West Caldwell, N.J. – Ron Prichard was driving down the 10th fairway of Mountain Ridge Country Club, site of the 2012 USGA Senior Amateur Championship, in a golf cart when he stopped and pointed out a bunker marking the end of the expansive fairway to the right.
“The bunkering on a Ross course is always sort of perpendicular to the line of play,” he said. “It’s not long and linear where a player can escape easily. In a sense what he built was a bunch of catcher’s mitts out on the golf course, and people who beat the ball into the hazard, for the most part they don’t reach the putting surface [from there].”
He continued on to the green complex, wide open to the front, framed by bunkers at the right corner and to the left. There is a small dip running across the approach, creating a slight transition from the downhill run of the fairway to the rise of a green that slopes marginally from back to front. In the play of the hole, a 440-yard par-4 from the championship tees, this little trough might keep a ball from rolling up onto the putting surface, or might slow a bouncing approach and help it stay on the green.
“That little hollow is good because it stops water from running onto the putting surface,” Prichard said, “but it’s also a good feature of the hole. I never cease to be amazed at what I see on Ross courses, because there’s always another lesson to learn in how brilliantly they shaped and finished their golf courses.”
In the thirty years since Prichard opened his first solo office as a golf architect, he has created a specialty of golf course restoration, mainly in the works of legendary designer Donald Ross. But that was not his original intention.
“The architects I had worked with were contemporary architects – Joe Finger to begin with, and Desmond Muirhead, who was sort of the Salvador Dali of golf architects,” Prichard said. “But I began to realize as I traveled that many of the really great golf courses were being modernized, and from my point of view ruined.”
His first such project was Texarkana Country Club, a course originally designed by William Langford and Theodore Moreau in 1922. It had been renovated in the 1950s, and the club was looking to renovate again, “but when they gave me the original plans, I said, what I’d really rather do is restore it,” Prichard said. “So they went along with that. Byron Nelson came back [when Prichard was finished], and he was stunned by it.”
The focus on Ross came later. “Everybody else was so impressed by Ross, and his name was on the tip of everyone’s tongue,” said Prichard, “so I tried hard to disprove to myself he was the best. I looked at a lot of [Seth] Raynor’s work, and [A.W.] Tillinghast and [Charles Blair] Macdonald, Yale [Golf Club] and all those courses. And frankly, after a while I just had to admit, I just don’t think anybody’s ever compared to him… There’s a certain simplicity about his work, but his emphasis is on function. He really sort of envisioned golf as two games: one game was getting from tee to green, and then the great game began.”
Prichard was based in Texas when he got the opportunity to work on a Ross course in New Jersey, Riverton County Club. He told them if they hired him he’d open an office in the East, which he did. His base of operations near Philadelphia is convenient to the areas where Ross did so much of his work. Among his highest-profile restorations are Aronimink, site of the 1962 PGA Championship, 1997 U.S. Junior Amateur and 2003 PGA Senior Championship, and Charlotte Country Club, named Best New Remodel by Golf Digest in January 2010 and host to the 2010 U.S. Women’s Amateur. His original designs include the TPC Southwind in Memphis, home of the FedEx/St. Jude Classic on the PGA Tour.
At Mountain Ridge, Prichard was hired in 1998 to work with the club in developing a master plan for the restoration. “Our philosophy,” said Norman Feinstein, president of Mountain Ridge when the project began, “was that we were going to take direction from our architect to do what was in the best interests of the golf course, and to preserve the integrity of it being a true Donald Ross gem.”
The architect drew on Ross’s original field sketches to locate bunkers that had been removed under previous regimes. New back tees were added, extending the course to a championship length of more than 7,100 yards while bringing fairway hazards back into play for the modern game. Hundreds of trees were removed, much to the displeasure of some members who loved the feeling of isolation the shaded corridors provided. The resulting views – across the golf course and up to the brick and fieldstone clubhouse – have combined with the improved conditions for the turfgrass to offset the loss of their cherished forestry.
While the green complexes themselves had never changed, mowing patterns through the years had rounded out some of the putting surfaces. Prichard, aided by the efforts of superintendant Cliff Moore, brought those former corners back into play. “A lot of people think you’re making the course easier because the surface is bigger,” said Prichard, “but it allows you to put the [flagstick] closer to the edge of the fill pad, or if you reestablish the original putting surface closer to a bunker, you can tuck the [flagstick] behind that bunker.”
During the winter of 2011-12, the fairways were widened significantly. “When Ross originally designed these golf courses, they had fairways that were 50 yards wide, not 33 or 30,” Prichard noted. Mountain Ridge has restored a good deal of that width, bringing the fairway bunkers more into play by eliminating longer grass in front of them and contouring the entrances so a misplaced drive will run into them.
The most controversial changes are on the 13th hole, part of the flattest and dullest area of the property. Its main challenge came from its length, 466 yards when Ross built it and played as a par 4 for most of its life. Prichard rerouted a creek that once ran straight across the fairway; it now turns and heads straight towards the tee, dividing the landing area into a safer portion short and right and a more ambitious carry to the left. Golfers must make a decision, but they have 70 yards of fairway to choose from.
“The 13th would put you to sleep visually, there was just nothing there of any consequence,” said Prichard. “It was a nice green, but getting there was sort of a boring trip that didn’t compare with the rest of the golf course. So I said I’d like to supplement Ross’s work if you will, if you’ll let me take a run at it, and they said fine.”
Mountain Ridge has put its trust in Prichard’s judgment, and the rewards have included its first ranking in Golfweek’s Top 100 Classic Courses in 2012, as well as its first USGA championship.
“We’ve always had a great Donald Ross golf course,” said Mountain Ridge president Bruce Schonbraun, “and the most recent changes have made it even more special.”
“All I’m doing is trying to reestablish Ross’s brilliance as best I can,” said Prichard. “Of course, today in some respects you can almost do it better, because you have irrigation and you have better turf species, and you have better mowing equipment. It’s not going to be precisely what Ross ever imagined, but … I tell clubs that my purpose really is … to serve the golf course. Not any particular level of skill or anything else. I hope you understand it. I see my mission as optimizing the muscle and challenge and beauty of the golf course.”
“Mountain Ridge is a really great golf course, with one of the best sets of greens that Ross ever did,” added Bradley S. Klein, author of Discovering Donald Ross. “It’s very much a Ross course; it’s more of a Ross course now than it was 30 or 40 years ago.”
Jeff Neuman is a New York-based freelance writer, a columnist for RealClearSports.com and co-author (with Lorne Rubenstein) of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf.