The Donald Ross Memorial Golf Course – the Design Legend’s Greatest Hits
Who doesn’t like a greatest hits album? How about a greatest hits golf course? That’s what you get at the Donald Ross Memorial Course at The Highlands at Harbor Springs.
Guest writer Tom Lang, publisher and managing editor of MI Golf Journal, explores this iconic Michigan golf course and how it was created.
Donald Ross is one of the top five golf course designers in American history. His 300+ courses dot the American countryside, with many of them already reaching their 100th anniversaries. Many golf lovers are aware of what Ross means to the game of golf. For those who don’t, they will still greatly enjoy his courses even if they don’t know they are playing on one.
So, how about playing 18 of some of Ross’ best holes ever—all in one location? You will find this grand opportunity at The Highlands at Harbor Springs, nestled in beautiful northern Michigan.
Going back nearly thirty years, The Highlands’ Senior Vice President of Golf, Bernie Frederick, and owner, Stephen Kircher, traveled the country in search of Donald Ross’ top-designed holes that would best fit the topography at The Highlands. The pair wanted to create a truly memorable, and memorial, course for the modern-day golfer—the Donald Ross Memorial.
The course was to be a tribute to one of the best golf course architects of all time from the 1920s era, when golf began trickling into the United States from Scotland. The other inspiration for the project was to create a remarkable public course, since so many of the premier courses here are private—meaning public golfers aren’t granted access to play.
The Highlands wanted to close that gap. The challenge for making replicas, however, was that some private clubs would not share the Ross blueprints. Bill Newcomb, Michigan-based designer, was called in to help create the Ross Memorial. Without having access to the original blueprints, there are challenges. Therefore, some of the holes had to be designed from personal observation, notes and memory, as well as Polaroids taken as representatives from The Highlands crisscrossed the country. Thus, exact replica standards were a challenge then, but it’s a breeze today with GPS, satellite imaging and 3D cameras to get a nearly-perfect match.
Since 2020, The Highlands has been making adjustments to the Donald Ross Memorial holes with the new information, all in an effort to give golfers the opportunity to truly enjoy Ross’ genius. The Donald Ross and other course renovations are under the guidance of Michigan architect Ray Hearn.
In early September 2022, I was taken aback by the restoration of The Highlands’ 15th hole, modeled after the 11th hole at Aronimink Golf Club in Pennsylvania. A new tee was added on the left side and the fairway has been widened—which created a different and amazingly striking second shot. Four new bunkers, side by side up toward the right of the green complex, with a putting surface almost twice the former size, stand out the most.
The 13th hole, a par 5, 510-yard replica of Hole No. 15 at Seminole Golf Club, has also been recently remodeled. This dramatic par 5 course utilizes several Ross design strategies. The fairway is divided into two distinct landing areas, which are separated by sand bunkers and pine trees.
After thirty years, the green has also been raised three feet higher to better resemble Pennsylvania’s Seminole. The Highlands’ Hole No. 1 was the first to be reworked. Most of the work included reshaping bunkers and the outline of the green—also turning it about 45 degrees. The heather in the waste sand, running almost the entire length of the left side, makes the Seminole replica at Hole No. 6 complete. The new waste sand on the right side of Hole No. 1 also gives the right side of Hole No. 16 much more of a Pinehurst ambiance. This update now replicates Hole No. 10 on Pinehurst’s Hole No. 2.
The Highlands offers three additional courses to keep all golfers entertained on the links: The Arthur Hills, The Moors and The Heather, which is the original northern Michigan design from the 1960s that started the golf boon in the region. Multiple lodging options from home rentals and a recently refurbished hotel to condos and chalets provide options for all every budget.
All in all, this greatest-hits golf course is one any public golfer can enjoy. Learn more at highlandsharborsprings.com.
About the Author: Tom Lang is a 30-year veteran sports contributor to the Detroit Free Press, during which he has covered the golf scene and more in Michigan. Since 2018, Lang has produced the monthly MI Golf Journal, Michigan's No. 1 voted golf media outlet and is free online at migolfjournal.com.