Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Mystery of Donald Ross and The Southern Pines Country Club

Written by Leo Donofrio (start: 6:00PM, Thurs. July 12, 2007)

[Click images to enlarge them.]


In his fantastic and thoroughly exhaustive study on the evolution of golf in the Pinehurst area, Pinehurst, Home of American Golf. The Evolution of a Legend (published in 2007), renowned golf course architect, Richard Mandell, classified Southern Pines Country Club as a course "shrouded in mystery." On page eighty-eight he refers to Southern Pines CC as, "...the mysterious appearance of another golf course in Southern Pines with many unanswered questions."

BACKGROUND...and stuff.

It was a cold day in March. My love and I decided it was time for a golf adventure and our digs in New Jersey just wasn't gonna cut it. We're spoiled. Ten years earlier we moved to St. Andrews for three months. And while "The Cuteness" cut her teeth on the Balgove course, I spent every waking hour carrying my bag over the Old Course, 36, sometimes 54 holes a day. And every round with beautiful strangers all basking in the glory of God's primordial design.

And ever since our time at St. Andrews, The Cuteness bravely ventures out with me whenever the links call, dropping all hope of steady income and stability in exchange for travels to the windswept holy lands of Machrihanish, Dornoch, Cruden Bay, Ballybunion, Lahinch, Troon, Carnoustie, North Berwick, Lundin, Dunbar, Kingsbarnes. As they say in Brasil, "Sarava!"

I'm a 42 year old retired attorney who managed to get through sixteen sporadic legal years without suing a single person or being sued myself. I'm proud of that. I'm also proud of my job working behind the counter at the incredible, mysterious Southern Pines Golf Course (aka, the Elks club). For that is where our true tale begins and ends.

I won't bother you with my sad golf stories, like when The Cuteness caddied for me in a 2000 British Open qualifier or my failed attempts to make it into the Metropolitan Amateur (aka The Ike) after leading a strong qualifier two years in a row for 10 and 16 holes respectively. All you need know is that sometimes I can flat out stick it. And I can also shoot 95 any day of the week trying my hardest. I've quit playing golf exactly as many times as I've started.

As I write this, living in the Pinehurst area, mecca of USA golf, and having playing privileges at six dynamite courses (the spoils of employment with the wonderful team of Avestra Golf), I haven't struck a single golf ball in a month. As fate would have it, this self imposed lack of golf led me to psycho hours searching the internet and skulking in various libraries looking for clues to one hell of a golf mystery.

Our story begins a few days after The Cuteness and I arrive in town. She secured a stellar waitress position at a fine eatery immediately, while I struck out looking for crappy wages and unlimited golf. But I just don't fit the bill. What's a fairly young guy with a legal resume like mine doing looking for a cart attendant job? It's a fair question.

A week goes by. No job. I'm jonesing to get my golf game on, but still no free golf and money is tight. Leaving a certain course -- which shall remain nameless -- after not making it past the security dude at the gate, I find myself lost driving down Morganton Rd. and cursing my chances when I look up and see a sign for "Southern Pines Golf Course, A Donald Ross design."

Now, I may not be playing in this town yet, but I know the Ross tracks, Pinehurst 1-4, Pine Needles, Mid-Pines.

Sorry, never heard of Southern Pines Golf Club.

Then I come upon an abandoned overgrown course, like something right out of a dream. It's dilapidated and obviously not in use. And I cry to the heavens, "How does a Donald Ross course become Pinehurst?"

I left the car to amble around the weed infested grounds fascinated by the intense layout. Crazy. I stumble upon the Fifth hole, a plaque still remains for this gorgeous downhill par five. I can't believe nobody plays golf here anymore, but they really don't. The greens are all sand, fairways ankle to knee deep weeds. But I can feel this place. I can feel Donald Ross, and he's not happy about it.

Now I really want to play golf.

Heading back to Route 1, I was ever more desperate for a place to call my new golf home. So I took another look at my scratched off list of courses, exactly one left I hadn't tried, Foxfire.

Voila. Director of Golf, Bill Baker, cackles through my mobile speakerphone, "Come on over, we'll take a look at ya", and I just knew this was gonna be the place for my dusty sticks.

Bill and I hit it off right away. We have a similar level of higher education neither has any use for. So he understood my plight better than most and sent me into General Manager, Howard Cannon's office. Five minutes later,I was hired to work in the pro shop at Foxfire. Hooray!

During my interview with Howard, he mentioned that Avestra Golf, the parent company of Foxfire (as well as the Country Club of Whispering Pines) had just taken over management of Southern Pines Golf Club to which I responded, "You're going to renovate that abandoned course? Wow! I just came from there."

I was then enlightened about the "other" eighteen holes at Southern Pines. (It's hidden from your view if you're driving by and don't know it's there). This course, as well as the abandoned nine, is owned by the local Elks club, and was "apparently" designed by Donald Ross ages ago.

And therein exist the two key mysteries:


What year did the Southern Pines Country Club open for play?


Did Donald Ross design the Southern Pines Country Club?

Despite many attempts and various publications, nobody in the golf universe has been able to officially connect Donald Ross to the Southern Pines Golf Club course(s) despite local legend and the fact that it looks, smells and feels like a classic Donald Ross design. Mr. Ross was based only five miles from Southern Pines as the demi-god of Pinehurst. If he didn't design the course, then who the hell did?

Just yesterday, I was discussing this question with Rand Morrisette, a member of Southern Pines, and also the author of an incredible golf course architecture web site Golf Club (Ran is part of the development team who will unleash the sure to be spectacular Cabot Links in Nova Scotia on some stunning true links land.)

Rand's statement rang so true, "The routing is so sophisticated, I don't see how it could be anybody but Ross."

This sentiment was thoroughly endorsed by Michael Fay, Executive Director of the Donald Ross Society. Yesterday, whilst searching through a December, 1907 issue of Pinehurst's ancient newspaper, The Outlook, John Root (blessed volunteer at the Given Memorial Library) introduced me to Jay Harris, "The Hickory Nut", a man I had been told tall tales about from former Mid-Pines Pro, Rob Pilewski, during a particularly spiritual round at Southern Pines back in May (Rob, 36-33= 69, Leo, 36-45=81, typical me).

Jay, who plays most of his golf to a 5 handicap with hickory shafts, was drawn into my quest. He phoned Mr. Fay and said,"I've got a live one here you should speak to."

Mr. Fay assured me that he, as well as Richard Mandell, and countless others, had failed to find even one shred of documented evidence that Donald Ross had designed the course.

But no lack of documented evidence could convince Mr. Fay, who has played over 240 Donald Ross courses, that this track was anything but a gift from the master.

Rand Morrisette was the first person to inform me that there was absolutely no evidence tying Mr. Ross to the course. Nothing. Nada. Zippo. Zilch.

And this lack of connection had also become of great interest to my boss, Mr. Woody Davis, President of Avestra Golf. Certainly, the future marketing potential of the club was somewhat effected by Mr. Mandell having just published his book in June '07 within which Mandell flat out denies there is any "concrete" connection between Donald Ross and the Southern Pines Golf Club. From page 91 of Mandell's book:

"The time frame for Ross's career move might suggest a possible association with Southern Pines Country Club. However, no one can truly say for sure without concrete documentation. There are no drawings of Southern Pines Country Club, nor any references to the project in any of Ross's writings."

Mandell takes up this mystery again on page 305:

"Another course that lost it's identity over time is Southern Pines Country Club. There is very little information regarding the original course design available... In fact, there is no concrete evidence of Donald Ross's involvement with the course. Either his contribution was legend that has grown to fact over the years, or he deliberately kept his name off of the project because it was in conflict with his employers' business. He freely discussed Pine Needles, and Mid-Pines (which were Tufts developments) over the years but the same could not be said about Southern Pines Country Club."

So that's the mystery. A certain sylvan spirit directed me to the abandoned course, then to Foxfire a few minutes later and eventually right smack into the pro-shop here at Southern Pines when new Avestra head pro, Rodney Russel, needed an assistant. The course has cast a spell on me, and for good reason. It has been denied its deserving place in the history of American golf, and the course now wants it back.




"EXHIBIT 1" is a postcard which depicts the 11th hole at Southern Pines:

EXHIBIT 1 (click image to enlarge):

(Courtesy of the Moore County Historical Association, Larry Koster Collection.)

Anybody who has played the course will recognize "EXHIBIT 1" instantly as the 11th hole.

[I have chosen not to include modern photographs of the course by way of comparison. I hope this will leave some of the mystery at large and pilgrims will be drawn by these wonderful old images. ]

"EXHIBIT 2" is another postcard. This is a very accurate depiction of the 6th hole at Southern Pines. The caption at the top of the postcard reads, "A Sporty Hole, Southern Pines Country Club."


(Courtesy of the Moore County Historical Association, Larry Koster Collection.)

And while these two EXHIBITS don't have telltale postmarks or dates, Susan J. Pockmire of the Moore County Historical Society informed me they come from a collection of Southern Pines Country Club postcards and photos with postmarks or other time stamps ranging from 1907 to 1917.

"EXHIBIT 3a" is the address side of a postcard found by Bob Miller, Exalted Ruler of the Southern Pines Elks Lodge (owners of the course since the mid 1940's). And this exhibit is so very fascinating because it establishes the Fifth hole played today as the same Fifth hole played in 1908. It's postmarked December, 1908, was mailed from Southern Pines to Boston, Mass. and contains German handwriting (a translation would be very welcome). The back side also has a handwritten date of "12/9/08".


The flip side of this postcard shows an incredible image of the Fifth hole at Southern Pines, the same Fifth hole we play today. Notice the type print at the top of the card which reads, " 'The Fifth Green' Country Club Golf Links, Southern Pines, N.C."


So, in "EXHIBIT 3" we have an artifact which, combined with the other postcards, places the original design back to 1908 and proves that the same course still exists today.

"EXHIBITS 4 and 5" are two newspaper clippings from The Outlook, December 1907. They document a match played between a team from Pinehurst and a team from Southern Pines. "The recent match was played on the visitors' grounds", the grounds at Southern Pines. The match ended in a tie and was completed two weeks later at Pinehurst. (Southern Pines won. Go team.) Take note that Mr. Ward shot 57 for the nine hole match which established a course record. How freakin' hard was this course playing for 57 to have been a course record?



"EXHIBITS 6a and 6b" are taken from a marketing brochure published by the town of Southern Pines as an advertisement and enticement to draw in golfing visitors. 6a concerns the "GOLF Season for 1912-1913" and lists various competitions scheduled. 6b is another page from the brochure which proves that the first nine of the golf course was opened in 1906 and the second nine no later than 1912.

EXHIBIT 6b (click image to enlarge print):

"EXHIBIT 7" is a photograph, documented again by Susan Pockmire, "circa 1907" which depicts the Bilyeau home with the golf course. According to page 91 of Mandell's book, the Bilyeau home served as a temporary clubhouse prior to the second nine being built.


Taking all of this evidence together, and comparing the images depicted therein with the course today, it becomes clear that the Southern Pines Country Club golf course came into existence in 1906.

This date is of further importance, because, if the course can be connected to Donald Ross as its designer, then Southern Pines would be able to claim, as part of its new found identity, that it is the third new golf course ever designed by Donald Ross (as opposed to those he remodelled, such as Pinehurst #1).

Mr. Ross's first original design was the front nine of Pinehurst #2.
His second design (and first full eighteen hole course) was the Winchester Country Club in Mass., 1902.
Furthermore, if Mr. Ross did design SPCC for a 1906 opening, he did so before he designed the back nine of Pinehurst #2, which was opened in 1907. Therefore, were the Southern Pines course designed by Mr. Ross, it must be considered, due to its close proximity to Pinehurst, one of the earliest examples of the signature style of the Leonardo DaVinci of golf course architecture.



Ah, this is the question which has baffled Sandhills Ross disciples for decades. While it has come to be accepted lore that Donald Ross designed Southern Pines Country Club, what is there to actually "prove" with "concrete" evidence that the course was created by him?

On Tuesday July 10th, 2007, I woke up determined to continue the search. But, alas, it was not to be. You see, The Cuteness, upon my waking her that morning, quickly discerned that we both just happened to be off on this day and she insisted I put the hunt behind me and take her to Fayettville for lunch and a movie. One cannot resist the wily charms of The Cuteness.

And here's where things get very weird. She and I went to see the 1:20 PM showing of "Nancy Drew". It was a fun little flick, faithful to the sleuthing vibe of the old books. As I sat there happily digesting my buffalo style quesadilla, Ms. Drew had a revelation that a logo she believed was an "X" actually turned out to be two palm trees crossed (think about the "big W" in "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World").

Ms. Drew runs to her computer, blasts away at the search engine, and then reads back to us, her captive audience, the list her search reveals. And when she says, "Southern Pines..." I nearly fell out of my chair. There was no escaping it. I knew right then and there, I had to solve the mystery of Donald Ross and Southern Pines. I kid you not, Southern Pines is in that movie out in theatres right now.

The next day, after returning from the Given Memorial Library-Tufts Archives, I spent hours sitting at the computer. So many false leads and failed connections left me just about busted.

But then, at 4:45 PM I stumbled across a web page for the "Historylinks Museum", a museum dedicated to the history of Dornoch parish in Scotland, the hometown of Donald Ross. Their Donald Ross web page contains a reference to "EXHIBIT 8":

"A valuable artefact is a copy of a pocket size, 12 page booklet 'Donald J Ross Associates Inc, Golf Course Construction' which provides "A partial list of prominent golf courses, revised to 1930" designed by Donald Ross and his associates Walter B Hatch and J B McGovern."

The web page features only the cover page to this utterly intriguing booklet.


It's important to note that the image provided by this museum only portrays the front cover and nothing else. Indeed, there is nothing in that image which backs up the allegation that the booklet contains a "partial list of prominent golf courses" designed by Donald Ross. But until this moment, I did not know, nor did it appear from their writings, that any of the other Ross researchers were aware such an important list existed.

This list of course becomes more important than any other list of courses designed by Mr. Ross and Associates because this list was published, according to the allegation by the Dornoch museum, by Mr. Ross and Associates and is accurate up to 1930.

Furthermore, since it is a "a partial list of prominent courses", it would establish, from Mr. Ross himself, a list of courses he valued very much.

When I saw Ran Morisette in the pro shop later that day, I showed the image and caption to him. He was astonished, and admitted he'd never seen or heard of this booklet before.

We then discussed the ramifications if Southern Pines Country Club were not listed in this publication and the ramifications were not good. Of course, since, by Mr. Ross and Associates own choice of words, ths list was only "partial", any course claiming lineage to Mr. Ross would not necessairly be shut out, but to be excluded from a list created by the master himself... well that would not be good indeed.

Certainly, I could just call the museum, have them open the booklet and confirm whether the Southern Pines Country Club was listed in this booklet. Right? Wrong (perhaps).

If you'll scroll to the bottom of the web page, you'll find the following caption:

"Images of the items donated by Elizabeth Pippitt Shapiro have been included in a 'Donald Ross' album which forms part of the slide shows available on the PC provided for pubic access to the museum catalogue. The newspaper and magazine cuttings and other documents have also been produced in portable document format and may be viewed from an index file available on the museum PC.

It says "images of the items" were donated, not the items themselves. I began to panic. It would be of no use to call them if all they had were the images on the web page because that image is only of the cover. Madness. And in that panic and madness, I didn't comprehend the rest of quote above pertaining to the "index file".

And it's a bloody damn good thing I didn't comprehend it because, I assure you, I would have spent my day trying to bribe the Dornoch librarian with some fine single malt whisky.

But as confusion clouded my befuddled cranium, I thought the only chance would be the Tufts Archives at the Given Memorial Library.

Indeed, a longshot if there ever was one because Richard Mandell, Michael Fay, Ran Morrisette and probably hundreds more freaks just like me had scrutinzed every square inch of that place looking for just such a Holy Grail list emanating straight from the master's mouth as it were.

Still, the images were provided by Elizabeth Pippitt Shapiro, the maestro's grand-daughter. So there was a chance the librarians could point me in the right direction.

It's important to note here, that the image provided to the Dornoch Museum by Ms. Shapiro does not contain the alleged quotes about the booklet containing a list of Ross courses. So, for that quote to be real, somebody must have opened the booklet and taken that information from it.

Oh, to be able to touch it, feel it with thine own hands and read the actual list.

So this morning at 9:30 AM sharp, I arrived at the Given Library, beeline for the Tufts archive and to my horror Melissa Bielby, assistant to Executive Director Audrey Moriarty, informs me that Audrey is away on vacation for the next two weeks and Mr. Root won't be in until 2:00 PM.

Melissa graciously offers me her assistance. When I explain that I'm trying to authenticate Southern Pines Country Club as a Donald Ross design she becomes instantly skeptical that I will find any such documentation here at the Tufts Archives and informs me that, "Richard Mandell and Michael Fay have spent days, weeks even, hunting through everything we have."

This of course makes perfect sense to me, but she politely agrees to take a look at the Dornoch web page image of the booklet just in case and then replies, "I've never seen it." I ask if I can see the files of Mr. Ross's corresppondence and she assures me it is not in there but is happy to get the file for me anyway.

She looks through it briefly herself before handing it over, and once again assures me it is not there. I desperately cling to the folder as the sad clown look comes over me and I know for sure it's not in there. I mean, how could all of those researchers overlook such a valuable artifact whilst searching at the one place you'd expect to find it?

It doesn't take me long to complete my review of the file. Melissa was indeed correct. The booklet was not in there. Now I'm torn between giving up or getting my hands dirty with a few more years of The Outlook.

Just when I'm about to quit, I think about old Nancy Drew and how I felt in that movie theatre. And I decide, "Damn it, I know I'm going to find the answer."

And just at that moment, Melissa, standing by the locked glass case which holds various Donald Ross memorabilia on exhibit, exclaims, "Wait a minute." I look up and she says, "I think it's right here in the display case."

I run over and there it is, sitting in the middle of a group of photos.

And I discern immediately why nobody ever found it. As the Dornoch museum so accurately stated, it is indeed "pocketsized", perhaps three by four inches and it's very thin.

It also does not say anything about it being a booklet on the cover and sitting there in the locked glass cabinet where nobody can pick it up, it looks just like a fancy business card for Donald Ross and Associates...nothing more.

Not having the benefit of having read the Dornoch Museum's obscure web page, there is absolutely no reason why anybody looking at that tiny booklet would ever think it was more than a glorified business card. It does not look like a booklet at all, and there's certainly NOTHING on its face which would alert a researcher to the treasures found within.

Melissa had run off to find the keys as I began pacing the floor wondering if Southern Pines Country Club was listed. She eventually found the key to the cabinet, reached in and simply handed it to me without opening it, which I thought was a very classy thing to do.

"EXHIBITS 9-11" are blown up scans of this tiny booklet.




And there it is, the concrete, undeniable proof. A Donald Ross publication from 1930 wherein Mr. Ross claims Southern Pines Country Club as his own.

Donald Ross designed 36 holes at Southern Pines Country Club before 1930, including the first nine, the second nine (which make the original course we still play today) and the abandoned nine as well.

Furthermore, Mr. Ross designed a fourth nine which was apparently never built after the depression hit in 1929.

Mr. Ross included Southern Pines Country Club in this booklet/brochure of "Prominent Golf Courses" which was used to promote Donald Ross and Associates to the public. And therefore, based upon all the evidence presented, I believe it is fair to say that Southern Pines Country Club was the third original design Donald Ross completed and therefore it deserves it's rightful place in history as an influence on all that was to come after it, including the back nine of famed Pinehurst #2.

I hope you've enjoyed reading this essay as much as I enjoyed writing it. I will update this blog with the entire list of courses in the booklet. I do have a copy of the entire booklet but I don't have digital scans of every page. If anybody has a question about a certain course please post it in the comments to this blog and I will check for you.


Special thanks to the Given Memorial Library, especially Melissa Bielby, John Root and Audrey Moriarty of the Tufts Archive. Thanks also to Richard Mandell for his wonderful passionate book, and to Rand Morrisette for his equally passionate website. Thanks to Michael Fay and the Donald Ross Society, C. Jay Harris, Rob Pilewski, Avestra Golf, Woody Davis, Howard Cannon, Rodney Russel, Bill Baker, the Bob Miller, Charlotte at the Elks Lodge, Kevin Gallagher, Mr. DeSandy, Mr. Motsinger, Dornoch Historylinks Museum, Susan Pockmire and Sarah from the Moore County Historical Society, my parents, The Cuteness and Donald Ross. God bless you all.

Very Truly Yours,

Leo C. Donofrio


LW McKeen said...

Just to let you know, someone has read your story and enjoyed it.

Larry McKeen, NJ

InGodITrust said...

I thouroughly enjoyed the findings report of your tenacious research. I also enjoy my occasional rounds at the SPGC, as I discovered several years ago, and will continue to put it on my list of "plays" when visiting from Va Beach. Thansk again for your post, and say hello to "Cuteness" for me. My group is staying next week at Foxfire (Carrier group) and we are playing SPGC on Sunday.

BW said...

Great article and a great subject! My blog has some vintage pictures of the Southern Pines Clubhouse designed by Aymar Embury(the Donald Ross of Architecture) Very cool. Thanks for the great insight.

BW said...

Our site is - you can find the vintage pictures of the Southern Pines GC clubhouse!

Unknown said...

Nice story. Positive proof a century later. Need to find the layout for the nine that was never built.