'I was two hours late – they must have been desperate!'
You might not know the name Ross McMurray, but you know his golf courses. NCG sat down with the world-renowned golf course designer and European Institute of Golf Course Architects president to learn about his career…
What are your first memories of the game?
I’m sure the first time I became aware of golf was during family holidays to Scotland. I suppose I must have been about nine or 10. My grandparents lived in Elie and we would spend our summer holidays there.
Anyone who knows Elie and Earlsferry will be aware of how important golf is to the town, but perhaps that’s not surprising as it has been played there since at least the 1500s.
James Braid was born in Earlsferry and pretty much everyone in the burgh seemed to be a member of the golf club when I was there. As well as the wonderful 18-hole course there was, importantly, what we called the Wee Course.
It is a nine-hole layout of around 2,000 yards and is still the play area for a huge number of young golfers. When it was too cold to be on the beach my brother and I would go and play the Wee Course with clubs borrowed from my grandfather.
Was there a big influence on your golf in your early years and where did you play most in your childhood?
I suppose the biggest influence was my grandfather. He had been a keen golfer to a decent standard, but had stopped playing by the time I really knew him because of back problems. He was a retired army major and became Secretary at the Golf House Club Elie in about 1972.
My grandfather just told me to go out and play and I was soon doing that at Elie every day for six weeks through the summer.
He bought me my first set of junior clubs but never gave me any lessons or tips. Just told me to go out and play and I was soon doing that every day for six weeks through the summer. Any lessons I did get were from John Reekie the club professional and just about everyone had Tom Reekie & Son golf clubs.
Eventually I was good enough to play the ‘Big’ course and a group of us would play every day, taking up the tee times after 10am, once the members had gone out. There were lots of junior competitions and we’d play in the senior competitions to, so there was plenty of opportunity to improve.
Was there a course or even an incident in your childhood-into-teenage years playing golf that left an impression on you?
The 1978 Open. It was at St Andrews and I spent two days watching the greatest players in the world tackle the Old Course. It was the first time I had been to any kind of tournament and I remember being amazed at the size of the crowds and the real feeling of elation when Jack Nicklaus won. To cap it off I got Jack’s autograph when he left the clubhouse after the trophy presentation.
What made you decide you wanted to be an architect and how did you go about it?
When I wasn’t actually playing golf I would often look at pieces of ground and design imaginary golf holes. The land around Elie lighthouse was a favourite, but also in the dunes along the coast to Upper Largo.
I soon realised I was never going to be good enough to be a professional golfer and it quickly became my ambition to design courses. It certainly frustrated my careers advisor at school, although he did suggest I looked at Landscape Architecture as an alternative.
I’d also written to a number of golf course architects and I remember getting some good feedback from Donald Steel who suggested I should consider doing a design or engineering related course at university.
Eventually I decided to do Landscape Architecture as it seemed to cover most of the disciplines I would ever need as a potential golf course architect and would give me something to fall back on if my chosen career path never materialised.
What was your first entry to the industry?
I briefly worked on the construction team remodelling the Jubilee Course at St Andrews (above) one summer after my third year at university.
I was about to start work for Wolverhampton County Council as a trainee landscape architect and then I got a call from a friend of a friend saying that he’d heard of a job opportunity at Cotton, Pennink & Partners.
Ken Cotton and Frank Pennink had both passed away and Donald Steel had just left CP&P to set up his own business.
The company had restructured with Jim Engh coming over from the US to re-establish the company with Alex Hay as MD. I had an interview and was offered the job.
Has there been one lucky break that really boosted your career in the early days?
I always say I have been incredibly lucky throughout my career. I was lucky to hear about the job and lucky to get it. I was even luckier that the company was successful and then eventually became European Golf Design.
Perhaps my luckiest break came as a result of being very unlucky. On my way to Woburn for my interview with Cotton, Pennink & Partners I was involved in a car accident only a mile or so from my house.
I’d borrowed my father’s car and just about limped home. Fortunately my best friend bailed me out and drove me straight to Woburn. I arrived almost two hours late and somewhat panic stricken for an interview with Jim and Alex.
I can only think they must have been desperate because they still offered me the job. Alex and I used to laugh about that when I was back at Woburn 10 years later working on the Marquess course. I owe my friend James an enormous debt of gratitude that’s for sure.
Do you look back in horror at some fledging work you did, or actually are you quite satisfied with your early days?
That’s a difficult one. When you start out you tend to think that you already know it all. It’s only with experience you recognise that you don’t and in fact you most likely never will.
I suppose there are things that I look back on and think, “Well that could have been better”, but I do that all the time anyway. I think most designers tend to be perfectionists.
I can’t think of many courses I have designed, or even golf holes, where I don’t think “perhaps it would have been better if I’d done this or that”.
The other thing I’ve learned is that quite often the things you think are not quite right are the things other people think are great, and as soon as you think you’ve nailed it and got something perfect, then that’s the time you’ll find out that nobody else likes it.
What is the one piece of design work you’d still like to do?
I really don’t have any pre-conceived ideas about what I’d like to do. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a good cross-section of projects and a really varied selection of sites.
Yes it would be great to design a true links but I don’t have any burning ambition to do this. The satisfaction to me is to take a piece of land, in whatever form it comes, and to then make it work for the client in the best way possible.
Is there a project you were close to getting and just missed out on that you still lament?
Honestly, no. I never think about the projects we missed out on. You just move on to whatever is next and put your heart and soul into that.
There have been a few projects which have gone through detailed design and then never happened though, and I find that much more frustrating because of the time and effort you’ve invested.
Do you still love golf and do you still play golf regularly?
Yes and no. Yes, I really enjoy playing, even more so now that I’ve cured 20 years of the yips by moving to a long putter with a gator clamp grip.
But I don’t play nearly enough and hardly at all at my home club. Partly I suspect that’s because, when you work in golf, it’s good to get away and do something else in your free time, but mainly it’s because a young family means you don’t get much free time.
My kids are a little more independent now so maybe this year will be the year I get back out on the golf course with my clubs. I’ve said that before though…