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Book Review: The Life and Times of Donald Ross

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The Life and Times of Donald Ross is a successful golf history, in that it holds one’s attention, regardless of one’s level of enthusiasm or interest for the subject. It can hardly avoid doing so, as it traces the life of a man who lived through both world wars, emigrated from the old country to the new, and championed a sport that grew from infancy to maturity in the USA, during his earthly run. The loss of two wives to uncontrollable circumstances, the raising of a child essentially on his own, and the commitment to the growth of golf as an industry add to the complexity of the life of Donald J. Ross Jr. Within the cover of this tome, through words and images, the life and times of the man are communicated in fine fashion.

The book was published in 2016, by Chris Buie of Southern Pines, North Carolina. Buie is not a professional writer in the traditional sense. He does not solicit contracts for books, but instead, writes from a place of passion and enthusiasm. This is not to say that he is not a writer of professional quality. Instead, it isolates him among those who turn out high-level prose, scholarly research, with attention-holding results.

Before I opened the book, it was the cover that held my attention for much longer than a single, fleeting moment. The solitary figure, staring out across the ocean. Was he gazing toward the Americas, or toward his birthplace, in Scotland? And that blend of blue shades, like something out of Picasso’s 1901-1904 period of monochromatic azures, proved to be equal parts calming and evocative. Those years, by the way, correlate with the 29th to the 32nd years of Ross’ life. During that period, Ross lost a brother (John) to injuries suffered in the Boer War, and married his first wife, Janet. With care like that for the cover art, what marvelous research awaited within the binding?

After a number of readings, I’m uncertain as to the greater value of the words or the pictures. Perhaps it’s the codependency of one on the other that leads to the success of the effort. The book is the culmination of 5 months of exhaustive research, followed by 7 months of intense writing, on Buie’s part. The author made up his mind to match as many images as possible with his descriptors, so as to create both visual and lexical collections to stand time’s test. Maps, paintings, photos, newspaper clippings, postcards, etchings and course routes were collected and reproduced within the covers. Throughout the process, so much of Ross’s life and craft, previously unrecognized in publication, were revealed to Buie. Ross’s ability to make the unnatural look natural when necessary, is hardly equaled in the annals of golf course architecture. According to Buie,

Growing up all I’d heard was natural. Certainly he incorporated as much of the existing terrain and environment as possible. But given how much other work went into the courses, it would be more accurate to say his courses were naturalistic.

Buie also scrapes away at the misplaced notion that Ross was a one-dimensional golf course architect. After all, what else did Shakespeare do besides write plays and sonnets? Well, Ross did so much more, in addition to building some of the world’s great member and tournament golf courses, shaping the Pinehurst Resort experience, and running an in-town hotel in the process. Again, Buie comments,

His greatest contribution was the role he played in the overall establishment of the game in the United States. He was involved in every aspect (caddymaster, greenkeeper, teacher, player, mentor, tournaments, clubmaking, management, etc). The theme that went through his efforts was that he was adamant all be done “the right way”. Given the breadth and enduring nature of his efforts I don’t think anyone else did more to establish the game in America. That makes him the “Grand Old Man of the American Game” – not just a prolific architect.

What was it about Ross, that separated him from the many compatriots who journeyed from Scotland to the USA? They were content to compete and run golf clubs, but Ross sought so much more. His early years involved much successful competition, including top-10 finishes in the US Open. He was also a competent instructor, manifested in the ability of his students to learn both the swing and its competitive execution. And yet, Pinehurst is so different from any other place in the Americas. And so much of what it is, is due to the influence of Donald Ross.

In a nod to the accepted round of golf across the planet, the book contains 18 chapters, including the appendices. At locomotive pace, the mode of transportation utilized by Ross to traverse the lower 48 of the USA and Canada, the reader gathers a proper awareness of the great man’s living arc. Beginning with the hike from the train station in Boston to the Oakley Country Club, the emigration of the Scotsman from the highlands of Caledonia to the next hemisphere was a fairly simple affair, with unexpected, poignant, and far-reaching consequences. Donald J. Ross, jr., would complete the shaping of american golf that was assisted (but never controlled) by architectural peers. Men like Walter Travis, Albert Tillinghast, Charles Blair Macdonald, Alister MacKenzie and Tom Bendelow would build courses of eternal worth, but none would shape in the far-reaching manner of Ross.

It’s tempting to make a larger portion of this story about Buie, but he wouldn’t have it so. A Pinehurst native, Buie’s blend of reverence and understanding of his home region are evident and undeniable. One almost thinks that a similar history might have been written about any number of characters charged with the stewardship of the Sandhills region of North Carolina. Fortunately for aficionados of golf and its course architecture, Buie is a golfer, and so we have this tome.

Donald J. Ross, jr. was a man of principle, a man of faith, a man of belief. When those beliefs came into conflict with each other, which they seldom did, he had an instinct for elevating one over the other. No other place is this more evident that in his routing of the Sagamore course in Lake George, in the Adirondack mountains of New York state. Faced with the conundrum of how to begin the course, his daughter remembers the sage words of the father. Despite contradicting his belief that a course should never begin in the direction of the rising sun, Ross commented I can’t start it anywhere but looking out at that lake and those mountains. Indeed, Sagamore would be a poorer place for an alternate opening, and this review would have less of a way to reach its end.

My recommendation: read the book.

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Ronald Montesano writes for GolfWRX.com from western New York. He dabbles in coaching golf and teaching Spanish, in addition to scribbling columns on all aspects of golf, from apparel to architecture, from equipment to travel. Follow Ronald on Twitter at @buffalogolfer.

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Podcasts

The 19th Hole (Ep 63): Valentino Dixon talks Golf Channel documentary; Marvin Bush remembers his father

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Valentino Dixon shares his amazing story in an exclusive interview with Michael Williams. Also in this episode: a tribute to George H.W. Bush, featuring a conversation with his youngest son, Marvin.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

featured image c/o Golf Channel

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Courses

Hidden Gem of the Day: Park Hills Golf Course in Freeport, Illinois

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These aren’t the traditional “top-100” golf courses in America, or the ultra-private golf clubs you can’t get onto. These are the hidden gems; they’re accessible to the public, they cost less than $50, but they’re unique, beautiful and fun to play in their own right. We recently asked our GolfWRX Members to help us find these “hidden gems.” We’re treating this as a bucket list of golf courses to play across the country, and the world. If you have a personal favorite hidden gem, submit it here!

Today’s Hidden Gem of the Day was submitted by GolfWRX member lawsonman, who takes us to Park Hills Golf Course in Freeport, Illinois. The course sits west of Chicago, and in lawsonman’s description of the course, he cites the immaculate condition of the track as one of the reasons he feels it’s a hidden gem.

“Always in pristine condition. 36 hole layout that is as hard as you want to make it. Trees (big) and water are everywhere. Pace of play is usually very good. Located about 90 minutes west of Chicago’s western suburbs.”

According to Park Hills Golf Course’s website, 18 holes around the course costs just $23, no matter what day you wish to play. There is a $16 charge should you want to use a cart for 18 holes.

@rooftopweather

@thetruarchitect

@thetrueachitect

Check out the full forum thread here, and submit your Hidden Gem.

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Opinion & Analysis

Louisville Golf: Post time for persimmon

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“I knew I had to give it a shot. If I had tried and it didn’t work out, I would’ve been okay with that. But I had to go after my passion and see where it went.”

Jeremy Wright gets it. Taking over at Louisville Golf is not for everybody. This isn’t a multi-billion-dollar revenue generating machine with private research facilities and elaborate corporate complexes. It’s not about money…or fame…or 385-yard drives. Gerard Just, the youngest of the Just brothers who started Louisville Golf might have summed it up best:

“You know, I guess you could say we’re simple people. We don’t really go on vacations. But we work hard and we enjoy what we do. We don’t make a lot of money. I don’t think my kids could afford to work here to be honest, but they hate their jobs. We never really had that problem.”

Louisville Golf was established in 1974 by Elmore Just and Steve Taylor when they left Hillerich & Bradsby (crafters of Louisville Slugger baseball bats and Power-Bilt golf clubs). Elmore ran the business side of the company and Steve oversaw the manufacturing aspect. Back then, in the heyday of persimmon, the club manufacturers were on an allotment. Since persimmon (remarkably well-suited for golf clubs due to its strength and density) is a relatively slow-growing wood, there was only so much material to go around and upstart Louisville Golf had to fight for every block they got. Eventually, they built the business into a major player, making 800 clubs a day for the likes of Hogan, MacGregor, Wilson, Spalding, and others.

Master models for Louisville Golf persimmon club heads

Some of Louisville Golf’s more well-known woods that won on the PGA Tour were the Wilson Whale that Payne Stewart used to win the 1989 PGA Championship and the Hogan Apex that Tom Kite used to win the 1992 US Open at Pebble Beach. Then metal woods came into the picture and sales dwindled. When Callaway launched the Big Bertha, sales basically dried up overnight.

Though metal woods took off like a rocket in the 1990’s, there were some holdouts. Justin Leonard, Davis Love III, and Mark Calcavecchia held onto their persimmon woods into the late 90s. The last man standing was widely considered to be Bob Estes, who used his Louisville Golf Smart ProBE (a club Just developed specifically for Estes) in the Accenture Match Play in 2001.

When Elmore Just passed away in April of 2001, his brother Mike assumed control of the company. Elmore is actually buried at Persimmon Ridge Golf Club in Louisville, an Arthur Hills course he developed in the 1980’s. When Mike took the reins, though the company had successfully limped along through the metal wood revolution, the hard reality was that they needed to reinvent themselves if they were going to remain profitable. Mike left his mark on the company in 2004 by deciding to leverage Louisville Golf’s unique expertise into crafting period-correct hickory shafted golf clubs and restoring vintage specimens. That decision marked a resurgence of sorts, as the niche has served Louisville Golf well. Today, Louisville Golf and St. Andrews Golf Co. are the only large scale manufacturers of such equipment.

Louisville Golf club heads ready for final assembly

It’s a peculiar set of circumstances to be sure, but oddly enough, many golfers in the 21st century have found Louisville Golf through 100-year-old golf clubs. This is exactly how Jeremy Wright came into the picture. Jeremy was a medical sales representative in Houston, TX with a wife, three kids, and a serious golfing hobby. He had recently gone on a search for an exotic shaft upgrade for his Scotty Cameron putter. On a whim, he googled wooden shafts, stumbled across hickory golf clubs, and the rest was history.

“One of the things I learned in that search was that, when the golf industry transitioned from hickory shafts to steel, a lot of players either kept their old hickory putters or would fit their new putters with hickory shafts for decades after that transition because the feel was so much better.

“So I kept digging into hickory golf and tried to learn what it was all about. I discovered there were hickory tournaments and the winners shot like 75-78 and I thought, ‘I can do that. I’m going to get a hickory set together and figure this out.’ From that point on, I was hooked. There was no going back.”

So hooked, in fact, that when Jeremy heard the Just family was fielding offers for the company as a result of Mike’s passing in October of 2016, he put his name in the hat. It just so happened that Jeremy and his wife were both at a point in their careers where they were looking for more. Burned out and tired of the cyclical corporate rat race, they decided to go all-in on Jeremy’s passion, submitted an offer to the Just family, and ultimately were selected from multiple potential suitors to carry on the legacy of the company.

Sole plates for Louisville Golf persimmon fairway woods

As for where Louisville Golf goes from here, you can probably expect a lot more of what got them here in the first place. After all, one of the biggest reasons Jeremy was selected to take the reins at Louisville Golf was his commitment to preserving its heritage.  Louisville Golf may not be rubbing elbows with the major OEM’s anymore, but these days, they’re not trying to either. Just like the rest of us golfers, they’re getting by with grit, optimism, and respect for the game. They’ve also seen the fortunate bounces and bad lies that come with a life dedicated to golf, but as the old adage says, the most important shot is always the next one. Time marches on. And so does Louisville Golf. They remain committed to what has brought them this far and see that as a springboard into the future.

“We’ve got some products in the works that I think are really innovative and will show what persimmon is really capable of. I think if you’re a better player who can find the sweet spot on a consistent basis, you really should think seriously about persimmon. Especially if you’re looking to get a specific yardage out of your clubs like with a fairway wood or hybrid. There was a video circulating a few years ago with Rickie Fowler using a steel shafted persimmon fairway wood and he was getting a 1.49 smash factor. You can’t get much better than that. The way the bulge and roll is shaped on a persimmon wood and also the location of the CG allows for a bigger gear effect than modern titanium woods. Persimmons do impart more spin on the ball (especially on a mishit), so we acknowledge the ball may not go as far, but that spin also brings the ball back to the target, too. That’s one of the biggest advantages of persimmon. You’ll be shorter but in the fairway as opposed to long and in the trees.

“The people that find us are looking for a deeper connection to the tradition and the spirit of the game. They’re tired of paying for marketing fluff and silly catch phrases. We make viable alternatives for the modern golfer, we make classic reproductions of the steel shaft/persimmon head era of golf, and we make spot-on hickory shafted clubs as well, so we think we have a place in just about everyone’s bag depending on how you prefer to experience the game. Nothing compares to the joy of a purely struck golf shot with a wooden golf club. You just feel like you’re playing golf the way it was meant to be played.”

A visit to Louisville Golf reveals a group of people who have dedicated their lives to exactly that: playing the game the way it was meant to be played. Hard work, attention to detail, a commitment to quality, and having a lot of fun along the way are the hallmarks of their operation. One strike directly on that persimmon sweet spot will send all of those vibes straight into your bones. Playing golf with persimmon woods in the 21st century may be taking the road less traveled, but it could make all the difference.

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