During the 1920s, Donald Ross embarked on a long, arduous crisscross of North America by train and automobile, laying out new golf courses and remodeling old ones. Of the nearly 400 courses Ross designed and/or remodeled during his career, no more than 11 were in Canada. Two of those were built during Ross’ personal Roaring Twenties in Windsor, Ontario, a blue-collar town on the south shore of the Detroit River, directly across from Michigan’s renowned Motor City.
Ross laid out an 18-hole course for Roseland Park Country Club in 1926, prior to returning to Windsor two years later at the behest of Essex County Golf and Country Club to do the same. Roseland Park has since become a mere skeleton of its former self, a municipal course owned and operated by the city of Windsor. Essex, on the other hand, is recognized as one of Canada’s finest courses, and certainly one of Ross’ finest achievements in the Detroit area.
Windsor was a bustling, prosperous city during the 1920s. The Ford Motor Company of Canada, co-founded by Essex member Gordon McGregor and Henry Ford in 1904, had it headquarters in town. At the time, Ford of Canada was the largest automobile manufacturer in the British Empire, and Windsor was its hub of production. In the adjacent borough of Walkerville, Hiram Walker and Sons was producing Canadian Club whiskey and other liquors for worldwide export. Windsorites were gainfully employed, for the most part, and some were amassing sizable fortunes. Interest in “country club life” and recreational activities like golf was on the rise.
Essex, as it is called, was established in 1910. The club’s original course was located on Colonel John Prince’s farm, close to the town center. It was laid out by Ernest Way, the professional and greenkeeper at Detroit Golf Club. An Englishman who later practiced golf design full-time, Way built the colonel a fine course. And the manorial residence of the Prince family made for an excellent clubhouse. But with the city of Windsor rapidly expanding around it, Essex members began to feel their club was losing its “country club appeal.” The search for a new, more rural property was instigated.
It was in 1928 that club directors finally exercised the options to purchase 14 individual farms, eight miles south of Windsor, on Matchette Road in the suburb of LaSalle for the purpose of moving the club and constructing a new 18-hole course. By that time, Ross had completed notable works in the Detroit area, including two outstanding courses for the Detroit Golf Club, the North and South courses at Oakland Hills Country Club, and the fine layout that belongs to Franklin Hills Country Club. Essex directors were convinced that Ross was the right man to lay out their new course.
Ross considered the topographical formations of the Great Lakes region to be ideal for golf features. However, unlike the rolling landscape in neighboring Michigan, Essex County is flat.
There was not a single topographical feature that lent natural potential to the new course. Yet, ideal terrain was not paramount to Ross. Around 1928, he wrote, “In these days of steamshovels and modern improvements, it is possible to do wonderful things on flat, level country. I have come to the conclusion that I prefer to lay out a course on level land.”
A redeeming characteristic of the Matchette Road site was the quality of its soil. Ross declared, in fact, that he had never seen a finer sandy loam on which to construct a golf course. It is known that he visited Essex at least once, though it should not be assumed that he returned, considering he was simultaneously working on 10 projects across the continent, including Seminole in Florida, considered by some to be Ross’ masterwork.
There are those Ross courses, such as Seminole, acknowledged to be superior to others. Why? Some benefited from the natural topography of the given land, or a healthy construction budget. Others profited from Ross’ personal time on-site. With his frequent absence, however, the man charged with supervising the course construction had a significant impact on the overall quality of the finished product. Modifications to an architect’s drawn plans are not out of the ordinary. Thus, an educated, experienced foreman was required to successfully execute such necessary changes in the field.
For a period of less than three months, at the beginning of construction, Ross assigned one of his engineers (likely Walter Hatch or James McGovern) to the Essex project to establish the levels for the greens and proper construction methods. After that, it was left to 135 men, a steamshovel and 80 teams of horses under the supervision of the club’s greenkeeper, John Gray.
Born on a farm near Aberdeen, Scotland in 1885, Gray emigrated to the Peace River District of Alberta, Canada around 1905. In short time, he contacted rheumatic fever, painfully recovered and was advised by doctors to seek a different climate. So he headed south to Chicago (becoming the only patient in medical history to relocate there for health reasons?), where he went to work for Harry S. Colt and Charles H. Alison, the leading golf course architects in the world at the time.
Colt and Alison were involved with the design and construction of many of the world’s greatest courses, including Pine Valley, Sunningdale and Swinley Forest in the heathlands outside of London, England, and the remarkable courses of the Toronto and Hamilton clubs in Ontario, Canada. It is logically assumed that Gray came to Windsor when the English duo was constructing a new course for the Country Club of Detroit circa 1913, that being the year he became involved with the expansion and renovation of the of the old Essex course on the Prince homestead under the direction of Way.
While working with Way at Essex, Gray met Evelyn Reid, who resided with her family in a home across the road from the course. They fell in love, and upon completion of the course renovation, Gray accepted the permanent position of greenkeeper at Essex. He married Evelyn in 1915.
Thirteen years later, when it came time for Ross to appoint a “supervisor”of the construction of the new Essex course, his choice was obvious. Gray’s previous experience was invaluable.
Construction began in May 1928. The first operation was the digging of an open drainage ditch, measuring one-and-a-half miles long and an average of six feet deep and 15 feet wide. This allowed for the property to be drained of water and, economically, provided excavated material to build up the tees and greens. The meandering ditch also presented the illusion of some elevation change on an otherwise flat landscape dotted with impressive elm, oak and maple trees. According to contemporary reports, more than 20,000 stumps and live trees were cleared to make room for golf.
The 126-acre property is boxed in on three sides by roads,and on the fourth by a rail line, yet out-of-bounds barely intrudes on play. Ross’ par-71 layout, 6703 yards long, is a masterpiece of routing on a rectangular site. Each loop of nine holes occupies contiguous ground, starting and finishing in the shadow of the 27,600-square foot, English Tudor-style clubhouse that opened along with the course in July 1929. The course is elegant and orderly, with each tee merely steps from the preceding green.
It begins with two relatively simple par-4s that lead into a long, difficult stretch between the 523-yard, par-5 third and 455-yard, par-4 sixth holes. The 157-yard seventh, one in a set of four par-3 holes that exhibits exceptional variety, combines with the 351-yard, par-4 eighth to offer a relative letup in prelude to the 436-yard ninth, which, as the only dogleg hole on the course, bends left up to a devilishly contoured green, sloping back-to-front, diagonally bisected by a swale that divides the putting surface into three distinct cupping areas.
With the exception of the seventh and 12th holes, one-shotters that demand forced carries to heavily bunkered greens, all of the putting surfaces at Essex are accessible via land. They are obviously Rossian: predominately pitched back-to-front, with multiple tiers, center ridges and diagonal swales to complicate the scoring challenge.
The incoming nine is as fluid and varied as the front side, and also concludes with a classic par-4. The 18th fairway is ultra-wide, presenting an illusion that any ordinary shot finishing on short grass is fine. However, the 433-yard home hole curves nearly undetectably to the left. Thus, a smart drive will hug the inside of that subtle bend and so reduce the distance of the approach to a lovely green nestled intimately between the first and 15th tees and imposed upon by several ridges.
In its original concept Essex is a second-shot golf course. Ross’ typical practice was to provide plenty of room off the tee and increase the challenge as play progressed toward the green. At Essex, he set fairway bunkers not to penalize, but rather to serve as directional markers. On many holes, strategically placed sand bunkers, no more than 200 yards from the back tee, are simply meant to be carried in order to gain an advantageous angle into the green. Lobes and peninsulas of putting surface creeping behind and between greenside bunkers provide tucked hole locations that demand accuracy off the tee without the necessity of an excessive number of fairway hazards. Penalty is neither immediate nor obvious, but is ingeniously present nonetheless.
Like many courses of the era, Essex’ greens and fairways have shrunken significantly in the past 72 years. The club recently began a restoration plan, devised by Renaissance Golf Design of Traverse City, Mich., aimed at expanding playing areas in order to re-introduce and re-emphasize Ross’ original strategies. Such work is simply a means of fine-tuning a course that continues to exemplify Ross’ brilliance as a golf architect and a labor of love that was John Gray’s.
As the club’s greenkeeper for 45 years, until an untimely death in 1958, Gray was “Mr. Essex” to all who knew him. At 6 feet 2 inches tall, 250 pounds, his present was deceptively imposing, for he was a gentle, thoughtful and intelligent man. A self-taught agronomist who, in 1926, was among the 60 charter members of the National Greenkeepers Association (now the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America). Gray is the only Canadian ever to serve as that group’s president, handling the gavel in 1941.
It is simple to lay out a golf course that is too easy or too difficult. Ross was extremely talented in that he knew how to design courses that make all golfers, regardless of ability, feel as though they were made specifically for them. With that, Essex has survived the test of time. In the midst of rapid advancements in equipment technology, it is a classic course that continues to provide an enjoyable, adequately challenging game for all levels of players. It is a place where 36-hole days are not only feasible, they are to be relished. Essex, in short, is a course any golfer would be proud to call home.