No one ever made a film about A.W. Tillinghast, Old Tom Morris, Alister Mackenzie or Robert Trent Jones. Books have been written about them, but nothing on the big or small screen. Thanks to Cob Carlson and his film, Donald Ross: Discovering The Legend, Donald J. Ross is smiling in his small place in the afterlife (which looks like either Dornoch or Pinehurst, but more on them later) in gratitude.

Donald Ross built golf courses in the U.S. at a time when travel wasn’t easy (lots of trains and many fewer automobiles, with no interstate highway system), labor was human and horse-powered, not yet mechanized to the extent it is today, but the land that was available was nothing short of incredible. Ross was contracted to build nearly 400 courses, 200 of which were individual designs, over a long and successful design career.

Cob finish
Cob Carlson

Cob Carlson is a Boston guy, and New England is rife with Donald Ross layouts. Carlson’s day job is film/video editor and producer. His work is principally on documentaries, although he has also contributed work to feature films, music videos and commercials. As far back as 2005, when the U.S. Open was played at Ross’s Pinehurst No. 2 course, he had interest in creating a documentary on the architect. Finding little interest from the major networks, he stored the idea away for half a decade. In a 2014 interview on the Golf Club Atlas website, he revealed more of what ultimately motivated him to resurrect the project. Recently, Carlson summarized part of what the DVD presents to an interested golfing public.

“Viewers will see what the courses look like now, and what they looked like years ago,” Carlson said. “Clips from archival films, still photos, and architectural drawings are featured. Interviews with renowned golf course architects, professionals, writers, historians, course superintendents, and amateurs critically enrich the film, and explain why Ross’ classic designs have stood the test of time.”

In 2014, Donald Ross: Discovering The Legend was first released on DVD. In 2015, Carlson released a second version, in which improved graphics and additional photos and footage enhance the entire Ross experience. Without giving too much away, the second edition does a thorough job of tracing and defining Ross’ life, both personal and professional. Vintage photographs from a time before moving pictures were popular and affordable, coupled with video footage of later events on Ross courses, provide a backdrop to a life and career that spanned two World Wars and the period of greatest mechanical change in the U.S.

Computerized technology moves life at a breathtaking pace in modern times, and yet, the motorization of the game’s upkeep, from the early 1900s when Ross began his career to the late 1940s when he died, undeniably changed the way he and his associates built golf courses. Through it all, Ross designed those courses in one of two ways: site visits or topographical map consultation. He had complete faith in the construction crews and site managers to render his vision, even if he was unable (or too busy?) to visit the property. In addition to the 200 original course plans, Ross expanded some 100 nine-hole courses to 18 holes, and redesigned another 100 courses to reach the fabled 400 total course routings.

Cob on Location
Cob Carlson (foreground) with Ran Morrissett at Mid Pines in North Carolina

One point of a proper review is to offer sufficient insight into a topic to compel an interested party to further pursue the topic. Cob Carlson manages this task without ever resorting to unnecessary drama. The story of Donald J. Ross did not involve battlefield military service, as was the case with Alister Mackenzie. It did not involve a battle with alcohol, as A.W. Tillinghast fought during his lifetime. What he did endure was personal tragedy, through the loss of his wife (and mother to his daughter) and the subsequent loss of a woman he loved and hoped would be a surrogate mother to his child.

Golf courses, in the spirit of park spaces, effectively preserve much of what is natural to this earth, and Ross did so in an efficient, concerned manner. The secrets of how, where and why he did it, are what make this DVD a worthwhile purchase for any golfer who wishes to know much of what goes into the golfing grounds that she or he frequents on a regular basis, through the words and deeds of the most prolific course designer of all time.

In the words of Siskel and Ebert, the renowned film critics, two thumbs up.

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2 COMMENTS

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  1. Ron, thanks for the review.

    While I personally don’t like Ross courses because they confound me, I respect the body of work. Personally, I would rather play a MacKenzie. But, I will buy the video.

    • I played my first Mackenzie this fall, at Pasatiempo. I would play his courses for the rest of my life (too bad they’re all private and in California!) Ross is so accessible to east coast USA folks, although most of his are private, too.

      If someone plays Mark Twain in Elmira (NY), Mid Pines in Pinehurst (NC) Sagamore (Adirondacks, NY) they can get a very good idea (and not break the bank) of what Ross was about.

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