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Keepers Of The Flame Expect to be burned if you cross the society that honors Donald Ross

June 14, 1999
June 14, 1999

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June 14, 1999

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Keepers Of The Flame Expect to be burned if you cross the society that honors Donald Ross

Michael Fay sees himself as the champion of the classics, a
shield against a wave of modern golf course architects bent on
defiling grand masterpieces by hiding their greens or, worse,
placing bunkers behind them. Fay fights in the name of Donald
Ross and on behalf of the society Fay co-founded 10 years ago to
protect the legacy of the long-dead Scot, and he fights
fiercely. "I have a problem being politically correct at times,"
Fay says. "Some people say I come off too strong. I probably do."

This is an article from the June 14, 1999 issue Original Layout

Fay's belief in the genius of Ross, who designed more than 400
courses in the U.S. and Canada between 1900 and his death in
'48, is absolute. During next week's U.S. Open, Fay, who's the
acting secretary of the society, will be pulling for Ross's
signature course, Pinehurst No. 2, not for the golfers. "I don't
think they'll break par," he predicts. "If it doesn't rain, they
won't break five over par. What I fear is that some guy who gets
in through the regional qualifier will make a couple of 7s and
shoot 110."

Fay has played, by his count, 161 Ross-designed courses, either
as a representative of the Donald Ross Society or as the guest
of one of the 1,685 members of the society, many of whom belong
to the exclusive clubs for which Ross typically did his work. In
that genteel fraternity--the society is almost entirely
male--Fay's passion and opinions often match as well as a
polyester tie with an Oxxford suit.

The owner of an insurance agency in Bloomfield, Conn., Fay and a
few other members of West Hartford's Wampanoag Country Club,
designed by Ross in 1924, formed the society because they didn't
like--to put it politely--the alterations made on their course
in 1987 by architect Brian Silva. Fay need only stand on the 3rd
tee at Wampanoag, a course he has played for 42 of his 50 years,
to feel his blood pressure spike higher than a Phil Mickelson
flop shot. Silva reconstructed the 3rd green and hid it behind
bunkers, so all a player can see from the fairway is the
flagstick. "If Ross did anything, it was create continuity from
the 1st tee to the 18th green," says Fay, fuming. "Nothing else
on the course looks like this! I was absolutely devastated that
anybody could do a number on such a grand old course."

Since then Silva has been hired to restore Seminole Golf Club,
in North Palm Beach, Fla., long considered one of Ross's finest,
as well as Biltmore Forest Country Club in Asheville, N.C., site
of this year's U.S. Women's Amateur. Although the memberships of
both clubs are pleased with the results, Fay is unrepentant.
"I've played five of Silva's courses," he says, "and not one is
close to mediocre. He can sue me if he wants because I exposed
him for the horse's ass that he is."

A scratch golfer, Fay fires off opinions about course designers
the same way he plays--no practice swing, no waggle, no
hesitation. "I'm probably a little more rigid than most people
about the architects," he says. Yes, and Shaquille O'Neal
probably could use some work on his foul shooting. As the saying
goes, Fay is sometimes wrong, but he's never in doubt. He has no
quarrel with being called a fundamentalist, a Jerry Falwell in
soft spikes.

Although Fay has been heard to pronounce over postround
cocktails, "I am the Donald Ross Society," the other members
would prefer to be a bit less combative. "Being diplomatic is a
lot more resourceful," says Barry Palm, president of the
society, whose day job--executive director of PGA Tour
Tournament Associates, the organization of Tour
sponsors--requires as much diplomacy as any in golf. "The Donald
Ross Society doesn't exist to make pronouncements about courses
and what the course needs to do. We're here to offer advice and
counsel if asked."

Fay, however, sees himself as golf's Johnny Overseed, spreading
the society's gospel in every direction. Why anyone would do
anything to a Ross course other than mow it baffles him. "When
you sell aluminum for a living, and you're named greens chairman
for two years, leave [the course] the f--- alone!" Fay says.

According to the society's brochure, the organization's "primary
goal is to communicate the importance of preserving and
promoting traditional architectural values reflected so
eloquently in the works of Donald Ross." To that end the society
has awarded $75,000 in scholarships to students of course
architecture or agronomy and has arranged summer internships for
them. It has also provided money and impetus to the Tufts
Archives, which is the Pinehurst home of nearly all of Ross's
papers, as well as the original drafts and blueprints for such
famous courses as Interlachen, Oak Hill, Oakland Hills, Scioto
and Seminole.

Ross courses possess the simple genius of a Gershwin lyric.
Short par-4s play uphill to small greens. Long par-4s play
downhill to large greens, the better to accommodate middle- and
long-iron shots. Ross believed that balls hit over the green
shouldn't be stopped and collected in bunkers. If you overshoot
one of his greens, your ball runs down a hill. He didn't use
trees as obstacles. His holes are routed gradually uphill and
suddenly downhill. Consecutive holes never go in the same
direction.

"Ross's perception of golf was completely different from anyone
else's, living or dead," says architect Ron Prichard, who
estimates that he has restored or is in the process of restoring
20 Ross courses. "The American approach to the game since World
War II has been to defend par off the tee [with water and other
hazards]. Ross defended par at the green. He wanted you to play
to the left quarter of the fairway one day and the right quarter
the next in order to get the correct angle to the hole."

Many people in the design business say that the Ross society has
helped make restoration every bit as fashionable today as Pete
Dye's railroad ties were in the 1980s. "It used to be that clubs
wanted you to come in and update the course," says architect Tom
Doak, who has refurbished four Ross courses. "Now they want us
to come in and restore it."

Fay says that more than 80 clubs have asked the society for help
in hiring an architect or unearthing original blueprints. When
he visits a Ross layout, he says he typically finds that trees
have begun to intrude on the course and that the greens are too
small. "We've done a lot of recommending of architects and of
chain saws," Fay says.

Fay's critiques often combine the tolerance of Newt Gingrich
with the diplomacy of Chris Rock. Take his thoughts on Skokie
Country Club, in Glencoe, Ill., the site of 20-year-old Gene
Sarazen's surprising U.S. Open victory in 1922. "There are too
damn many trees," Fay says he told Skokie members who had asked
for the Ross society's input when they first considered
restoring their course. "They've come to depend on the trees to
define the playing line. Ross would give you more than one
angle. I'm not against trees, but I've never seen one on the
40-yard line at the Army-Navy game."

Those comments rubbed enough people the wrong way that the
greens committee chose not to ask a representative of the
society to appear when the membership met to vote on the
project. (The club voted to proceed.) One member of the
society's board says he was told by a Skokie committeeman, "If
that's who you've got representing you, you guys have got real
problems."

Fay shrugs off such criticism. "They have something of value in
a Donald Ross course," he says. "We've been strident about it.
Maybe we've made a few enemies. Frankly, we don't apologize. We
do what we feel is right."

The Ross society brochure also promises "a membership directory
that facilitates member networking." That has created problems.
The society isn't supposed to be a back door to the 1st tee of
some of the country's most exclusive courses. If society members
want to invite other members to play their home course, that's
their privilege. But the $100 annual dues to the Donald Ross
Society isn't a ticket for a round at Oakland Hills. Palm says
he has received calls from clubs worried that they must open
doors to society members. While Fay is not bashful about
accepting the generosity of others--"There's nothing better than
free golf," he says--he denies that he has ever strong-armed
anyone into giving him a tee time. "People who belong to the
society know how private clubs work," he says. "You want to test
it? Tell them to call Seminole. They'll be invited to go
straight to hell."

Yet one member of the Ross society's board says that Pat Corso,
president of the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, where in
April the society held its annual meeting and golf outing,
threatened to no longer do business with the society if he had
to accede to Fay's demands. Corso will only say, "They perceive
themselves as a very, very important and unique organization and
expect to be treated that way." Corso also says that he and
everyone else on his staff have dropped out of the society.

Just when Fay begins to sound like a bull in a pro shop, though,
you hear about the Wilmington (N.C.) Golf Course, one of the few
public courses designed by Ross. Two years ago, when Fay was in
town for a centennial celebration at Cape Fear Country Club,
another Ross course, he stopped at Wilmington and found an
almost pristine Ross creation. "At a private club you've got
members always tweaking things," says Reid Schronce,
Wilmington's manager. "This was like finding a Model A that had
been sitting in a barn for 50 years."

Fay arranged, at the Ross society's expense, for Prichard and his
colleague, Tom Devane, to oversee the restoration of Wilmington.
Photos of the original layout showed 72 bunkers, about half of
which no longer existed. Last year, at a cost of $235,000, the
course reinstalled or renovated every one of those bunkers, and
raised the greens fee--a weekend round costs all of $11 for
Wilmington residents. Visitors must cough up $15, or $260 less
than for a round at Pinehurst No. 2.

One good deed in Wilmington hasn't stopped some Ross society
members from discussing the need for a full-time director. After
all, as a well-known course designer said, "The carping critic is
usually a very ignorant man, while the one who has any advice
worth taking gives it in the gentlest way."

That designer was Donald Ross.

B/W PHOTO: TUFTS ARCHIVES Great Scot Some society members see changes to Ross (photo circa 1900) courses as sacrilege.COLOR PHOTO: GABE PALACIO Par for the coarse As far as Fay is concerned, he is the Ross society.COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES The villain The society was born in the wake of Silva's work at Wampanoag.