In the Spirit of Scotland: Donald Ross and the Mark Twain Golf Course

By Jones, Matthew C. | Parks & Recreation, June 1997 | Go to article overview

In the Spirit of Scotland: Donald Ross and the Mark Twain Golf Course


Jones, Matthew C., Parks & Recreation


The famous American author Mark Twain once said, "Golf is a good walk spoiled." It is ironic then that one of America's best, but least-known municipal courses, bears his name. The Mark Twain Golf Course, owned and operated by the City of Elmira, located in the southern tier of western New York state, was designed by renowned Scottish golf architect Donald J. Ross in 1937. The course is significant not only because of its beautiful hillside layout and famous designer, but also because of its well-preserved condition. Managed by Elmira's Buildings and Grounds Division, the Mark Twain is unique because it is one of the few original Donald Ross classic courses that remains significantly unaltered.

Born in the Scottish Highland town of Dornoch in 1872, Donald Ross learned golf under some of the game's greatest teachers. He emigrated to the United States in 1899 at the age of 27, and secured his first job as a club professional at Oakley Country Club in Massachusetts. Ross was an outstanding player who competed in many professional tournaments including the U.S. and British Open Championships. He was also skilled in teaching, club making and repair. However he found his interest primarily concerned the design and construction of golf courses and by 1912 he had become a full-time golf architect.

Donald Ross's early career was aided by his skill as a player and all-around knowledge of the game, which coupled with his Scottish heritage undoubtedly helped him to gain many important contacts and win many design commissions. By 1916, with business rapidly expanding, he formed Donald J. Ross Associates, and opened offices in several locations on the East Coast. His courses were uniformly recognized for their outstanding strategic merits, distinctive creativity and natural beauty. By the 1920s, his designs had gamed him nationwide recognition and he had become a major figure in a sport that was experiencing tremendous growth and popularity.

Until his death in 1948, Ross was the most prolific golf architect in history. Although he practiced before the advent of air travel, Ross is credited with the design of over 350 courses in 30 states, as well as Canada and Cuba. His courses have hosted dozens of national championships and several are heralded as among the greatest in the world/

The Mark Twain is considered one of his hidden gems.

The Mark Twain Golf Course has a rich historic background. The course history traces back to the Great Depression of the 1930s and President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. At this time, millions of Americans were out of work and the country's economy was in shambles. Roosevelt's administration directed the flow of federal funds to local relief programs designed to stimulate the economy and get people back to work. One such program was known as the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

While the WPA was one of many "alphabet soup" federal programs, from 1935 to 1943 it was responsible for more than 11 billion dollars in federal outlays to state and local governments. Through the WPA, jobs were created for eight million skilled and unskilled workers. Communities throughout the country put their citizens back to work on public works projects which included: roads and highways, schools, parks, recreation centers, playgrounds, and golf courses.

For the golf industry, and the architects, landscapers and engineers who built courses, the Depression was a difficult period. Few new courses were being built, while courses closed permanently at a rate of over one per week. Some of America's leading designers, men who had made and spent enormous fortunes during the booming 1920s, were strained financially by the mid-1930s. Although Donald Ross did not find himself in circumstances quite as severe, the Depression did bring his business--that had once employed 3,000 men around the country--to a near halt. Throughout the 1930s he spent most of his time near his home in Pinehurst, North Carolina where he redesigned the popular Pinehurst area resort courses that he had built over the past 30 years. …

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