Country Club of Orlando: Ross’ greatest hits
The history of golf and golf courses, while not very old, is not always as clear as it could be. Most of the time, that’s simply because history wasn’t a major issue for most of the game of golf. The number of clubs that have little or no archive material to begin with, even without the clubhouse fires that wiped out so much documentation, is pretty astonishing from today’s perspective.
The Country Club of Orlando (CCO) is one such example. Founded in 1911, it is one of Florida’s oldest golf courses, older than lights like Seminole and Mountain Lake. When the club was founded, the architect Tom Bendelow built nine holes. It was expanded to eighteen in 1918. CCO has long believed the legendary Donald Ross was responsible for this expansion, but evidence that Ross did the job is hard to find. It appears that Ross visited the website and submitted a routing for the new look course, but clear evidence from local newspapers suggests that Bendelow has returned to reschedule the course. However, one of the clear consequences of the age of the club is that the course is only intended for golf courses and there is no real estate associated with it. This is relatively uncommon for Florida these days.
Whoever did this work, there is no doubt that the course changed a lot between 1918 and today. Robert Trent Jones built three new holes (the fifth, sixth and seventh) on new land in 1950 and time changed its usual changes. So a few years ago the club decided to revert to a more historic appearance and hired architect Ron Forse and his collaborator Jim Nagle to do the work.
Forse, who has worked on 54 Ross courses during his long career as a restoration specialist, thought long and hard about the best solution. If the club had always believed its course was a steed, he concluded, it would be best to give them one. So he and Nagle decided to renovate the course and use some of Ross’ best holes and greens – a sort of collection of Donald Ross’s greatest hits – to inspire the new work. They used photographs from Seminole GC in 1931, combined with their own vast experience of Ross’ work, to serve as a guide. The hole corridors are basically the same as before, but practically everything else is new. The greens are now slightly raised with filling for the most part, with a lot of movement, as was the master’s style.
Forse and Nagle worked with contractor Landscapes Unlimited to oversee the rebuilding of all eighteen holes. This was not without difficulty: in the area of the course added by Trent Jones in 1950, the construction team came across large numbers of cedar trees. These had been removed by Jones and buried under the holes. Surprisingly, they had only decayed on the surface. “You wouldn’t believe how much trouble you caused,” says Forse. “The construction workers had to dig up and throw away some of them while the rest were sawed through with chainsaws. Then we went in and re-contoured and installed drainage and irrigation.” The reworked course is no longer littered in winter, which offers obvious environmental benefits.
The course starts off with a fairly gentle 350 yard par 4. The friendly start doesn’t take long though as the second hole is a blast. At 428 meters, the green is not very long and is to the left of the corridor. A pond on this side of the fairway threatens the approach. The pond stops a little short of the green, so it should only catch bad mistakes, but the putting surface is also protected by two flanking bunkers. The trap on the left is the deepest on the golf course. Fortunately for the mental health of golfers, it shouldn’t come into play that often.
The excellent, fairly short par 4 doglegs on the right around a large bunker. Two bunkers on the left clamp the fairway and make it extremely narrow. Golfers need to make a decision about the tee shot. Can they carry the bunker, in which case they only have a short approach to the green? If not, it’s probably best if they grab an iron club and lie down just in front of the bunkers – trying to hit the neck is a breeze. The green, inspired by Ross’ fourteenth at the Country Club of Buffalo, features a broad swallow.
Forse refers to the sixth par 3, originally a Jones hole, as “Ross Redan”. The long diagonal green is inspired by the fourteenth at Peninsula G & CC and the sixth at Hyannisport, which are both par fives, which in my opinion shows the flexibility of the Redan concept. The par 4 ninth has perhaps the most memorable green on the course, a double punch bowl with the two wells separated by a back. The punchbowl concept comes from the twelfth hole in Wannamoisett and the ninth in Cohasset, but the double bowl is Forse and Nagle’s own doing! The huge home green, the largest on the course, is heavily inspired by the target hole at the Oyster Harbor Club on Cape Cod.
The renovations, which were very well received by members and guests alike, have also changed the state of the course. With a new lawn and corresponding small straw, it can now be held really quickly and firmly (and no winter overseed is required, as mentioned above). Although the vegetation around the course at CCO makes the location in Florida pretty clear, the course itself feels more different than typical Sunshine State golf – its core nature and the waves on the greens introduced by Forse and Nagle give it a real authentic vintage feel how it should be for a club of this age and history. After a hundred years, Donald Ross is now undeniably present at CCO.
This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or a free digital copy, please visit our subscription page.