Many golfers decide each winter which golf trips they might take or which tournaments they desire to participate. When my Winter 2022 issue of GAP Magazine arrived, I read it carefully and immediately decided that the 2023 Architect Series was going to be part of my 2023 plan to play more golf. Being able to play organized, well-run tournaments featuring Donald Ross designed courses was a draw for sure. The structure of the GAP Architect Series — one course per month over five months — would help me achieve my plan, which also included meeting other golfers and talking about and “studying” some of the almost 400 courses credited to Donald Ross.
Of the five courses to be played, I had only played St. Davids Golf Club, and numerous times. More on that later. In preparation, I read “Discovering Donald Ross” by Bradley S. Klein.
I had overarching questions and thoughts that were the focus of my journaling that I had planned for each Monday event. What makes a Ross course a Ross course? What were the similarities and the differences in these GAP courses? How had they been altered over time to keep up with the perceived need to modernize and keep relevant?
I approached each event reviewing the course online. I planned out my playing strategy. While planning ahead, I knew there would be things that I could not control, both on and off the course. Unlike rounds played on my home course, I was not “married” to a score outcome. I was hoping that each experience would be different and interesting.
St. Davids Golf Club
Playing at St. Davids Golf Club was very important to me. I was a caddie there during middle and high school, and my first couple of years of college (June-September, 1970-76). I carried two bags totaling approximately 300 rounds, and I was fortunate to play several full rounds on Mondays when the course was closed to members. I learned to play golf at St. Davids with other caddies, emulating the swings of the top players there, not as a Junior golfer armed with lessons taught by golf professionals.
Caddying at St. Davids was a complete joy. Mr. Pete Trenham (former St. Davids Golf professional) set the tone. Every day, I would walk from my home, 25 minutes away, through the woods (no longer woods) passing by a fence with many missing links (no longer missing links) and, walking over four holes, crossing Upper Gulph Road, to the caddie shack, which was not a shack, but a cement block building with a few carts — a very few — just to the left of No. 1.
For the first GAP Architect Series event, I drove my car, for only the second or third time in my life, onto the St. Davids property and passed by the sign, marking the front entrance of the club. This simple act confirmed that I would be looking at the golf course very differently than nearly 50 years ago.
My playing group, all new to me, learned quickly that I was not merely viewing the day as an opportunity to play St. Davids and to honor Donald Ross, a theme of the series. One of the players asked the question that would occur at every event: “Anyone ever played here before?” I responded. “Yes, several times. I was a caddie here beginning over 50 years ago, but have not been back here since college.” Most people do not date themselves that fast, but I was among “friends.” From the seat of the other cart, I heard, “Oh, we have a caddie in our group!”
My double duty of playing the course as an adult and remembering the course as a high school caddie was ahead of me. Much to my delight, one other player was very interested in my caddying. Now we have exchanged several emails and greeted each other at all of the events. He has been so kind as to give me another book by Bradley Klein.
Despite my prior knowledge of the course, I mapped out in advance using an app of how I planned to play the course, graphics and images. How golf has changed.
We also know that being on a golf course regularly brings surprises. For my own game, I wanted to test the idea mentioned often that on many Donald Ross courses, an approach shot left and short of the green will leave you in a better position than being long. On my first hole of play, I did this and ended up in a bunker several yards from the green, a bunker that I had raked for members many times. This was not in the plan. Was this a memory from the past about the importance of this bunker to the hole that made me hit it in the bunker? The bunker also seemed deeper than I recall. Or was it because modernization of bunker complexes has made the bunkers steeper, even by inches? I also noticed many trees had been removed. I knew this as I do remember where during my loops, we could lean those leather golf bags and get some shade. Since my last time at St. Davids, there have been two redesigned holes (Nos. 17 and 18), and if I had been caddying this round, I would have welcomed these changed holes. Shorter course!
My posted score (82, slightly two shots above my GHIN index course handicap) was irrelevant. During the round, I stopped many times (hopefully not holding up play) to look around. The memories flooded into my brain. At times it was hard to hit the prescribed shot. Other times it was easy. This round confirmed that St. Davids remains a home and an important stop in my life. This Donald Ross course is a place where I walked, carrying golf bags (no stand bags yet), almost every weekend: spring and early fall, and six days per week during school summer vacation. I also was allowed to make money.
The end of a golf round often makes me sad. On May 8, I was not. I felt satisfied that I had accomplished much. I remembered the golf holes and talked about them when asked, remembering specific caddie days. At the end of the round, I reached out to my younger brother, who lives in New Zealand, before I started my drive home. He also caddied at St. Davids. We talked for over an hour, recalling so much about our times there — from close to 50 years ago.
The Union League Golf Club at Torresdale
Stepping out of the clubhouse and walking to the practice areas, I felt that the golf holes were falling away from this grand building. More dramatic topography awaited. This was my first exposure to a Donald Ross course with a downhill opening hole. When previewing the course, I was struck with the number of references to water — not large areas, but nuanced creeks. The trees were large and magnificent, also an indication that when the property was developed the idea of an oasis for the membership within a major urban setting could have been envisioned. One of my playing partners (again new to me) remarked, “How did this course get developed? Who in Philadelphia wanted this here? Were these houses all here when they built the course?”
On the course, the bunkers were well placed both off the tees and near the greens. Yes, the Donald Ross characteristic of fairway cross bunkers was on display. I enjoyed the parallel holes of varying lengths and similar topography.
Country Club of York
I became aware of Country Club of York in the last couple of years while driving by the well-groomed practice grounds on the way from my home to my GAP home of Briarwood Golf Club, often wondering what the course would be like behind the forest to the right of a detailed practice range.
Upon arrival on the day of the GAP Architect Series, I found a large and stately brick clubhouse on top of a hill. Immediately evident was that there would be several fairways tilting left to right, distinctively more than St. Davids and Torresdale. The walks from the previous hole to the next tee were relatively short. The bunker distances from the tees were well placed, but were not as intrusive as the two previous courses. I would also find out riding in the cart with my playing partner for the day that the practice range — a good 750 yards from the clubhouse — is part of the planned experience for members to remind them they are there to play golf and forget what they could have been doing that day.
Riverton Country Club
Our lone New Jersey course was one that I was very interested in experiencing because of two highly accomplished women amateurs and former members: Mrs. Dorothy Porter and her daughter, Nancy Porter, who played in events at St. Davids. The presentation of Dorothy Porter’s career, her awards and her prominent photo was next to the original course drawings.
I was immediately struck by the fact that trees seem to hang over the course more than other courses we played even though the recent course renovation had eliminated many trees. This course has more cross bunkers than others with three memorable ones on the front nine. This round, and again paired with someone I did not know before the day, felt like a round with friends. We all had discussions about life, work, college golf (as my playing partner recently played college golf), hybrid and remote working and the efforts of the LPGA to grow its base.
Riverton presented the widest fairways played yet, which complimented the breadth of our wide-ranging discussion. I also walked the halls of the clubhouse to find not only a large framed picture of each of Donald Ross’s original holes, but also a larger-than-life photograph of Dorothy Porter, often referred to as one of the top lifelong career women amateurs by the USGA (United States Golf Association). In my caddying days, I had the privilege of caddying for Mrs. Porter at St. Davids. The presentation of her career, and her life as a resident off of the 7th hole was fascinating.
September rains played havoc on our scheduled event at LuLu Country Club, and we were not able to play this event. In planning for the day, I had learned from one of my new GAP friends that it was going to be a “fun course.” I went back to Bradley Klein’s book looking to see if Donald Ross ever used the word fun. I am still looking.
The GAP Architect Series has definitely helped me appreciate Donald Ross courses. Each course design and terrain presented different challenges. I am sure that Mr. Ross would have never thought that a golf association would do a series over several months focused on his courses. I reached my objectives of playing new courses, learning more about Donald Ross, and made new friends throughout the season. The discussions we had about how the courses were similar yet different were a pleasant outcome because of this wonderful series.
Tad Jacks is a GAP member who participated in the 2023 GAP Architect Series.
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