I was waiting by the door to the lounge, reading a folded-over copy of USA Today, when Donald Ross arrived. I recognized him immediately--the cherubic face, the white mustache, the wire-rimmed glasses, the cr√®me-colored three-piece suit with a handkerchief in the coat pocket. He blinked as he looked around, his eyes still smarting from the late-afternoon sun. ¬∂ "I'm getting old," he explained a minute later, sitting on the end of a red banquette and carefully swinging his legs under the table. "I don't get around as well as I used to. To be honest, I wouldn't have accepted your kind invitation if it weren't for"--he nodded toward my newspaper--"you know." With a murmur of apology I moved the paper out of his view. "I don't care for my own sake," he went on, "but there's no end to it. Somebody moves a bunker at Inverness, and they say, 'Donald Ross is turning in his grave.' They cut down a few trees at Interlachen, 'Donald Ross is turning in his grave.'
As if the greenkeepers don't have enough to worry about." He smiled as the waitress handed him a menu. After a quick scan of the prices, however, the smile was gone. "Thirty-four dollars for a breast of duck?" He shook his head in disbelief. "When I was the professional at Dornoch, in Scotland, they paid me ¬£30 per annum to keep the greens."
"That was in the '90s?" I asked.
"Yes, the '90s." He took off his spectacles and gently rubbed the lenses with his napkin. "The 1890s."
Hoping to steer him back to the subject of the upcoming U.S. Open, I said, "Have you been losing any, uh, sleep over the setup for Pinehurst No. 2?"
He raised an eyebrow and fixed me with a stare. I started to feel uncomfortable until he chuckled, showing that his Scottish sense of humor was intact.
"Here's what you have to understand," he said. "Of all the so-called classic course designers of the early 1900s--your Tillinghasts, your Mackenzies, your Colts and Raynors--I am the one with the least reason to complain. This will be the 23rd time the USGA has honored me by holding a U.S. Open at one of my courses. I am flattered."
"It's just that"--I groped for the right words--"well, like last year, all that controversy at Shinnecock. Someone failed to anticipate the effect of a couple of days of heat and high winds, and all of a sudden you had greens that looked like parchment and putted like porcelain. Toomey and Flynn were probably rolling in their...."
Ross interrupted. "Sad, that was, and I'm sure the greenkeeper was inconsolable. But as I've always said, you shouldn't blame the captain who grounds his ship on a shoal if you've given him a bum chart to steer by."
"So you blame the USGA?"
"I don't blame anybody, but I've never understood this American obsession with fast greens. Back in '35, when I installed grass greens on Pinehurst No. 2, we had never heard of a Stimpmeter and we never dreamed of reel mowers that could cut bentgrass as short as 135 thousandths of an inch."
The waitress returned to take our drink order. (Ross asked for a whisky, saying, "Ignore me if I want another.") When she left, I asked Ross how he had felt, half a century ago, when the USGA sent up-and-coming architect Robert Trent Jones to Detroit to toughen up Ross's Oakland Hills for the '51 Open.
At the mention of Jones's name the Scotsman frowned. "I'm sure Trent undertook that revision with the best of intentions, but you'll recall what Ben Hogan called my course after he won that Open. He called it a 'monster.' Quite honestly, I wasn't happy about that. My aim as a designer was always to bring out the best golf a player had in him, and I don't think the Oakland Hills renovation did that."
"Critics say that 1951 was the year that the USGA rejected your kind of strategic design and replaced it with a straight-line corridor game--skinny fairways, five-inch rough, shaggy aprons, overhanging trees...."
"I never liked that style of golf." Ross smiled again as the waitress delivered his whisky. "I think a championship course should present competitors with a variety of challenges and require shots of every type. That's why I have all those innocent-looking slopes around my greens at Pinehurst No. 2. They are there to plant uncertainty in the golfer's mind. 'Shall I loft the ball onto that plateau with a wedge? Should I bump it into the bank and let the ball trickle down to the hole? Should I putt it from off the green?'"
We were interrupted again when the waitress returned to take our order. I expected Ross to go for the salmon-with-capers appetizer and the roast lamb entrée, but he surprised me by asking for the Chilean sea bass with wasabi-lemon sauce. "Never been to Chile," he said, sipping his drink. "I was never the globe-trotter that Alister Mackenzie was. I built a couple of courses in Cuba, long since plowed under, but if I couldn't go somewhere by train, I said no thanks."
By mentioning Mackenzie, Ross had given me the opening to ask why the Englishman, and not he, had been Bobby Jones's pick to execute the design for Augusta National Golf Club. But sensing that the question would be impolitic, I picked up the Pinehurst thread instead. "So how did you like the way the USGA prepared No. 2 for the 1999 Open?"
Ross lifted his eyes to the chandelier and lost himself in fond recollection of Payne Stewart's thrilling one-shot victory over Phil Mickelson. "I couldn't have been happier," he finally said. "The players said so many nice things about the course, how they loved playing all the different shots. The closely mowed chipping areas were certainly well received."
I jumped in. "Mickelson said it was the best test of golf he'd ever seen at a major championship." Ross smiled and nodded at the compliment. "On the other hand, José María Olaàbal shot 75 in the first round, punched a wall in the locker room and had to withdraw with a broken hand."
"Well, Spaniards tend to be emotional," Ross said.
Pressing my luck, I asked Ross what he thought about the final-round tantrum of John Daly, who made an 11 on the 8th hole after angrily smacking his ball with his putter as it rolled back toward his feet.
"Some of these boys"--Ross meant the touring pros--"have gotten the idea that golf is terribly, terribly important, holier than anything else. I think their parents would have done them a favor by turning them over their knees and giving them an old-fashioned spanking."
At that point in the conversation dinner was served. For 30 minutes or so the architect and I put aside golf and talked about more personal matters. We talked about his passion for rose gardening and my interest in antebellum back scratchers. We spoke of our respective families. He reminisced fondly about his years in Dornoch Cottage--the house off the 3rd hole at Pinehurst No. 2 that he shared with his second wife, Florence--while I spoke proudly of Catch Basin, my Kansas City, Mo., bungalow. When the busboys had taken our dishes away, Ross reached inside his jacket and pulled out a cellophane-wrapped cigar, only to catch himself and put it away with a sigh. "I hear that smoking has now been banned from pubs in Ireland," he said. "I wouldn't have believed that possible."
Recognizing that we had little time left, I hurried through a few more questions. What impact, for instance, did he think technology was having on his beloved game?
"The new balls are marvelous. The old balls, in my opinion, did not sufficiently reward the skilled shotmaker. They were hard to spin and were barely influenced by the wind, giving all the advantage to the mechanical players, the 'one-shot Johnnies.'"
Ross caught my baffled look. "Forgive me!" He shook his head. "When I say the new ball, I'm talking about the so-called Balloon Ball of 1931."
Remembering that Ross had started out as a clubmaker--in the 1890s he was an apprentice to the influential St. Andrews clubmaker David Forgan--I asked his opinion of modern clubs, with their graphite shafts and titanium heads.
"Call me a traditionalist," he said, "but I don't think better hardware makes for better golfers. In the old days we played with one wooden club, a mid-iron, a mashie, a niblick and a putter, and no one ever said he couldn't hit a shot because he was 'between clubs.' You'd have been laughed off the course if you said something like that." He smoothed his mustache with a forefinger. "I must say, though, that the seven-metal strikes me as a wonderful tool."
He took out his pocket watch and glanced at it, triggering some quick footwork by the restaurant staff. Within seconds the waitress appeared with the check, which I handed back, unexamined, with my credit card. This caused Ross to frown and fidget. He no doubt interpreted my cavalier attitude about company money as a sign of questionable character.
Suppressing a smile, I returned one last time to the subject of the upcoming championship. "It took three quarters of a century for the USGA to recognize Pinehurst No. 2 as an Open venue. Now it's back after only six years. I read that as a welcome, if belated, endorsement of your design principles and maybe a sign that the USGA is beginning to question its approach to course setups."
"Well, I've always said that golf should be a pleasure, not a penance. It's easy to trick up a course and make it virtually unplayable, but that strikes me as inimical to the game, a pointless exercise. At the same time, I agree with the USGA that you have to test the best players severely. A championship is no fun unless the challenge is exacting." He leaned forward. "Here's something you probably don't know. Many years ago, when I was building Oakland Hills, the USGA considered changing the distance guidelines for par. So I took the precaution of planning the holes so they could be lengthened to the distances required by the new ratings. One design, which was never used, made the course a par 75 with seven par-5s."
"Seven par-5s!" I gasped.
He chuckled. "I'm grateful that I never had to carry out that plan. But people need to understand that courses are not like paintings on canvas, fixed for all time. They have always evolved because of the forces of nature and changes in the game, and they must do so or be consigned to memory."
The waitress returned and gave me the chit to sign. Ross slid to the end of the banquette and stood cautiously, holding onto the end of the table with his left hand. "You've seen No. 2 recently, have you?" I nodded. "What do you think of it?"
I hesitated. "I don't have your designer's eye. When I walk No. 2, all I see are the pleasant contours and wooded outlines of a good parkland course. But I thought the '99 Open was fantastic, and if I had my way the U.S. Open would return to Pinehurst every five years or so. I think the USGA should revisit No. 2 as often as the R&A revisits the Old Course at St. Andrews."
The compliment made the Scotsman blush. "I would very much like that."
A driver was waiting outside for Ross. A long black car idled at the end of the covered walkway. "I've enjoyed this," he said, standing by the open car door. "Thank you for giving me the opportunity to set the record straight about ... that turning business. You know, an old greenkeeper is happy simply to be remembered from time to time."
The driver helped him into the backseat and closed the door, but the window immediately rolled down and Ross leaned out. "I'm not a betting man, never approved of it. But if I were, I think I'd put a fiver on that Mickelson lad. He has the game for No. 2."
Ross gave me a little wave as the car pulled away. ‚ñ†