Debatably Donald & The Damage Done: W.D. Clark and The Architects Forgotten at Faux Ross Courses

Special thanks to Jay Revell and Rick Shefchik for their contributions to this piece. Many of you are familiar with Jay from his site, but Rick is an accomplished sports and music writer, whose ‘From Fields to Fairways’ is a history of Minnesota’s classic courses. 

This is not a story about Donald Ross.

However, as much of the subject matter is tied to Palatka Golf Club—a municipal south of Jacksonville that is also allegedly a Donald Ross design—it’s tricky to avoid him. You may have caught that one word in the previous sentence that sets up an obvious premise…a fact-and-fiction regarding the course’s lineage. It’s a common theme, covered by Will Bardwell at Great Southern Golf Club, and covered eagerly by the press during the drama surrounding Mayfair Country Club in Sanford, FL. A similar tale could be told about many Ross courses, and many have previously broached the topic regarding Palatka. Analyzing Palatka won’t be a Pulitzer “A-HA” investigative moment.

So this isn’t a story about Donald Ross or about why the proper identification of this course is important for his legacy. This is a story about W.D. Clark and why the proper identification of this course is important to his legacy.

But first, unfortunately, journalistic integrity demands that we look at Palatka and interpret a few facts, and a few statements, to get a better grasp on reality.

The clubhouse at Palatka (Photo Cred: WikiMedia)

DONALD ROSS MAY HAVE BEEN HERE

Palatka Golf Club opened in 1925 and, if you believe the name plastered across the front of the building, Donald Ross designed it. Most are aware that Ross was not conservative about his projects, setting up a regional hub and sending out tendrils to plant as much work as possible. Ross designed at least 24 courses in Florida during the five-year span of 1924-’28, according to the Donald Ross Society. One of these was Palatka. Again, allegedly.

The affirmation of the Ross Society goes a long way toward its legitimacy. The aforementioned Great Southern and Mayfair courses do not have it. Michael Fay, cofounder of the Ross Society, could immediately identify the lack of Ross when he played Mayfair and cites the city of Sanford’s persistence as irksome (they spent money on that historical marker, after all).

“Sanford’s always been annoying,” he says. “There’s nothing they provide to tie it to Ross. There’s nothing in the records, there’s nothing in the municipal records. Nothing. It’s nonsense.”

There’s nothing to tie Palatka to Ross either, however.

Except the course itself, of course. Despite tipping at less than 5,900 yards, there are clear indicators Ross may have been involved. Enough so that it passed Fay’s gut-check when he had a chance to play. He cites “fillpaths,” the buildup of soil leading from the fairway’s natural ground up to constructed greens (shoutout to Jay Revell for translating this one for me). Even the most basic architecture analyst could get on Google and note the signature switchbacks at Nos. 8 and 11, or the Inverness nod at the diverging fairway shared by Nos. 2 and 17. But are those truly Ross features? Or features molded to fit the dream that Palatka is a Ross? Bobby Weed, whose firm handled a seven-year maintenance and management contract with the club (ending during 2016), is on Team Ross according to the press release from the conclusion of his services with Palatka.

“We are going out on a high note,” he said in a statement at the time. “Preserving this old Ross golf course was paramount to the community, to the heritage of north Florida and to the many loyal golfers, both local and nationwide, who enjoy playing it.”

A 1941 aerial, not displaying the sizable Pinehurst-style sand areas as featured today. (Photo Cred: Florida Historic Golf Trail).
Circa 2018 (Photo Cred: Google God)

As you know, experts can be prickly when one suggests their opinions are wrong. Mike Fay is not that expert.

“I don’t draw the line [in the sand],” Fay says with a laugh. “I call ‘em as I see ‘em…and there’s a number of those, we list the courses on our website, and there are a number of those courses that are very questionable.”

The Donald Ross Society is open about its shortcomings. A report on Palatka acknowledged that “whether or not it is truly a Ross design is problematic, and not just because the plans that Head Professional Spanky Aaron produced list W.D. Clark as the ‘Designer’ in February, 1925.” Fay suggested that newspaper clippings would have mentioned Ross’s commission, considering the architect’s clout at the time. The Tampa Tribune noted “a golf course architect, who has built links in various sections of Florida.” That designer gets no name but could technically be Ross. If it were a Ross, however, the press would have tended toward advertising the noted architect’s name. A 1927 article from the same paper goes further, linking Clark to courses at “Mount Plymouth, Sanford, Bartow, Palatka, Daytona and Avalon.”

Scott Edwards works for the Florida Department of Historical Resources and, specifically, the Florida Historic Golf Trail. His organization always listed Palatka as a Clark course, despite the architect’s lesser acclaim. Palatka recently requested to be removed from the Trail’s website, albeit not because of the disagreement on lineage. Edwards has had similar conversations with many courses.

“Florida is the fake Donald Ross capital of the world,” he says. “If you got something else, please show me that I am wrong. Give me that document, give me that drawing. I have no problem. That’d be awesome if we had 10 or 15 more Ross courses. I would shout that from the mountaintop. I just want to be honest and truthful to what we’re producing.”

Such documents are lacking at even the core of Ross’s base. The Tufts Archives at Pinehurst hold only a scorecard from the course. Bradley Klein, author of Discovering Donald Ross, commented to BPBM that “the present bunkering at Palatka looks nothing like any Ross.” But, of course, the present bunkering was restored by Weed. Where did the latter architect draw his inspiration from?

Palatka, beloved regardless. (PhotoCred: Wikimedia Commons)

Bobby Weed Design deferred questions to Andy Heartz, Director of Golf at Palatka. Heartz denied any knowledge of the designs referenced in the Ross Society’s report, and suggested Aaron—the provider of these plans—was “a cart guy here 15 years ago” (finding Aaron has thus far been futile, but an article announcing Weed’s involvement at Palatka also lists Spanky Aaron as “head professional,” the position the Ross Society also places him in at the time).

So is Palatka a Ross? We’re not going to be passive aggressive about it: Probably not. But that’s not the point of this story.

We all know why non-Rosses are so resistant to non-Ross suggestions. It’s because of money. You can argue that it’s because of pride, or history, or some other sentimental sap, but it’s ultimately about money. People don’t travel to play courses by W.D. Clark; they travel to play courses by Donald Ross. And when a municipal golf course needs money from the state, they flash Ross’s name. Maece Taylor didn’t sue Sanford, FL for $1 million because he had been promised a fun golf course and they gave him a dud. It was because they promised him a Ross, and city records proved it was a Clark. The same W.D. Clark of Palatka (non)fame. Taylor’s argument was essentially that Clark’s name was costing him money.

But the efforts taken to replace Clark’s name with Ross’s comes with a deeper, less tangible cost.

The year is undisputed. (Photo Cred: Brian Jones / Virginia Golf Guy)

Ain’t W.D. Clark A Man?

William D. Clark was born and attended university in Edinburgh, where he excelled at golf. He took his first job as a golf professional at Bathurst Country Club in New South Wales, before crossing the Pacific and taking up at Annandale Country Club in Pasadena. Another shift eastward brought him to Omaha Field Club, where he reportedly took his first swing at altering golf holes. Finally, Clark became head pro at the newly-formed Minneapolis Golf Club. When Willie Park Jr. did not finish construction on the routing he laid out at Minneapolis, Clark stepped in. He would create a number of other Minneapolis courses during his time in the North, before heading South to Chicago and, during the winter, Florida.

Rick Shefchik is a member of the Minnesota Golf Hall of Fame Committee, and is in talks to write a book commemorating the 100th anniversary of Oak Ridge Country Club, Clark’s preeminent surviving design. He, in his own words, “know[s] about as much as anybody about Clark up to the point when he left Minnesota,” and even that—as helpful as it was—amounted to seven paragraphs in an email (Shefchik hopes to learn more as part of the Oak Ridge project).

In short, very few remember much about W.D. Clark.

That seems sad, but it’s a fate to which many of us subscribe. We will ultimately work 40-hour weeks and, while no doubt enjoying time with family and friends, leave behind little in terms of legacy. Few will be fortunate to spend much time with their great grandchildren, and few great-great-grandchildren will know much about their great-great-grandfathers. C’est la vie. This is, perhaps, the appeal of becoming an artist. You won’t earn as much as the businessman who belongs to a Donald Ross country club, but at least you’ll leave some sort of reminder that you existed. Someone may, 100 years down the line, pay a mere $10 for a painting you slaved over, or a photograph you waited until the perfect light to snap, but at least you will be closer to immortality than that businessman. Your work, your signature, remains. Not at the Louvre, but a nice elderly woman’s living room. I chuckle to myself imagining future golf historians poring over the first few years of the since defunct Golfer’s Journal, and considering my few bylines. They will have little biographical information, but they will know that Ryan Book was a golf writer, if a somewhat obscure and only modestly talented one.

Shennecossett pushes its Donald Ross identity, and it honestly works among the hardest to maintain his features. They also pitch No. 16 as their signature hole; it’s one of a few added by Mark Mungeam. (Photo Cred: BPBM)

Most golf course architects fall into this same bin. They will never reach the size of Donald Ross’s catalogue, nor his acclaim. And, with no offense intended, they don’t deserve to. Ross was an iconic talent. Those lesser architects still deserve to be recognized for the marks they left, however. The small landowner who builds a Par 69 on 100 acres, or the Cornell grad that didn’t become Gil Hanse…they will create less glamorous courses, but nonetheless courses to call their own.

This will be their legacy.

W.D. Clark is one of these individuals. I don’t know anything about his personal ambitions…whether he actually saw his projects as personal monuments or as just another job, but I have spoken to enough architects during my time to guess he was more of the former than the latter.

And that’s why the story at Palatka, and Mayfair, and Great Southern, and a litany of other dubious Ross courses is about W.D. Clark, and the other guys. There may not be malicious intent on ownership’s part; Donald Ross left such a huge web of courses during his travels, a misinterpretation could have been made decades ago, and passed along with such sincerity that, for today’s management, acknowledging the falseness of a Ross claim is akin to denying the god of their childhood. It simply cannot be because it cannot be. Documents suggesting otherwise are mistaken.

Totally by coincidence, of course, money always seems to enter the picture. The million-dollar Mayfair lawsuit. Palatka’s request for state funding, under the guise of a historic golf location (Edwards says requests for documents were ignored). We tend to pursue these cases as fraud, as if Ross is the one being victimized. The true victims are the Clarks, the Niemans, the guys who didn’t make it to Ross’s level. It is their names that are being wiped from the history books. The words on their testaments blotted out.

Hebert Strong’s island green at Ponte Vedra has withstood the test of time because it is interesting architecture. W.D. Clark’s course at the site lasted a mere three years. (Photo Cred: Ponte Vedra Inn)

This phenomenon rings especially true for Clark in Florida. Perhaps his greatest design in the state, the original “Dunes” course at Ponte Vedra, was essentially replaced by Herbert Strong’s more famous Ocean Course just three years after it opened (recognized, again, by the Florida Historic Golf Trail, if not Ponte Vedra). The Riviera Country Club in Ormond Beach was largely overhauled by Mark Mahanna circa 1953; any semblance of Clark disappeared. Another half-dozen or so have quietly disappeared, the most recent of which was Mount Plymouth, which closed during 2007. The truest remainders of Clark’s legacy in Florida are Mayfair and Palatka, both of which have been forcibly absorbed into the Ross legacy.

Those who have seen the Pixar film Coco understand how aggressively some will behave to maintain an image, or destroy another’s. Rather than Ross himself murdering multiple individuals to protect his legacy, however, this is the work of unaffiliated third-parties working to keep Clark’s image from the Ofrenda.

It is easy to shrug off Clark’s work. There is little reason for him to appear in something such as The Evolution of Golf Course Design. This pitch to recognize his designs may seem inconsequential to course architecture enthusiasts. But consider someone who died with even fewer courses to his name:

Mike Strantz.

Strantz was a far superior architect to Clark, and it is difficult to imagine something as iconic as Tobacco Road shutting down. But Strantz’s small lithography is his legacy’s vulnerability. That vulnerability became obvious when two of his Virginia layouts, Stonehouse and Royal New Kent, were both closed during 2017. Thankfully new ownership made enormous efforts to save the courses, which represented more than 20% of his legacy, and thankfully they moved quickly—the dark subtext of their closure created a cloud of nihilism over at least one golf writer.

A bad dream deferred at Royal New Kent (Photo Cred: Royal New Kent).

Strantz is a cult hero among golf architecture hobbyists, hence the tragic sensation that came with news that two of his courses would soon disappear. Let us afford the same dignity to lesser architects, especially while their courses remain open for play.

If the name on the front of Palatka’s clubhouse changed from “Donald Ross” to “W.D. Clark,” it would realistically change nothing for golfers themselves. The course is in about as great of shape as it has ever been, and the passing commuter rail lends at least a subtle air of Winter Park—everyone from Revell to Geoff Shackleford will attest to it. And, to be fair to Fay and others, this course probably now plays more like a Ross than a Clark. Weed renovated to fit a Rossian vision, after all (to no fault of his own). But that doesn’t mean Clark’s name shouldn’t appear in the credits. William Flynn may be the foremost architect at the current iteration of Shinnecock, but it would be sinful to suggest he was the sole designer. Thanks to Shechik and the folks at the Minnesota Golf Hall of Fame, Clark will at least be remembered for his 2016 enshrinement within that establishment. But I’m sure even they would agree that an architect is better remembered on turf than on paper.

The story of Palatka, and similarly controversial courses, will always tie to Ross’s story. Ross has very little to lose, especially as we enter a decade where individuals like Hanse and Andrew Green look primed to restore many of his Golden Age classics to peak condition. Most architects have something more significant to lose, however.

Let’s continue to point out who a course isn’t. But let’s try harder to remember who a course is.

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