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Keepers of the Flame
Ivan Maisel
June 14, 1999
Expect to be burned if you cross the society that honors Donald Ross
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June 14, 1999

Keepers Of The Flame

Expect to be burned if you cross the society that honors Donald Ross

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Michael Fay sees himself as the champion of the classics, a shield against a wave of modern golf course architects bent on defiling grand masterpieces by hiding their greens or, worse, placing bunkers behind them. Fay fights in the name of Donald Ross and on behalf of the society Fay co-founded 10 years ago to protect the legacy of the long-dead Scot, and he fights fiercely. "I have a problem being politically correct at times," Fay says. "Some people say I come off too strong. I probably do."

Fay's belief in the genius of Ross, who designed more than 400 courses in the U.S. and Canada between 1900 and his death in '48, is absolute. During next week's U.S. Open, Fay, who's the acting secretary of the society, will be pulling for Ross's signature course, Pinehurst No. 2, not for the golfers. "I don't think they'll break par," he predicts. "If it doesn't rain, they won't break five over par. What I fear is that some guy who gets in through the regional qualifier will make a couple of 7s and shoot 110."

Fay has played, by his count, 161 Ross-designed courses, either as a representative of the Donald Ross Society or as the guest of one of the 1,685 members of the society, many of whom belong to the exclusive clubs for which Ross typically did his work. In that genteel fraternity—the society is almost entirely male—Fay's passion and opinions often match as well as a polyester tie with an Oxxford suit.

The owner of an insurance agency in Bloomfield, Conn., Fay and a few other members of West Hartford's Wampanoag Country Club, designed by Ross in 1924, formed the society because they didn't like—to put it politely—the alterations made on their course in 1987 by architect Brian Silva. Fay need only stand on the 3rd tee at Wampanoag, a course he has played for 42 of his 50 years, to feel his blood pressure spike higher than a Phil Mickelson flop shot. Silva reconstructed the 3rd green and hid it behind bunkers, so all a player can see from the fairway is the flagstick. "If Ross did anything, it was create continuity from the 1st tee to the 18th green," says Fay, fuming. "Nothing else on the course looks like this! I was absolutely devastated that anybody could do a number on such a grand old course."

Since then Silva has been hired to restore Seminole Golf Club, in North Palm Beach, Fla., long considered one of Ross's finest, as well as Biltmore Forest Country Club in Asheville, N.C., site of this year's U.S. Women's Amateur. Although the memberships of both clubs are pleased with the results, Fay is unrepentant. "I've played five of Silva's courses," he says, "and not one is close to mediocre. He can sue me if he wants because I exposed him for the horse's ass that he is."

A scratch golfer, Fay fires off opinions about course designers the same way he plays—no practice swing, no waggle, no hesitation. "I'm probably a little more rigid than most people about the architects," he says. Yes, and Shaquille O'Neal probably could use some work on his foul shooting. As the saying goes, Fay is sometimes wrong, but he's never in doubt. He has no quarrel with being called a fundamentalist, a Jerry Falwell in soft spikes.

Although Fay has been heard to pronounce over postround cocktails, "I am the Donald Ross Society," the other members would prefer to be a bit less combative. "Being diplomatic is a lot more resourceful," says Barry Palm, president of the society, whose day job—executive director of PGA Tour Tournament Associates, the organization of Tour sponsors—requires as much diplomacy as any in golf. "The Donald Ross Society doesn't exist to make pronouncements about courses and what the course needs to do. We're here to offer advice and counsel if asked."

Fay, however, sees himself as golf's Johnny Over-seed, spreading the society's gospel in every direction. Why anyone would do anything to a Ross course other than mow it baffles him. "When you sell aluminum for a living, and you're named greens chairman for two years, leave [the course] the f—alone!" Fay says.

According to the society's brochure, the organization's "primary goal is to communicate the importance of preserving and promoting traditional architectural values reflected so eloquently in the works of Donald Ross." To that end the society has awarded $75,000 in scholarships to students of course architecture or agronomy and has arranged summer internships for them. It has also provided money and impetus to the Tufts Archives, which is the Pinehurst home of nearly all of Ross's papers, as well as the original drafts and blueprints for such famous courses as Interlachen, Oak Hill, Oakland Hills, Scioto and Seminole.

Ross courses possess the simple genius of a Gershwin lyric. Short par-4s play uphill to small greens. Long par-4s play downhill to large greens, the better to accommodate middle-and long-iron shots. Ross believed that balls hit over the green shouldn't be stopped and collected in bunkers. If you overshoot one of his greens, your ball runs down a hill. He didn't use trees as obstacles. His holes are routed gradually uphill and suddenly downhill. Consecutive holes never go in the same direction.

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