WEST CALDWELL, NEW JERSEY | Standing on the patio at Mountain Ridge, if you’re a student of golf history you can’t help but be moved by the architecture in the valley below. Donald Ross was a prolific genius, designing more than 400 courses between the late 1800s when he worked with Old Tom Morris and the completion of the Raleigh Country Club in North Carolina, Ross’ last work, in 1948.
Mountain Ridge Country Club has the look of some of his most classic designs. Most of Ross’ pre-World War II work was done by hand. There were no industrial earth movers; no large-scale tree removal operations, at least not in golf. Architects were given pastures or farmland and offered a hearty “good luck.” In the subsequent century, many courses added trees, which by the laws of nature, grew and spread. In recent years, clubs like Mountain Ridge have restored their layouts to the original Ross look by removing trees, reconfiguring bunkers and rebuilding greens to the specs that Ross had in the beginning.
Inverness Club in Toledo is another example. The course on which the Solheim Cup teams squared off isn’t close to the one where Paul Azinger won his PGA Championship in 1993. It is, however, almost exactly what Ross put on the ground.
Other classic clubs are engaging in similar restorations. Baltusrol Lower, about 20 minutes north of Mountain Ridge and the venue for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in 2023, retained Gil Hanse to restore the A.W. Tillinghast masterpiece, originally built in 1922. Those greens are now 25% larger and the bunkering has more movement, definition and native-grass islands. The course also has a couple thousand fewer trees, although the exact number is a secret.
All the players this week in New Jersey appreciate the look and feel of Mountain Ridge. To a player, they have talked about this being a major-caliber venue.
But in terms of architectural appreciation, there are cultural differences. Like art or music history, some players know a Vermeer from a Rembrandt and can pick Mozart out in three or four notes. They can also tell a Ross from a Tilly and can name Seth Raynor’s template holes. Others just look at the course and appreciate it for what it is.
Because golf is newer in Korea than in the United States, it’s expected that South Korean players aren’t as in tune with the Golden Age of Architecture. But that doesn’t mean they don’t like it.
“To be honest, when I first joined the LPGA Tour, it's really a shame to say this, but I had no idea about golf architecture,” former Rolex Rankings No. 1 So Yeon Ryu said after playing Mountain Ridge. “Since I met Michael Clayton, one of the best golf course architects (and a former European Tour player from Australia), I started to learn a lot about (design history). That’s when I started to appreciate the Donald Ross style of golf course.
“I enjoy playing (another Ross design at) Seaview last week (in the ShopRite LPGA Classic presented by Acer). To be honest, I never really played well at Seaview. But I always thought it was really well-designed. This golf course is the same. I guess because Ross made his greens really tough. But he made really wide fairways. I think he always has the thought of giving us good opportunities, but not easy.
“So, I feel like I'm still in the process of learning about architecture. To be honest, we don't really have many opportunities to play really nice golf courses. This week we’re able to play a really nice golf course with a really good purse.
“Hopefully (we will have) many more to come.”
Whether or not you know Donald Ross from Betsy Ross, it’s hard not to walk off Mountain Ridge without feeling the greatness of the place.
“I do like Donald Ross a lot,” current Rolex Rankings No. 1 Nelly Korda said. “I like how you really have to think about (the design), especially on these big greens. They're very undulated, so you definitely have to section them off where the pin is. You have to think a lot. And it's longer for sure, so I like that as a longer player. And it's in great condition. The putting green is really, really nice. Just the whole golf course. There is a mix of hard holes and easier holes.”
Inbee Park intimated that Koreans appreciated the depth and detail of the design, even if they didn’t know the history.
“I can't speak on behalf of all Korean players, but I think Korean players definitely appreciate the (architecture),” Park said. “I have no idea how other people do it, but I think I appreciate the design of the golf course and the shape of the golf course, how they thought about each hole.
“I mean, I love to see these kinds of courses and play on this kind of course.”
“Great golf courses are just a treat for us,” Australia’s Minjee Lee said. “I played a lot in Melbourne, so a lot of the golf courses I played have really great bunkering. Maybe not the longest of courses, but I definitely do like a good architectural golf course.”
Chella Choi certainly loved this particular Ross design. The 31-year-old made a 50-footer for birdie on her final hole on Friday to shoot 68 and climb into the top five when play ended.
“This is definitely a major golf-caliber golf course,” Choi said. “For me, the conditioning is so important, and this course is in perfect shape. I appreciate good architecture. But I don’t know that I can tell you what year a course was built. For (Mountain Ridge) to be over 100 years old is just an extra bonus to the fact that it is so good.”