In Praise of Donald Ross: Nationally-Known Golf Writer Shares the Secrets of his Favorite Golf Course
I have a friend who is the king of dry, subtle humor. He lures you into a comfortable environment, relaxes you, and then pulls the rug out from under you, leaving you flat on your butt, embarrassed and wondering, “What just happened?” The next time I see him, he does the exact same thing. I don’t know why I keep going back for more, but I do.
My friend’s name is Donald Ross, influential golf course architect and designer of The Sagamore Resort Golf Course and over 400 other courses in the United States, including the Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina and Oak Hills Country Club, the site of this year’s U.S. Open in Rochester New York. Ross, a Scotsman, died in 1948, but his personality and handiwork are present in every nook and cranny of the Sagamore course.
The better you know Donald Ross, the more you appreciate the genius and legacy of The Sagamore Golf Resort. He designed holes that are part of the landscape, his subtle fairways wind graciously through the tall Lake George pines. There are always short walks between the greens and the next tee, he routes his short par 4′s on uphills, easy open run-ups to the greens, but usually trouble behind. And the courses are easy to maintain, in a Scottish sort of way. At the Sagamore, Ross even brought some heather over from his hometown in Scotland and planted it along the 6th fairway and behind the 4th green. This golden heather still waves at you in a late summer breeze.
Richard Nixon, Lee Trevino, Gary McCord, Paul Azinger–even the Dave Matthews Band–have banged around this course trying to figure out the sneaky ways of Donald Ross. Sometimes he will throw you a curve ball that will make you mad or make you laugh. I recommend the latter, as going the other way can add years to your life.
“If you don’t pay attention, this course can really embarrass you,” warns Dave Cummings, Director of Golf at the Sagamore and PGA Professional. “I have seen some average golfers have great days and some low handicap golfers have horrible days. If you get a little aggressive you can end up in some very shady positions…try to stay in the sun.”
The Sagamore’s first hole may be the most beautiful start in New England, especially with the brilliant crimsons and rich golds of fall surrounding it. It’s the only starting hole Ross ever designed in an easterly direction. He didn’t want the early sunrise to be shining in players’ eyes. Standing at the highest point, he incorporated the region’s natural glory with a view of Lake George glimmering in the background, white sails in the distance, a possible distraction if you’re not in the game.
The first shot is way downhill to a welcoming fairway lined with dark pines. Even a poorly hit straight tee shot will stumble and bumble its way to the bottom. And it is here that a false sense of security begins to settle in. Here you are in the fairway a long way from the tee. A big open green is up the hill, right in front of you. Big traps to either side, but a wide open entrance to the back-to-front slanting green.
A nice start. Life is good. Until you notice that if you are short the ball might roll right back at you. If you are long, there is a sharp fall off at the back of the green with out of bound stakes right behind that. Welcome to the Sagamore and Donald Ross.
And so it goes, as you wander through this charming, but demanding, long enduring design of one of America’s most prolific golf course architects.
The Sagamore course is a terrific piece of golf architecture. It holds your interest. It makes you think. It forces you to be strategic. Here Ross laid the groundwork for today’s golf industry. If you can’t go long, short, left or right, what do you do? Ross makes you think about every shot, and that my golf-thirsty friends, is the secret of the Sagamore. I have consumed a lot of ice pondering this devil of a course. The conundrum being, if you enjoy the surrounding beauty, you can’t focus on golf. If you focus on golf, you miss some of the most beautiful views in New England.
If you love golf and golf course architecture, you owe it to yourself to enjoy this course. The Sagamore Golf Resort recently announced it will now be open 12 months a year. In addition to top quality golf, there will be a new spa, restaurants and bar, along with views to cherish for all four seasons.
Bill Giering is a national award winning golf writer from Menands, New York, who has played golf on most continents, covered all four majors and still can’t putt.