By Dick Sayer
When the members of the champions tour, the top 35 finishers from the 2002 Senior PGA Club Professional Championship, and other invited players tee it up at Aronimink Golf Club for this week's 64th Senior PGA Championship, they will be competing on one of the finest golf courses ever designed by Donald Ross. The experience will be even more rewarding as a result of the recently completed program to restore the course to its original 1928 condition.
Originally organized as the Belmont Golf Association in 1896, the clubs first nine-hole course was located in what is today the heart of West Philadelphia. Belmont, which was one of the four founding members of the Golf Association of Philadelphia (GAP), along with Merion Cricket Club (now Merion Golf Club), Philadelphia Country Club and Philadelphia Cricket Club, was incorporated under the name Aronimink Golf Club in 1900. Two decades later, Donald Ross was retained to design a new 18-hole course, and in 1928, Aronimink Golf Club moved to its present site in the western suburbs of Philadelphia.
Ross returned to Aronimink in 1948, after not having seen the course for 20 years and said: "I intended to make this my masterpiece, but not until today did I realize that I built better than I knew." These words are displayed on a bronze plaque located behind Aroniminks first tee.
In the 75 years since it opened for play, several well-known architects have had a hand in modifying Donald Ross parkland golf course, including the likes of A.W. Tillinghast, Dick Wilson, George and Tom Fazio, and Robert Trent Jones. In the mid-1990s, Aronimink embarked on a program to put the course back to its original condition, and Ron Prichard, a local architect specializing in the restoration of Donald Ross courses, was entrusted with the responsibility for carrying out the club's objectives.
Weve gone back even prior to the original construction, because J.B. McGovern, an Aronimink member and Ross foreman, split most of the bunker designs into three smaller bunkers during construction, says Prichard. I feel the single bunkers more accurately represent the designers intent. The golf course has never been quite like this in its history, but in my opinion, this is what Ross intended.
Aronimink was one of the last new courses designed by Donald Ross in the Philadelphia area. The first recorded local golf course designed by Ross was Lu Lu Temple in Montgomery County in 1912. This was quickly followed by Riverton Country Club across the Delaware River in New Jersey (1916), Gulph Mills Golf Club (1919), Torresdale-Frankford Country Club (1922 and 1930), Kennett Square Golf & Country Club (1923), St. Davids Golf Club (1927), Chester Valley Golf Club (1928) and finally Aronimink Golf Club (1928).
Ross and McGovern also designed and built two other courses that are no longer in existence, the initial Sunnybrook Golf Club in Flourtown (1921) and the original Overbrook Golf Club near Ardmore (1922), which is now the site of Lankanau Hospital.
In addition to their new layouts, the team of Ross and McGovern renovated such wellknown courses as Whitemarsh Valley Country Club, a former stop on the PGA Tour; the Bay Course at Seaview Country Club (now Marriott Seaview), an annual venue for the LPGA; and the original Cedarbrook Country Club, which is now the site of an apartment complex and shopping center.
In all, Ross is credited with designing more than 400 golf courses in his 50 years of practice, and a significant number of them are located and still in use right here in the Philadelphia area. One may wonder why Ross, who divided his time between North Carolina and Massachusetts, was responsible for so many of the courses in this part of the country.
One reason is the fact that Philadelphia was a mecca for the development of the game of golf in America in the late 19th century and well into the 20th century. Some of the earliest and most renowned golf clubs were founded here during that time, and many of the top U.S. players, both men and women, learned the game and made their homes in the Philadelphia area. It was simply a location where someone so involved in the development of the game of golf would want to be.
Another and perhaps more practical reason is that from 1912 until 1948, Donald J. Ross Associates Inc. had an office in suburban Wynnewood, Pa. The firm also had branch offices in Pinehurst, N.C.; Little Compton, R.I.; and North Amherst, Mass.; and its obvious from Ross project list and his multiple offices that his company was not a smalltime business operation. The local office was run by James B. McGovern, who handled the courseconstruction side of the operation and collaborated with Ross on most of the projects in this region. McGovern continued the office under his own name for several years following the death of Donald Ross in 1948.
Finally, theres another reason why Ross was so active in the development of golf courses in this area. A staggering number of courses were built during the first third of the 20th century, and a quick look at what was going on in and around Philadelphia between 1910 and 1930 provides a clue.
Hugh Wilson was developing the East and West courses at Merion Golf Club during the first five years of this period. George Crump was camped out in the New Jersey pine barrens building his beloved Pine Valley Golf Club in 1921. A.W. Tillinghast was busy constructing the new 18-hole Philadelphia Cricket Club course at Flourtown in 1922, and two relative newcomers by the names of William Flynn and Howard Toomey were busy designing and constructing new courses at Doylestown Country Club (1916), Lancaster Country Club (1920), Philmont Country Club (1924), Lehigh Country Club (1926), Rolling Green Country Club (1926), Huntingdon Valley Country Club (1927), Manufacturers Golf & Country Club (1927), and Philadelphia Country Club (1927). Add all this activity to the number of courses completed by Ross, and you can see that the 10-year period leading up to the Great Depression was a veritable feeding frenzy for ambitious and talented golf course architects in Philadelphia.
Being the businessman he was, and given the fact he was clearly the most well-known golf architect at the time, Ross and his firm went where the action was. In the early days of the game, there were no schools where one could learn golf course design and there were few, if any, books on the subject. It was a hands-on mentoring process that started with a young man working as a foreman or apprentice for an established golf course designer until he had learned enough to strike out on his own. It was also an evolutionary process because the technology of the game itself, the use of topography and improved plant materials, and the methods of construction were constantly changing.
The impact of Donald Ross on Philadelphia golf is not only the wonderful courses he left behind, but the knowledge and training that he imparted to so many young design professionals while he was here. That legacy of Ross still exists today, and its growing with each golf course restoration that takes place. Whats truly amazing is the fact that the courses designed by Ross 75 years ago are as challenging today as they were then, and Aronimink Golf Club should confirm this once again this week during the 64th Senior PGA Championship.
Dick Sayer is a golf historian from Huntingdon Valley, Pa.