Many golfers – and the Village of Pinehurst itself – ought to thank their lucky stars for a little-known 19th-century astronomy professor named Robert Wheeler. When Wheeler wasn’t lecturing to curious Harvard upperclassmen about celestial objects, he spent his time trying to uncover more earthly secrets, like how to get his golf ball into the hole. And in 1899, about five years after the United States Golf Association planted itself in American sports vernacular, Wheeler – with his niblicks and cleeks – decided to make a pilgrimage to the Scottish coastal town of Dornoch.
There, he met a 27-year-old named Donald Ross.
By the time the two became acquainted, Ross had already made the game his livelihood, first as a caddie and later as a protégé for one of the game’s best professionals. At 13, Ross found himself under the tutelage of Old Tom Morris, arguably one of the game’s most influential individuals of that era, who had made the nearly 200-mile journey north from St. Andrews to Dornoch to design a nine-hole course. Impressed by Ross, Old Tom brought him back to St. Andrews, where Ross served as his assistant greenkeeper. Ross’ rise within the fast-developing game was punctuated as he, at the ripe age of 21, accepted the position of head professional, club maker and greenkeeper at Royal Dornoch.
It was in that Scottish town that Wheeler arrived for his golf holiday. There, Wheeler was struck by Ross’ deft ability to manage Royal Dornoch – so much so that he implored Ross to take a job at Wheeler’s newly formed Oakley Country Club near downtown Boston. Wheeler needed someone to proliferate the game throughout America; Ross was his missionary.
Despite a daunting relocation based on whim and opportunity, the Scotsman arrived on New York City shores with only $2. Filled with the confidence of Wheeler’s commitment, he was ready to impress his Scottish architectural designs onto the land of America’s nascent golf clubs. “A country which gets golf-minded,” Ross famously once said, “need not worry about the honor, the integrity and the honesty of its people.” No doubt, this notion became emblematic of the golfers of Pinehurst, N.C.
Ross’ introduction to the village was as serendipitous as his encounter with Wheeler. Equally as important as meeting the Harvard professor was the introduction to Boston entrepreneur James Walker Tufts, who was keen on building a golf resort in North Carolina given the sport’s rising popularity. Tufts so admired Ross that a quick interview catapulted the Scotsman into the role of Pinehurst’s first director of golf.
When Ross arrived in Pinehurst in 1900, plans to clear 5,800 acres of timberland were underway. By then, two nine-hole courses had been built, which were ultimately combined to make Pinehurst No. 1. Ross redesigned the layout and began building Pinehurst No. 2.
Without bulldozers to mold the land, Ross and his team blended the natural sand-based terrain into Pinehurst’s most famous course, undoubtedly borrowing much of his inspiration for golf architecture from what he had seen – and played – at St. Andrews and Royal Dornoch. Much like a classical sculptor, Ross continuously tinkered with what he considered his masterpiece: Though an 18-hole layout was opened in 1907, it took almost 30 years for Ross to finalize the fourth and fifth holes. Ross made it his duty to “build each hole in such a manner that it wastes none of the ground at [his] disposal,” and take “advantage of every possibility [he could] see.” It was this meticulous master craftsmanship that vaulted No. 2 to the zenith of American golf.
Ross was never far from his most prized “pet” project— as he called it — building what became known as the Dornoch Cottage — his home behind the third green. From there, he had easy access to tinker with his famous “turtleback” greens, a feature that has challenged players at No. 2 for over a century. These greens were initially sand-based, with a coating of oil that allowed for smooth putting. Of the reasons why sand greens were not suitable, the flatness of the surface was paramount; precipitation could lead to erosion. With a desire to create a fine test of championship golf, Ross also needed to create greens with character. So, in the early 1930s, with the 1936 PGA Championship on the horizon, Ross dug up No. 2’s sandy greens and planted bermuda grass.
Growing grass in the Pinehurst climate proved difficult due to fluctuating temperatures throughout the year. In a 1921 bulletin of the Green Section of the United States Golf Association, Leonard Tufts (son of the man who hired Ross) noted, “we have decided that we cannot make this poor sand-hill land support turf unless it is fed heavily and often.”
Bermuda, according to Tufts, was the “only permanent grass” that was suitable. Of course, Ross was the one leading the ambitious endeavor in turf management, leaning upon his experience in Scotland to ensure Pinehurst thrived year-round. Along the way — and to no one’s surprise — Ross would continuously toy with new methods. Ross and his team, for example, would experiment with 200 pounds per acre of sodium nitrate, barnyard manure, cottonseed meal and fish scrap — all at various times of the year with different amounts of watering.
Ross’ impact on turf management cannot be overstated. Ultimately, his efforts at Pinehurst were revolutionary for greenkeepers across the South (indeed, eventually across the country) who were able to manage their courses with more precision than ever before. His findings allowed him to reimagine how players would navigate the green complexes and gave way to No. 2’s iconic domed greens.
Tradition is entrenched at Pinehurst thanks in large part to Ross, with championship golf at the heart of its courses. There is no greater representation of the Ross’ legacy than the annual North & South Amateur, which began in 1901 “to provide an annual gathering of those who love the game, rather than a spectacle.” True to Ross’ Scottish roots, the tournament exemplified — and continues to underscore — the importance of amateur golf in the United States.
The North & South Women’s Amateur, which began in 1903, and its male counterpart represent two of the longest-running championships in the country. Its champions are some of the most recognizable names in golf, including Jack Nicklaus and Louise Suggs. To win an event on Pinehurst No. 2 is widely regarded as one of the most special accomplishments in golf; in fact, Nicklaus has great admiration for Ross’ masterpiece, once saying that No. 2 is his “favorite course from a design standpoint.”
While Ross made Pinehurst the mecca for American golf, he also made it his homebase from where he could spread his vision across the country. In an age when trains were the primary mode of transportation and horse-drawn plows moved earth, it is mind-boggling to consider that Ross oversaw the designing or revising of more than 400 courses. Layouts with his signature on the scorecard, such as Seminole Golf Club, Oakland Hills Country Club, Oak Hill, Inverness Club, Scioto Country Club, have held more than 100 major championships and USGA events. The village will add another one to the tally when the U.S. Open returns to No. 2 in June 2024.
The spirit of Ross continues to live on at Pinehurst thanks to the work done by several of his architectural contemporaries. In 2010 and 2011, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw restored No. 2 to revive the course’s natural character — the way Ross always intended, removing the rough for native areas that require less maintenance. In 2017, Gil Hanse was hired to redesign Pinehurst No. 4, and during the project, he was able to live in Dornoch Cottage. As Hanse explains in his writings, he felt the awesome responsibility of upholding the original architect’s vision while walking the cottage grounds. Perhaps the ghost of Ross wanted to ensure his presence was still felt at Pinehurst, as one night, Hanse and his wife woke up at 3:30 a.m. to the voice of somebody saying “good night.”
Even years after his death, Ross’ legacy continues to live and breathe in Pinehurst.