Donald Ross carved his way into golf history by building top golf courses up and down the East Coast, from Florida’s Seminole to North Carolina’s Pinehurst No. 2 to Wannamoisett in Rhode Island. But while one can positively trip over Ross designs in the Carolinas, the master had never ventured west of the Mississippi until meeting eccentric millionaire Spencer Penrose.
Penrose himself had journeyed West from Philadelphia to seek his fortune. He made and lost a few before cementing his wealth in Colorado gold and silver mining. Penrose then embarked on a new challenge, to build a property that he described with his characteristic humility would become “the finest hotel in the United States.”
An ambitious goal perhaps, but Penrose may have done just that when the Broadmoor—the hotel and the course—opened in 1918. The resort first earned the Mobil Five-Star rating for excellence half a century ago and has never relinquished it, the longest run of any property.
Ross was hardly the only big name Penrose recruited to achieve this success. Penrose hired famed sharpshooter and Buffalo Bill Cody companion Annie Oakley to run the resort’s shooting school, and also retained Frederick Law Olmsted to design the grounds. As at New York City’s Central Park, Olmsted’s most famous project, the landscape designer built the Broadmoor around a large body of water, a lake many guests find difficult to believe is artificial.
By at least one measure, Ross’ course met Penrose’s lofty standards: When it opened, it was the highest course in the country, at an altitude of 6,400 feet. By another measure, the Broadmoor has been the scene of some of golf’s most historic events.
Two of the greatest players ever earned breakthrough wins at the Broadmoor. A 19-year-old Jack Nicklaus won the first of his 20 majors (under the old accounting method), the 1959 U.S. Amateur, beating Charlie Coe in the final. In 1995 Annika Sorenstam, then 24, won her first LPGA event at the U.S. Women’s Open.
But the course that was the site of Nicklaus’ and Sorenstam’s historic wins, as well as the host of this year’s U.S. Senior Open and the 2011 Women’s Open, is not quite the one designed by Ross. In 1958, when increased demand necessitated building additional holes, the resort once again turned to the biggest name in the golf architecture industry, Robert Trent Jones Sr.
A road divides the Broadmoor property, so instead of building a freestanding nine far from the clubhouse, the resort split the original nines, extending the eastern one across the road with Trent Jones’ holes, forming the East course that has become the championship layout. (Ross’ holes comprise the front nine.) In 1965 Trent Jones returned to add nine holes to the remaining half of the original Ross course, creating the West.
Prior to the Senior Open, Ron Forse worked on the layout, reshaping the mounds and grassy valleys around the greens and restoring Ross’ daunting bunkers, a project that was completed in 2007.
“The newly redesigned bunkers are the way Donald Ross designed them,” says Broadmoor’s director of golf Russ Miller as he rolls out a large black-and-white aerial photograph of the course uncovered in the Broadmoor’s archives. “See how geometric the bunkers were, with sharp straight edges? Over time they had become rounded and irregular.”
To give the course a unified look, Forse also restored the bunkers on Trent Jones’ nine in the Ross style. The course is now close in style and design to the original, while also a challenge for today’s longer players at 7,310 yards.
Virtually any Ross course is inevitably compared to Pinehurst No. 2, but in the case of the Broadmoor East, the comparisons are not unwarranted. Many Ross design elements are found here: wide fairways flanked by rows of mature pines and oaks with little underbrush, heavy bunkering rather than water or rough as hazard, and slightly domed greens with drop-offs to grassy swales and collection areas.
As at Pinehurst, Broadmoor’s Ross holes demand precise approach shots, with the added challenge of the thinner air, which makes distance control more of a guessing game. Trent Jones’ nine holes are distinct, but like Ross’ work, are emblematic of the traits its designer is best known for. There is more elevation change on the Trent Jones side, which allowed him to give players false peace of mind with downhill tee shots before challenging them with uphill approaches to heavily bunkered greens.
Despite the different approaches used by the two architects, the layout does not feel incongruous, since both are truly classical designs. The course simply gives the impression that since each half of the course occupies different terrain, Mother Nature is responsible for the differences.
In updating the layout 10 years after Ross’ death, Trent Jones appears to have augmented rather than attempted to improve upon his predecessor’s ideals. The same is true for the pair’s adjacent West course, a similar but less daunting version of the East—shorter and completely free of water, but with the same hole shapes, bunkering and green complexes.
Playing the West is a great warm up for the East, allowing players to focus more on mastering the greens than hitting first-rate approach shots, both of which are required to survive the East, especially with the greens and rough at tournament standards.
This was the case last summer during sectional qualifying for the 2007 U.S. Senior Open, when one player made a quintuple bogey from the thick rough, and a caddie watched his player, solid through 15 holes, lose 13 strokes to par over the final three holes.
Penrose, no doubt, would have approved such a spectacle.