During the 1920s Donald Ross embarked on a crisscross of North America, laying out new golf courses and remodeling old ones. Of the nearly 400 courses Ross designed and/or remodeled, no more than 11 were in Canada. Two of those are in Windsor, Ontario, a blue-collar town on the south shore of the Detroit River, directly across the Motor City.
Ross laid out Roseland Park Country Club in 1926, prior to returning to Windsor two years later at the behest of Essex County Golf and Country Club. Roseland Park is now owned and operated by the city. Essex, on the other hand, is recognized as one of Canada’s finest courses.
Essex was established in 1910. The club’s original course was located on Colonel John Prince’s farm, close to the town center. In 1928 club directors purchased 14 farms eight miles south of Windsor and hired Ross, who 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 immigrated to the Peace River District of Alberta, Canada around 1905. In short time, he contracted rheumatic fever, painfully recovered and was advised by doctors to seek a different climate. So he headed south to Chicago, where he went to work for Harry S. Colt and Charles H. Alison, the leading golf course architects in the world at the time.
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, the year he became involved with the expansion and renovation of the old Essex course. Thirteen years later, when it came time for Ross to appoint a “supervisor” of the construction of the new Essex course, his choice of Gray was obvious.
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, 6,703 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 Tudor-style clubhouse.
The course begins with two relatively simple par 4s that lead into a long, difficult stretch between the 523-yard 3rd and 455-yard 6th holes. The 157-yard 7th combines with the 351-yard 8th to offer a relative letup in prelude to the 436-yard 9th, 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 7th and 12th holes, par 3s that demand forced carries to heavily bunkered greens, all 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. A smart drive will hug the inside of that subtle bend, reducing the distance of the approach to a lovely green nestled intimately between the 1st and 15th tees and imposed upon by several ridges.
Essex 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, but are to be relished. Essex, in short, is a course any golfer would be proud to call home.