The Ross That Wasn’t
The lost links of James Barber
By Lee Pace
By the late 1920s, Donald Ross had designed seven golf courses in the Sandhills. There were Nos. 1-4 at Pinehurst Country Club, with the No. 2 course the annual venue for the North and South Open, and North and South Amateur. By 1912, he had designed 18 holes at Southern Pines Golf Club. And Mid Pines in 1921 and Pine Needles in 1928 were positioned on opposite sides of Midland Road on the outskirts of Southern Pines, the former serving as the linchpin of a private club and hotel, and the latter part of a combination resort and real estate venture.
Five of the seven remain today. Pinehurst No. 3 became half Ross/half Ellis Maples in the late 1950s when Maples built 18 new holes on the west side of N.C. 5 and arranged a new Pinehurst No. 5. The No. 4 course was abandoned during the Depression and World War II, later to re-emerge under various iterations, the latest a Gil Hanse redesign that opened in 2018. And Southern Pines, regarded by many knowledgeable design wonks as one of Ross’ finest routings, is under the restoration scalpel as we speak under new ownership and the design and construction acumen of architect Kyle Franz.
But there’s a fascinating story about the eighth Ross course for the Pinehurst area, the course that never was.
In 1927, Ross laid out a course on land now occupied by a housing development and The O’Neal School off Airport Road northeast of the village of Pinehurst. The client was designated on blueprints as “James Barber, Esq.”
Barber was a native of London who came to America at the age of 35 in 1887 and made his fortune with the Barber Steamship Lines, one of the world’s foremost shipping concerns. He loved golf and visited Pinehurst regularly from the early 1900s on, occupying a suite at the Holly Inn for the full winter season and then in the early 1910s building two houses just a short walk from the Carolina Hotel on Beulah Hill and Shaw roads. It was on the grounds around one of these mansions that he added a tennis court, formal gardens and a miniature golf course he called “Thistle Dhu,” which later was among the inspirations for Pinehurst’s immensely popular 18-hole putting course adjacent to the resort clubhouse.
Barber was among a group of prominent businessmen in the Sandhills who joined Leonard Tufts, the owner of Pinehurst and son of founder James W. Tufts, in developing thousands of acres of land between Pinehurst and Southern Pines known as Knollwood. As World War II ended and the 1920s beckoned, they envisioned a posh private club with golf and lodging, and a surrounding residential community. That was the impetus for Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club. The first official meeting of Mid Pines was held in January 1921, and Barber was elected president. Tufts was vice president and general manager. A.S. Newcomb, a real estate agent, was secretary/treasurer. Ross was a founding member, as was L.M. Boomer, a partner with the du Pont family in owning the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.
“James Barber is a man not heard of as often as some,” The Pilot noted in 1921, “but he is one of the big forces in the development of the Sandhills. His holdings in Pinehurst and Mid Pines are huge, and between the two places he has a small empire.”
That empire in time included the land for his private golf course.
At the time what is now known as Airport Road was called Seals Road. The clubhouse was located on the southwest corner of the tract on land near what in the 1980s would become the 14th hole of Longleaf Golf and Family Club, later changed to the fifth hole when the nines were flipped. Seven holes were on the south side of Seals Road on what is now a housing development accessed by Tall Timbers Drive and Laurel Lane. The Southern Pines Waterworks lake was just to the east.
Both front and back nines crossed Seals Road, and the holes on the north side ran on ground that today includes homes along Chesterfield Drive within the Forest Creek community, and runs eastward to the baseball and soccer fields of The O’Neal School. Ross’ design indicates residential lots alongside some of the holes.
Bill Patton, the course superintendent at Forest Creek from 1994 to 2014, remembers hearing talk that parts of the Forest Creek property once included an abandoned Ross design.
“The president of the Donald Ross Society came sometime around 1996 or ’97, looked at the property near the entrance to The O’Neal School,” Patton says. “He thought it looked like an old golf course. Personally, I couldn’t see it.”
What is certain is that the course was routed on paper by Ross. What is not quite as clear is how much, if any, was actually built, though documents in the Tufts Archives indicate the clubhouse was, in fact, built of native stone and had “a prominent view” of what would later be two small lakes within the back nine of the Longleaf course. There are no remnants of that structure today.
“Mr. Ross has designed a picturesque tract on the summit of the hills which gives a constant outlook over all the country,” The Pilot observed in 1927. “Below the fairways the reservoir with its sixty acres of open lake spreads out along the whole west side of the course. From the high spots on the course, Southern Pines is visible, Carthage, the territory around Vass, Pinehurst and into indefinite distance in all directions.”
Two events derailed Barber’s vision.
First, his death in February 1928.
And second, the Great Depression that began with the October 1929 stock market crash. If his son and heir, Edward, had any designs on completing his father’s plan, they were scuttled during hard economic times.
Edward Barber had little insight into his father’s vision when the elder Barber died. Leonard Tufts wrote to Ross in 1928 and said he had corresponded with Edward, who was at a loss what to do with the land.
“He does of course want to know what his father had in mind in spending all that money out there in the woods,” Tufts wrote. Tufts then conferred with Ross and wrote back to Barber: “Your father’s idea was to build 18 holes of golf and use it for his private course where he could take his friends to play, and eventually to sell this property to a club that would have rooms, in a good deal the same way that we sold the Mid Pines property.”
Author Daniel Wexler included this Barber course in his book Lost Links: “Ross’ design for Barber was serious business, measuring over 6,500 yards and featuring strategic elements generally found only among the architect’s most prominent works . . . In fact, it probably fell among the upper 10 percent of the celebrated architect’s massive portfolio.”
High cotton, indeed, and worth some mental marinating next time you’re backed up on the roundabout waiting to head for Airport Road. PS
Lee Pace has written about golf in the Sandhills for three decades. His newest book, Good Walks — Rediscovering the Soul of Golf at 18 Top Carolinas Courses, will be available in May from UNC Press.