gil Hanse, and Bobby Weed have been instrumental in bringing much of the architect's defunct work back to life.
While Ross designed nearly 500 golf courses in his career, it must be acknowledged that in the era of trains rather than planes, he was able to personally visit sites considerably less than he could have if he were working today. Many courses that bear his name are "topography map" courses, built by distant construction crews using routings and drawings Ross created from his office.
While the state of Florida is blessed with a significant number of Ross-designed courses, many of them are of the "topography map" variety. Ross did travel to Florida, most importantly to Seminole Golf Club in North Palm Beach, but the majority of his courses available for public play were constructed without his direct guidance.
Nonetheless, each of these golf courses possesses a notable history owing to their original author. While some have been altered out of recognition, others retain original aspects that remind us of why Ross is revered as one of the great architects.
For those with connection the Ross tour begins in Orlando at the Orlando Country Club, one of the older Ross-designed courses in the state dating back to 1918. The rest of us will head up I-4 and then east on State Highway 40 to the city of New Smyrna Beach. New Smyrna Beach Municipal Golf Course is, unfortunately, what too many of Ross's publicly owned and operated courses have become today. It looks and plays like an worn municipal course, which doesn't have to be a negative, but in this case, means it lacks any real distinctiveness, much less any Ross imprinting.
It's also the last course Ross officially designed, though much of it was constructed over a six-year period following his death in 1948. New Smyrna Beach features what many construe to be "trademark" Ross pushup greens (more common to his flatter Southern courses than to those in the Northeast), an economical routing, and very modest bunkering.
Just up either I-95 or Highway A1A in Daytona Beach is the 36-hole Daytona Beach Municipal Golf Course, of which the South Course was designed by Ross in 1922. Situated on dead flat property, Daytona Beach South is, like New Smyrna Beach, common golf on sub-common land.
Though he never saw many of his designs, Ross's brilliance was typically evidenced in his routing plans. Few architects could match his gift for drafting a golf course that not only guided the player over the property in thrilling fashion but also creatively identified and implemented every nuance of the land. When the land offered relatively little - Seminole and Pinehurst #2 come immediately to mind - he was able to go on-site and create strategy and intrigue through labyrinthine routings or complex greens.
When he had neither an inviting property nor time to visit personally, the result was often something like Daytona Beach South. The routing is tight as expected, taking one or two unexpected turns, but in large, the course is squarish, flat and dull, and without a single standout hole; in fact its most memorable aspect is the train that runs through the center of the course. Though most of the course has survived in its original shape - several greens have been rebuilt and, quite frankly, they are the most interesting on the course - decades of lackadaisical care have stripped the course of any subtlety it may have once possessed.
Driving north on US Highway 1 eventually takes us through Saint Augustine to the Radisson Ponce de Leon Resort just off the highway on the right. It's here the Ross courses become more interesting.
In 1916 Florida tycoon Henry Flagler hired Ross to construct an 18-hole course along the tidal marshes and woodlands adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway. Flagler used the course to entice wealthy Northerners to visit St. Augustine, along with other Florida coastal towns where he owned hotels and property, and The Ponce de Leon course quickly came to be regarded as among the finest courses in the land. Ross returned in 1927 to design a third nine holes, but these were eventually abandoned around the time of World War II (the current practice range, hotel and clubhouse exist over them now).
Director of Golf Mary Hafeman, who for the last 13 years has researched the history of the course through documents and by speaking with long-time members, says 13 of the original 18 holes still exist in faithful shape. Desmond Muirhead worked on the course in the 1970's, breaking up a long par five along the Intracoastal (#4) into a par four and the scenic par three fifth over the marsh (the course's most photographed hole) and eliminated the old short inland par three 5th. In 1990 Joe Lee added three holes (12-14) that were to accompany a since defunct housing project. These holes play in far to the wooded portion of the property but, while scenic, they struggle to blend in with the spirit of the Ross holes. The original three holes that these replaced are now part of the pitch-and-putt course.
In 1999 the resort hired a Florida-based contractor to sympathetically restore the greens of the first nine to their original shapes using old photographs as a guide. In the process, the putting surfaces were enlarged to better accommodate modern play and the contours were enhanced. The still rather small, tumultuous greens and wide views of the Intracoastal help to make Ponce de Leon one of the better Ross pedigreed courses in the state, especially as the superintendent vows to keep the course playing firm and fast.
From St. Augustine we travel north on I-95, then I-295 to west Jacksonville and to another of the truer Ross courses in Florida, Hyde Park. Built in 1925, Hyde Park is a core design that has changed little over the years. Owned locally since the early 1970's, the only significant alterations have been the removal of a number of fairway bunkers (carried out when the city owned the course in the 1950's and 1960's), some alterations to several tees, and the resurfacing of a handful of greens.
Like Wilmington Municipal (NC) and Forest Hills in Augusta, Hyde Park is one of the more beloved purely public Ross courses in the South. A PGA event was played at the course in the 1940's and 1950's where once Ben Hogan took an 11 at the par three 6th. The course is fairly benign, with mid-size push-up greens of moderate slope, subdued traditional bunkering, pine-lined fairways, and lots of room off the tee. The home stretch of holes starting at the par five 14th show Ross's ability to coax the most out of the terrain as all five holes traverse from high point to valley back to elevated green.
We next pick up Highway 17 just on the other side of the St. Johns River and follow it south to the town of Palatka. Palatka Municipal Golf Club may not impress many members of the Donald Ross Society but it is a relatively faithful expression, if a modest one, of the course circa 1925. A few of the greens have been rebuilt or reshaped but largely the course has remained unaltered save for the wear and erosion, primarily in the bunkering, that we see so often at his older public courses.
Unlike New Smyrna Beach and Daytona Beach South, the Palatka site was blessed some minor undulation and even a hill or two. The combination of arrow straight holes and holes that dogleg too soon (5, 10, 11, 18), however, make it quirky or annoying, depending on your view. The Palatka greens do possess subtle slopes at the edges that can make for adventurous putting and chipping, especially coupled with their traditionally choppy conditioning. Unfortunately, a resurfacing project in the winter of 2001 that was supposed to solve this problem went terribly wrong and stripped the greens of virtually all grass.
Not quite on par with Hyde Park, Palatka does have a few holes of note, namely the 188-yard 3rd over a gully to a crowned, shallow green; the odd 5th with its bending, sloping fairway; and the short par four 13th playing over the crest of a hill.
Bearing west from Palatka on State Highway 100 brings us to one of the real gems of the Florida Ross tour, sleepy Keystone Heights Golf & Country Club in Keystone Heights. This little town was a rustic lakeside winter retreat in 1928 when Donald Ross drew the plans for a 9-hole resort course, and it hasn't grown much since. Blessed with modest hills and a remarkably quiet atmosphere, Keystone Heights has gone virtually unnoticed through the years by all but the local residents and members.
According to the club, the original nine Ross holes (1-3, 13-18) have never been touched save for standard maintenance. The holes are idyllic with a timeless appearance and dainty, sloping greens designed for ancient strains of bermuda. The bunkering is minimal yet strategic, especially at the first where, after a drive through a virtual pasture, the approach must bravely carry a steep, raised bunker that obscures nearly the entire putting surface of the smallest green on the course. The downhill, dogleg 13th is pretty and perhaps the most natural hole on the course, and the quirky, angled 16th with its tiny, tricky green is also cause for joy.
In 1959 the members added another nine holes to the course (credited to Albert Anderson) in shooting gallery fashion, and though not a match for the Ross holes, these too have a distinct character to them. Keystone Heights might still not compare to the Ross clubs of the Northeast, but for Florida it is quiet, natural and rare.
The final leg of the tour ends 20 minutes west of Keystone Heights in Gainesville, where Ross designed the University of Florida Golf Course in 1921. By all accounts this was never one of his better products, and whether by poor construction, lack of land, or maintenance neglect the course was renovated numerous times through the years.
In 2001 Bobby Weed was hired to renovate the course, and though he did not restore it to its original design - records of such were scarce and the need to modernize the course to challenge collegiate players was a larger priority - his work is in many ways a faithful reproduction of Ross principles and his traditional architecture.
Weed re-routed sections of the University of Florida course and completely reconstructed it, demonstrating an understanding of Ross by building quirky, boxy greens rather than stereotypical crowned, fall-away greens (which are fairly unique to Pinehurst). His putting surfaces are marked with vivid contour and multiple ledges and edges, with portions that fade into chipping areas or bunkers. They are large and bold and there is plenty of room in the fairways to drive the ball up to them while picking the best angle of attack. It's no longer an original, but the University of Florida course possesses as much Ross as do countless other non-restored courses throughout the east.
Future stops on the Ross Florida Tour will include several public offerings from Tampa south to Ft. Myers and the many high-quality courses around the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach area.
Donald Ross in Jacksonville
As with the greater Miami area, Ross had good business connections in Jacksonville. In addition to Hyde Park, he also drafted layouts for the old Florida Country Club (1922), Timuquana Country Club (1923), the now extinct Brentwood Country Club (1924), and San Jose Country Club (1925). Though San Jose has been seriously altered and can no longer be considered a true Ross course, Timuquana was revised in 2000 by Weed in much the same manner as the University of Florida course. Not strictly confined to rebuilding the club in its original shape, Weed sympathetically applied Ross features, including grass faced bunkers and greens with highly contoured perimeters. The results have been widely praised by both members and Ross aficionados.
A previous version of this article included Mayfair Country Club in Orlando as an original Ross design. According to Michael Fay of The Donald Ross Society, no corroborative evidence could be provided by the club to back its claim and therefore The Donald Ross Society no longer acknowledges Mayfair as a Donald Ross course.
TravelGolf.com has removed the Mayfair referrence from this article.
New Smyrna Beach Municipal
1000 Wayne Ave
New Smyrna Beach, FL 32168
Daytona Beach Municipal-South Course
600 Wilder Blvd.
Daytona Beach, FL 32014
Phone: (904) 258-3119
Radisson Ponce de Leon Resort
4000 US Highway North
St. Augustine, FL 32095
Phone: (904) 829-2821
Hyde Park Golf Club
6439 Hyde Grove Rd.
Jacksonville, FL 32210
Phone: (904) 786-2446
Palatka Municipal Golf Club
1715 Moseley Ave.
Palatka, FL 32177
Phone: (904) 329-0141
Keystone Heights Golf & Country Club
294 SE 43rd St.
Keystone Heights, FL 32656
Phone: (352) 473-4540
University of Florida Golf Course
2800 SW 2nd Ave.
Gainesville, FL 32607
Phone: (352) 375-4866
August 29, 2002