The Ross Connection
By Anthony Pioppi

There are over 400 golf courses that are part of the design legacy of the legendary architect Donald Ross including such vaunted layouts as Pinehurst No. 2, Seminole, Oakland Hills and Interlachen. His presence is felt throughout Massachusetts with his work at such notable clubs as Salem, Brae Burn, Whitinsville, Essex County and the Orchards, to name a few. Among the hundreds of courses on which he worked, though, Cohasset Golf Club looks to be one of Ross’s earliest.

Donald Ross
Evidence may suggest that Donald Ross was involved with Cohasset starting somewhere around 1909, making it one of his first independent designs and an important early step in his long and illustrious career that also included him expanding Cohasset from 9 to holes to 18 holes in 1920.

The present Cohasset layout, expertly restored by Ron Prichard in 1999-2000, bears the familiar Ross attributes of presenting the golfer with a variety of interesting short and long holes of the par-3, par-4 and par-5 variety that test all aspects of their game. There are rewards for those who play to the preferred side of fairways and the Ross original greens nearly always call for an adept putter for a good score to be had.
The Cohasset layout of today retains much of what Donald Ross left in place when the 18-hole layout opened in 1922 after two years of work. The club’s decision to have Prichard reclaim lost bunkers, expand putting greens to their original width and remove trees that interrupted Ross’s original intentions, have very much brought the course back to the way Ross intended.

Ross’s connection to Cohasset began when he journeyed to Massachusetts from Scotland in 1899 to take the job as head greenkeeper of Oakley Country Club in Watertown, Mass. where he also expanded and improved the existing layout, his first design experience. In 1900, Massachusetts resident Leonard Tufts brought Ross to North Carolina to create incarnations for his Pinehurst Resort, Ross’s first independent designs. For the next few years, Ross would spend winters in Pinehurst and summers in the Massachusetts.

The connections between Oakley and Cohasset run deep. It begins with Willie Campbell, the crack Scottish player, who in 1894, laid out the first course at The Country Club in Brookline, the same year he lost the first unofficial U.S. Open to Willie Dunn by two shots.

In 1898, Cohasset paid Campbell $16.10 to expand its six-hole design to nine holes. That same year Campbell, along with member Richard Dana, designed the original 11 holes at Oakley.

There is also a family connection between Oakley and Cohasset that very likely would have been the conduit that brought Ross to Cohasset. In 1899, at Oakley, Mortimer Mason was a founding member. In 1909 his son, Charles Mason, joined Cohasset. The younger Mason was instrumental in the purchase of additional land across Cedar Street to build the new holes. He was also a member of the Country Club and president of the Massachusetts Golf Association in 1935-36. He served as president of Cohasset in 1921-27 during the design and construction phase of the eighteen-hole expansion.

There is one piece of hard evidence that indicates Ross was at Cohasset very early in his career. It comes from August 1920 in the form of a letter from the Cohasset Executive Committee to the club membership announcing plans to expand from nine to 18 holes. The committee, the letter reads, “has engaged the services of Donald Ross, golf architect, who laid out the original course of the Club and who has been consulted on all improvements which we have made. Mr. Ross has gone over the ground several times very carefully, and has considered a golf course from the point of view of 18 holes.”

Unfortunately, the letter does not list the date the “original course” was designed. It appears the club considered Campbell’s first nine-hole layout as the original, and not the rudimentary six holes Campbell plotted. The 1900 edition of, Harper’s Official Golf Guide, lists Cohasset as a nine-hole course with a length of 2,400 yards.

From 1920 through 1922, using existing land and additional property the club purchased specifically to expand the layout, Donald Ross created an 18-hole course that was very close to the present layout.

For the design, Ross preserved a number of existing holes that most likely date back to the original course. For example, the current holes 16-18 are probably located in the corridors of what were numbers four through six of the six-hole layout and numbers seven through nine of the original nine. At Cohasset, as he would do at many other projects, Ross used what was there and melded it into his own work, crafting a sporty and challenging design that was mainly a summer course for the membership.

For instance, the first hole, originally a slight dogleg left that was changed soon after the course reopened, presents one of the toughest approach shots to be found on any opening hole of a Ross work. While there is ample room to drive the ball, a misplayed approach can tumble some 30 yards back down the slope that leads to a large plateau green.

The second may at first appear to be a benign short hole of 152 yards from the middle tee but players who want to have a shot at birdie must carry two bunkers. Once on though, an easy putt hardly ever awaits. A wonderful spine runs the length of the green affecting almost every shot played upon it.

The fourth is classic risk-reward par-5. After a tee shot to a generous landing area, those looking to lay up must judge their shot precisely so that it stops short of a stream. Bolder players try to land their golf balls past the stream and before a pair
of bunkers carved into the rising landform short of the green. A miscue almost always guarantees a bogey or worse.

Cross Cedar Street and there you find a number of splendid holes.

The fifth is a marvelous short par-4. Playing over or near the cross bunker on the left side opens up the green for the approach shot. Hit away from the hazard and a pond comes into play. From that side, the second shot can be all but blind.
The par-3 sixth displays the classic Ross style whereby the bunker pits are gnawed out of the fill pad. The 138 yards plays slightly uphill to a green with plenty of movement and plenty of trouble for the wayward tee shot.

Approach shot to the elevated 4th putting green

On the dogleg left, par-4 ninth, Ross fashioned a rarity, one of his few Punchbowl greens. There are also versions at Augusta (Ga.) Country Club and Brookside Country Club in Canton, Ohio. After a series of testing holes, and with more to come, Ross, like many of his contemporaries, had no qualms in creating one that gave players a break.

Cohasset’s 10th is another challenging four-par that calls for accuracy on the tee ball and approach. Water guards the left while mounding and sand penalize the off-target shot to the green.

Ross always provided many holes on each of his designs where players were given the option of running the ball onto the putting surface but he also invariably created holes that forced players to carry shots to the green. One of those holes is the par-4 13th, some 267 yards from the farthest teeing ground. Ross adding intrigue by placing a large and imposing sand bunker across the front of the green that sits well below the elevated tee, but above the fairway. As on any fine hole of the penal design, there is great reward for accomplishing the heroic shot. Here that means driving the green. There is, however, a stern reprimand for those who fail the bold endeavor and find themselves bunkered; the floor of the hazard is a good five feet below the green.

It is the 16th; a par-4 with its green benched into the side of ledge outcropping that has garnered the most praise from visitors to Cohasset. No less than Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson and Bob Hope have extolled the virtues of the hole that calls for a drive down the left side of the fairway that leaves an unimpeded shot to an elevated putting green.

The approach requires an extremely accurate play to hold the surface that has ledge rising above it on the right and severe drop-offs to the left and back.

Cohasset concludes in a fitting and demanding manner. On the 18th hole, 440 yards from the back, it is imperative that the tee ball finds the cascading fairway that provides scant opportunities for a level lie but leads unimpeded to the green. Often, the golfer must adjust oneself to play the approach from an awkward stance, even though the ball rests on the short grass.

16th hole approach shot

The putting surface that waits is at once bold and subtle. The entire green canters right to left, capable of directing away the poorly struck shot. Throughout the green, though, are barely discernible knobs and pockets, rolls and swales that make sinking a putt of any distance that much more of a challenge than at first appearance.

The largest modification that occurred to Cohasset since the Ross expansion came in 2009-2010 when the club undertook a water remediation project under the guidance of Prichard that cost millions of dollars and required intensive permitting from two towns on which holes five through ten are located.

Ironically, in January 1926 the Cohasset Executive Committee sought new land so as to eliminate the problem. “It was voted: That the president, with the committee to be appointed by him, be requested to employ a golf architect and make a study of the land surrounding the golf course, with the view to laying out four new holes to take the place of those along the railroad track.”

It does not appear that an architect was hired and it took another 85 years before the flooding problem was solved.

Aerial view of water remediation project. 7th and 8th hole in the background

Even with the necessary alterations, the fact remains what Ross created for the Cohasset members’ fits comfortably into his portfolio. It is a layout that bears his indelible fingerprints, offering definitive proof as to why Donald Ross remains one of the greatest of golf course designers.

Anthony Pioppi is a freelance writer and author based in Middletown, Conn. He has written two books, "To the Nines," and "Haunted Golf,” with Chris Gonsalves. His articles have appeared in magazines such as Links, MassGolfer, Golf Course Architecture and Golf Punk. Pioppi is the executive director of the Seth Raynor Society.
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