Ross is President of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects and is a designer with European Golf Design, based in Sunningdale, Berkshire. A graduate in Landscape Design, he began his career in the golf course architectural practice of Cotton, Pennink and Partners in 1988. The company became European Golf Design in 1992.
Ross was responsible for the Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor Resort, Wales, which hosted the 2010 Ryder Cup, and was lead designer on The Marquess Course at Woburn Golf & Country Club.
He is now involved in the construction of a new golf course for Royal Norwich Golf Club. Most recently, Ross has completed a new championship golf course in St. Petersburg, Russia, which is due to open fully this summer.
After my third year at University I had a summer job working on the construction crew rebuilding the Jubilee Course at St Andrews. Soon after we finished there I heard about a job opportunity at Cotton, Pennink and Partners which had recently restructured with Jim Engh coming over from the US to run the company.
I had an interview and was offered the job. I was incredibly lucky to get the opportunity and to learn the techniques of golf course design from Jim. Stan Eby, who had previously worked for Dick Nugent, also joined the team and he was a great inspiration and colleague for about 25 years.
What prompted you to get into golf course architecture?
I was first introduced to golf by my grandfather, then secretary at the Golf House Club, Elie, in Fife, Scotland. We would spend the summer holidays there and before too long I found myself spending pretty much every hour of the day at the golf club. I suppose I must have been 14 or 15 when I realised I was never going to be good enough to make a career out of playing golf. I enjoyed sketching golf course layouts on pieces of land I was familiar with and it soon became my ambition to design courses. I did Landscape Architecture at university as it seemed a good alternative career that might pave the way to one day becoming a golf course architect. It would also give me something to fall back on if my chosen career path never materialised.
What lessons were learned by golf course architects following The Great Recession that happened in the ‘08-’09 period?
Golf course architects have had to adapt to the changing market. I suspect they have been helped by a general recognition from existing golf clubs that they need to invest in their courses to stay in business. There has definitely been a move recently to upgrade courses, perhaps to make them more appropriate to golf in the 21st century, or to improve conditioning or maybe to make the maintenance and management more sustainable.
There has also been increased interest in creating short courses and academies: golf facilities that take only an hour to play a round of golf. For new-builds, architects have had to be prepared to work further afield to find the work. At European Golf Design we have been working in Russia, the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean, as well as our projects in Europe and the UK.
What distinguishes the European market versus North America and Asia?
Historically, golf in Europe has been far less driven by residential development, perhaps with the notable exceptions of Spain and Portugal. I suspect, however, that in the US things have changed in recent years and probably the industry on both sides of the pond may not be that different as the emphasis has moved to golf course renovation rather than new build. Golf in parts of Asia is obviously still growing and there is clearly an increasing demand for golf facilities. I suspect around the world the one thing that we really need to see is more affordable golf facilities to encourage more people to take up the sport.
What European countries are moving rapidly in adding courses to their golf portfolio? Why do you think that is?
If you look at a map of Europe the work is around its periphery. There are a handful of new courses being constructed in the UK and Ireland and then Scandinavia, Russia, Poland and Eastern Europe. Southern Europe has been relatively quiet recently but North Africa, especially Morocco has seen a fair number of new projects. What I can say is that the new courses which are being built are generally of an exceptionally high standard.
There have been reports that golf in the UK, most notably Scotland - the birthplace of the game, is facing serious issues tied to many facilities facing possible closure. What is your take on this?
I heard a figure of 1% over the last five years so I’m not sure that’s a sport in crisis. Perhaps it was inevitable, after the boom years that there would be a rebalancing to some extent,, but I don’t believe golf is now less popular than it once was. The market may have changed and clubs might have to adjust their operational model, but I believe there is every reason to be optimistic about the future. I’d definitely like to see the golf industry as a whole come together to help promote the game better though, then I think we could make some big strides forward.
The biggest element many golfers fail to comprehend about golf course design is what?
There’s often a failure amongst golfers generally to ‘think’ their way around the golf course. As architects, we like to set challenges rewarding the correct strategy, particularly from the tee. Too many, and I’m not immune from this myself, simply reach for the driver in the vain hope that we will hit the perfect shot. When I speak to golfers I do like to explain the strategy of a golf hole and what we were thinking when it came to the positioning of the hazards. There is a considerable amount of thought that goes into the planning of a golf hole - it’s not just come together by chance.
You can change one thing in golf unilaterally - what would it be and why?
I’d let golfers play from whichever tees they want!
The major golf organisations R&A, USGA, PGA of America, PGA TOUR, European Tour, LPGA are all employing various strategies to attract new people to the game of golf. This is especially so for Millennials, women and minorities. If you were advising them, what would you suggest be done?
I believe this is absolutely what the game needs, but I’d like to see a more coordinated approach, which involves everyone in the golf industry pulling together to reach this goal. It would be great to involve equipment manufacturers, designers, managers, superintendents and all the major companies who depend on the game. It’s probably impossible, but it would benefit everyone.
The short and long term challenges facing your fellow members within EIGCA?
Our membership comes from 27 different countries around the world and the challenges they face are very different. The problems and opportunities in Iceland are unlikely to be the same as those in the Czech Republic or Mexico or Italy. However, wherever we work, there is a need for more sustainable design solutions, whether that be economically or environmentally. Golf course architects will need to work closely with superintendents and environmental consultants to ensure that their work is affordable to manage in the long term while at the same time bringing ecological benefits.
At the EIGCA we run a sustainable golf course design programme to help our members reach the necessary standard of knowledge and experience in sustainability issues.
Best advice you ever received: what was it and who from?
Be yourself. Don’t try to be somebody else or worry about what someone else would have done. Do what you think is right at the time and in the given circumstances. After all, there is rarely ever a right or wrong in terms of design style, so just be true to yourself and hopefully you can’t go far wrong.