Monroe Golf Club — A Donald Ross Classic This is another chapter on the life and career of Donald Ross, who designed the golf course for Monroe in 1923. Ross is credited with the design of almost 400 golf courses. After a few years working winters at the Pinehurst resort and summers in New England, Donald Ross had achieved success in the field of both golf course design and teaching. Ross was offered the chance to design from scratch a new golf course, the Essex Country Club in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. He incorporated all he had learned in the shaping of hazards, layout of greens and the blended use of local terrain. Essex was an instant hit, expanding greatly the Ross reputation. President Taft played this links course during his summer holidays and raved about it. Ross was learning all about cross promotion and he made sure that such Presidential “endorsements” received wide press attention. Ross was now in demand all over the U.S and he set a frantic schedule. He designed dozens of local golf clubs but also such nationally famous courses as Oakland Hills, Congressional, The Broadmoor in Colorado, Beverly Country Club in Chicago, Newport, and Wannamoisett in Rhode Island. He completed his first California course, at Peninsula Country Club. He designed Sciotio in Columbus, where Jack Nicklaus would learn the game and East Lake in Atlanta, where a youngster named Bobby Jones would learn his.
Ross today would probably be called a workaholic, but it was more complicated than that. He kept an exhaustive schedule, made meticulous notes, and was very careful about his spending. This was all a combination of his Scottish Presbyterian heritage, his desire to support his extended family, and his quiet ambition to achieve a reputation in a competitive field. At the same time, he became known as a boss who cared about and looked after his contractor employees. Frequently, he helped find them employment at a club after they worked on the build.
Ross did both design work and design/supervision work. The design work involved just a visit and the routing, or layout, of the holes. The design/supervision work was much more expensive to a club since he supervised the work on the scene, directed laborers, hole-shapers, and the turf grow-in. The system was highly organized and Ross kept an amazing pace. Between 1908 and 1922, he would design over 185 courses in 23 states, including an average of 18 per year in the years leading up to Monroe.
Monroe got its start in 1922. Some members at Genundewah, a nine-hole course in East Rochester, wanted to expand the club. Their board authorized a search for property and they secured options on three properties in Pittsford, finally choosing the Brizee-Palmateer farm, comprised of 214 acres in total. The board of Genundewah ultimately decided to retain their original location but the committee was now so enthusiastic about a new club and this location that they decided to strike out on their own.
The founders committee developed a marketing program with a brochure they mailed to prospective members. They emphasized that golf was growing and there was always a long wait on the first tee at the Genesee Valley Golf Club, the most popular municipal course. They described their plans for a championship course and the fact that the original farmhouse would be converted into a clubhouse.
Once they had identified membership, they moved quickly to find an architect. Donald Ross was the biggest name in the industry and had worked in Rochester, designing the second nine for The Country Club of Rochester. Ross had already been selected to design the new 36-hole complex for Oak Hill. In 1923, to make room for new U of R river campus, Oak Hill moved to their current location from their original golf course along the Genesee River. Ross came back to Pittsford and surveyed the proposed land. As with every smart architect who wants the assignment, he was enthusiastic in his praise for the property, telling the founders it “was the ideal setting for a golf course.” In this case, he was right, in that the high ground, the gentle slopes, and the sandy soil were the perfect combination for the Ross approach to a course. In April of 1923, he signed a contract to design and supervise construction of an18-hole course. His fee was $5,500; with Monroe to supply the laborers and Ross to provide the foremen and the design work. A copy of the original Ross contract is on the wall of the Founder’s Room in the Monroe Clubhouse. Ross went to work immediately that summer laying out the course. By this time, he had the use of trucks, but the green shapers still used horses to pull scrapers around. Ross himself rode on horseback when he visited and toured the work in progress. That summer, Ross had a dozen courses in some stage of work in several states. But, we know from his correspondence that he spent most of that summer in Upstate New York. Ross, a widower, was engaged to a young lady in Rome, New York, where he was doing redesign work at Teugega Golf Club. Tragically, she died of cancer in August of 1923 before they could be married. During that summer of 1923, Robert Trent Jones, a 16-year old from East Rochester, was hired as a laborer to work on the Monroe course. He also got a similar job working the labor gang on the Oak Hill course. This experience launched his interest in the business. Jones applied to Cornell, where he designed his own major to become the first college educated golf course architect, and ultimately one of the most famous. The finished product of the golf course was unveiled to Monroe members in the spring of 1924. Monroe has been described by Brad Klein, author of a recent Ross biography, as a “Ross hidden gem.” In his first visit to Monroe in 2002, Klein pointed out that so many of the Ross classic features were incorporated at Monroe. He singled out the genius of the Ross routing at Monroe and how well it has stood up; how the holes feel connected, with each tee so close to the last green with the course unfolding in front of you. With sloping greens and multiple hole locations, Monroe immediately became known as one requiring a well-practiced short game. Ross rarely introduced water in an artificial way so there were no water hazards on the course. But, he made up for it with bunkers, over 100 of them on the original Monroe course. Many of these were subsequently removed when it became apparent that newer players, especially women, could not carry these hazards from the tee on most of the holes. Ross bunkers deserve special highlight since he took such care in their design. Ross believed that bunkers should look natural. He designed them so the slope leading up to the green remained grass, often native grass and not cut short. He believed you should choose how to play the hole. If you want to carry the bunker, you needed to execute that shot. A shot short of the green would wind up in the long grass on the upslope. Many modern designers have turned away from this look, usually for aesthetic reasons. They have redesigned Ross bunkers to include sand all the way to the top of the slope nearest the green. This technique, known as “flashed bunkers” looks dramatic, especially on television, with the contrast of white sand to the deep color of the greens. Monroe over the years has attempted to retain the original Ross bunker design. However, Monroe has compromised in the sense that the grass on the upslope is typically now cut to the normal length of the rough. The Par 3’s at Monroe are vintage Ross. They all run in slightly different directions so each tee shot needs to take into account the wind conditions. Ross told early members that Hole #6 was probably his favorite Monroe hole. Originally, it had a bunker that completely crossed the fairway about 40 yards in front of the green. This made for a most difficult carry and one that many golfers could not accomplish. That bunker was taken out a number of years later. All of the pars 3’s at Monroe are difficult. Ross felt Par 3’s should be harder since you get to put the ball on a tee and on a level spot of your own choosing. Perhaps the best examples at Monroe of the classic Ross look are the 2nd, the 7th, the 10th, and the 17th green complexes, all par 4’s. Ross perched them precisely in such a way they will accept the properly executed approach shot. But the bunkers to either side seem to eagerly gobble up the errant shot. The falloff to the bunkers is steep, and missing on the short side of a Ross green is always asking for a big number. Par 4’s were indeed Ross trademarks since long to medium iron shots to the green were viewed in those days as the true test of a champion golfer. The mounds along the left of the 2nd fairway and to the right of 5th green are typical of early golf course work. On many courses they were simply a pile of large rocks and debris dumped together and covered with turf. Gil Hanse, the Golf Course Architect who built the short course, replicated these famous features to the right of the 2nd green on the short course. In fact, there were very few trees anywhere on the course when Ross designed Monroe. It had been mostly open farmland except for an apple orchard on the western end of the property. Trees were introduced in the 1930’s when New York State gave away thousands of seedling evergreen trees free for the asking. Monroe and many other golf courses took these and planted them all along the fairways. Ross would not have been happy with that development since he felt trees inevitably grow out into the line of play, which is exactly what happened at Monroe over the subsequent 70 years. It is only in the past 3 years that USGA and other experts have convinced Monroe that the overgrown trees were making it more difficult to maintain the turf on the greens and the tees. The removal of these trees is definitely improving the turf on tees, fairways and greens. It still leaves Monroe with 4,000 or more trees on the property, insuring that future members will always enjoy a vista of deep green against a blue summer sky.