His true talent, however, proved to be designing golf courses. Incredibly, Ross would design or improve more than 500 courses during a 45-year career.
Ross was born in 1873 in Dornoch, Scotland, home of the Royal Dornoch links that would influence his own style as an architect. The son of a stonemason, he worked as an apprentice under Old Tom Morris in St. Andrews, then became pro and greenkeeper at Royal Dornoch.
Ross was influenced to come to America by Robert Wilson, a Harvard professor who spent summers in Dornoch. Ross arrived in the U.S. in 1898 with, it is said, two dollars in his pocket. Wilson helped him land a job as pro at Oakley Country Club in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Ross got an even bigger break shortly thereafter when he met James W. Tufts, whose family was building a new resort in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Ross signed on as the professional and quickly set about revising the first course there and designing a second one.
The Pinehurst No. 2 course, which would become his masterpiece, opened in 1903, and Ross continued to make changes on it until 1935. Ross' work at Pinehurst gained him a reputation as an architect, and his services were soon in demand as golf courses were sprouting up around the nation.
By the 1920s, the golden age of architecture in the U.S., Ross' company was working on dozens of projects at a time. He designed courses in 30 states, plus Canada and Cuba, though he remained affiliated with Pinehurst until his death in 1948.
Ross' other famous courses include Seminole in Florida, Oakland Hills in Michigan, Oak Hill in New York, and Scioto and Inverness in Ohio. He is known for his natural use of the terrain and for crowned greens that offer subtle challenges on approach and pitch shots.