Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 29, 2018

A Donald Ross Gem, Hiding In Plain Sight

Siblings Joel and Ethan, known collectively to millions of moviegoers as the Coen Brothers, have been behind many memorable films, from “Raising Arizona” and “Fargo” more than two decades ago, to “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Bridge of Spies” in just the past few years. For this viewer at least, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” won’t be joining those works in the brothers’ pantheon of greatness. Yet in the middle of their newest offering, an undistinguished muddle of six vignettes set in the “wild, wild” days of the American West, there is a scene that reminds us that keeping a sharp eye out for the slightest glimmer of something precious can yield huge rewards.

A grizzled prospector, played by the singer-cum-actor Tom Waits, happens upon a stream running through a picturesque valley. After several attempts at panning for gold, he spies a few tiny flecks in the muddy remains at the bottom of his worn tin. Up and down the stream he goes, able to count on one hand the valuable slivers in each scoop of streambed, until he finally finds “almost enough to keep” and determines that the source of the gold must be up a nearby hillside. Over several days he gradually hones in on the vein, which proves to be far larger than he dared hope. The segment ends with Waits’s character, having survived a homicidal claim jumper by an extended act of playing possum, leaving the valley, his mule loaded down with the coin of every realm from ancient times to modern day.

What is true in life can also apply to sports, though to a prospector of the links, there is little to quicken the pulse at the first sight of Palatka Golf Club. The view of aging houses along a residential street a short distance from the downtown of the small city that’s the seat of Putnam County in northeast Florida gives way, on the left, to a green expanse and a small one-story clubhouse. But even as one turns through the tiny and full parking lot before finding an empty space in an auxiliary lot across the street, the first fleck of golfing gold appears. On the front of the brick clubhouse, just below the name of the course, are the magical words “Donald Ross 1925.”

Ross was a Scotsman who apprenticed with Old Tom Morris at St. Andrews before risking his life savings on a trip to America. In 1899 he was appointed the professional at Oakley Golf Club in Watertown, Massachusetts. After laying out the course that Oakley Country Club’s members walk today, the young Scot moved to the Carolina Sandhills for a job at Pinehurst, a fledgling resort being developed by businessman James Walker Tufts. Ross eventually designed four courses at Pinehurst, with No. 2 remaining his most famous work more than a century later.

Word of his talent quickly spread, and within a few years Ross became the country’s first celebrity golf course architect, employing more than a thousand people every summer, with active projects in multiple states. Along with Pinehurst No. 2, Ross’s most memorable layouts include Aronimink near Philadelphia, Oak Hill in western New York, East Lake in Atlanta, and both Inverness and Oakland Hills in the Midwest. But the prolific Ross also designed scores of lesser known courses, lending his name to more than four hundred links in all.

Many decades later, that productivity instills caution in any golfer hoping to play a Ross design. Whether by the innocent activity of regular overseeding and top dressing of greens and fairways, or by conscious decisions to have later generations of architects alter holes and change course routings, there are more than a few Ross courses that today would be unrecognizable to their creator. Even the iconic No. 2 lost much of its original character as time passed, until a 2011 renovation by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Moore restored Ross’s original waste areas and green contours, in time for the course to become the first ever to host both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens back-to-back three years later. Anyone can put a sign on a wall, but is Palatka still a Ross design, or just so much golfing pyrite?

The answer comes as soon as one strolls up the gentle rise of the opening fairway and approaches the first green. The design is classic Ross. The putting surface is raised slightly, and while from the distance of the approach shot the green looks large, it drops off on all sides, making the actual target much smaller. The steepest drop is at the very front, meaning many golfers have thought their ball would run up near the hole only to watch it stop and roll back into the fairway. Ross greens almost always have a false front and the overall crowned affect, like nothing so much as a dinner plate turned upside down.

But even as the contours of the putting surface make the golfer’s job more difficult, Ross gives the player multiple ways to recover. The area around the green is closely mown, meaning that an approach shot that misses still leaves one with three different ways to save par. There’s the chip and run, the ball scooting up the slope towards the hole. Or one can pitch it with a more lofted club, flying over the slope. But with short grass all around, those lacking confidence in their irons can always bring out the flat stick and stroke a long putt up onto the green.

Ross holes often give golfers choices starting on the tee, though in doing so they usually force one to calculate risk versus reward. At Palatka the par-5 fifth and par-4 eleventh holes are prime examples. Both bend to the right, and the temptation on the tee is to cut off as much yardage as possible by hugging that side. But the fifth runs along the edge of the property, with the dense forest of Ravine Gardens State Park waiting to claim any shot pushed a little too far right. On the eleventh it’s an expansive waste bunker and overhanging trees that can turn a bold shot into certain doom. On both holes Ross offers golfers a safe route home by keeping to the left, though the path to the cup becomes much longer.

The short par-4 thirteenth is a good example of a Ross punchbowl, with the fairway running down to an inviting green. And then there is par-3 sixteenth, the Redan. While not a feature exclusive to Ross, it is a reminder of the age of Palatka. Popular in the 19th and early 20th century, the Redan has largely fallen out of favor. Drawing its name from the French term for a specific fortification, a Redan hole, usually a par-3, has a green complex that resembles its namesake. The green runs at an angle to the tee, from front right to back left. Its highest point is on the left, a protruding bulwark that is a stout defense against all attackers. Below that sits a yawning bunker, waiting to capture a stray tee ball. At Palatka Ross added another bunker behind and to the right of the green, making the hole even more challenging.

There are many Florida links far more famous than the old municipal layout in the northeast corner of the state. The state has many courses that are more pristine in their conditioning or more scenic in their surroundings, and certainly many that will relieve a golfer of far more than the twenty-nine dollars it costs to tour Palatka. But few offer such an opportunity to step back into another age of the ancient game, and to walk in the footsteps of a master craftsman. When the car turns back onto Moseley Avenue, headed for the Memorial Bridge crossing of the St. John’s River, there is more than just a bag of clubs in the hold. Like the lucky prospector, the golfer is loaded down with memories that are pure gold.


  1. I’ll never think about golf courses in the same old way after reading this post, Mike.

    • Thanks very much Allan. I’ve played a few “adulterated” Ross courses – layouts he designed that were later altered by other architects from a little to a lot. This was the purest example of his design philosophy that I’ve ever set foot on, and it was an enormous pleasure to do so.


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