The Playground Drawings

A chance discovery was just one of the events that led to a Donald Ross gem at the Nashville First Tee
VinnyLinks, First Tee of Nashville

Little by little, a warm, quiet Tennessee afternoon begins to bustle: cars arriving, golf clubs clattering in bags, children shouting. The children are among the nearly 500 kids who participate every year in the First Tee program here at VinnyLinks Golf Course, a short, nine-hole municipal track in East Nashville, tucked between the Cumberland River and a neighborhood of renovated bungalows. 

At first glance, VinnyLinks is no different from so many other municipal golf courses in America. It is scruffy, but not neglected; its obstacles are obvious, but not imposing. Yet this course’s lack of pretension hides a pedigree that many private clubs would kill for.

The surfaces on which these children putt and stomp and shout are no ordinary greens; they are perhaps golf’s most extraordinary. They are Donald Ross creations, built more than half a century after his death, conjured from plans that were lost for 70 years. The drawings were cast aside, lost completely, rediscovered, nearly trashed and ultimately built by a public-private collaboration that now houses Nashville’s First Tee program. They are, so far as history records, the last Ross design ever used for an original build.

That the course exists at all is a miracle—a few decades’ worth of miracles, in fact.

Few golf-course architects have had a greater impact on American golf than Donald Ross. In addition to the strategic elements he made famous on courses like Pinehurst No. 2 and Aronimink, the volume of his work is staggering: The Donald Ross Society attributes 462 courses to him. The last of his original designs opened in 1949, the year after he died.

Until VinnyLinks. In a career where most of his work occurred in the 1920s and ’30s, VinnyLinks—named for country musician Vince Gill, who annually hosts a charity golf tournament benefiting area youth-golf programs—is a distant Ross outlier.

“This is sort of an aberration,” says Paul Dunn, a Ross historian who included VinnyLinks in his collection of publicly accessible Ross courses, Great Donald Ross Courses You Can Play. “It’s one thing to find the plans; it’s another thing to find the land on which they could be implemented.”

Like any treasure-map story worth its salt, the origins of the drawings are shrouded in mystery. During the 1910s and ’20s, America’s growing middle class intersected with golf’s increasing popularity. Demand exploded for publicly accessible courses. The result was courses built, owned and operated by cities, aka municipal golf. 

Nashville wanted in on the phenomenon, and it called upon Ross. He designed a nine-hole course at Shelby Park in East Nashville, but funding fell through before the build began. Ross’ plans went on ice, his drawings filed away. Nashville eventually came up with the money, but instead of building out Ross’ plans, the city hired Tom Bendelow, who designed Shelby Park’s first nine holes. Bendelow’s course opened in July 1924.

Exactly when Ross played his part in this story is uncertain. The drawings are not dated, and reports differ as to when Ross created them: Dunn traces the drawings to 1919, and articles in The Tennessean newspaper around VinnyLinks’ opening attribute the plans both to 1919 and 1921. A newspaper article from April 1923 recalls an effort to begin construction in 1921, but notes that funding had failed. Even the plans’ museum-style display in nearby Franklin, Tennessee, pegs their origin at “around 1921.”

But 1919 is more likely. Handwritten minutes from the Nashville Parks Board’s July 1919 meeting show that Ross’ top assistant had agreed to come to Nashville to walk the proposed site at Shelby Park, and to draw up plans with his boss. The board’s September 1919 meeting included reference to Ross’ plan for a nine-hole golf course measuring 3,081 yards—the exact sum of the yardages reflected on Ross’ drawings. There’s no way that the board would have known that yardage unless Ross had already drafted the plans.

The September 1919 meeting also foreshadowed the withering of the Ross effort. A group of attending golfers urged the board to begin building the course at Shelby Park immediately, but the board explained that its commitment to another project was too expensive to pay for both it and Ross’ construction job. The golf course would have to wait.

More than likely, then, Ross drew the plans and sent them to Nashville in 1919. And when the city’s money dried up, someone rolled the plans up and tucked them away in a safe—where they remained, forgotten, hidden and lost, for nearly 70 years.

World War II, 11 American presidents and every PGA Tour event ever won by Byron Nelson and Jack Nicklaus came and went while Ross’ drawings withered in the dark. And then, one day in 1988, the safe opened and bathed them in light. The discovery nearly destroyed them forever. 

Metro Parks—Nashville’s parks and recreation department—was moving. Everything either had to move to the new building or get tossed in the garbage. At some point, a city employee opened the safe, grabbed an armful of papers and thrust them upon the first person he could find.

That person was Danny Gibson.

Gibson had lived in Nashville all his life and played golf nearly as long. He’d grown up a pitching wedge away from Bendelow’s layout at Shelby Park, and he won the Tennessee state high school golf championship in 1958 and 1959. After attending Memphis State University on a golf scholarship, Gibson came home and started working at Metro Parks in 1966. A little more than 10 years later, he was the city’s director of golf.

In all, Gibson spent 36 years at Metro Parks. That’s a lot of days to remember—but his memory of that one in 1988 is crystal clear.

“They handed me some stuff and said, ‘Go through this and if there’s anything worth saving, be sure to save it,’” Gibson says. “There was an old scroll they handed to me—you know, they put all these drawings on this paper that’s like onion skin—and I undid the thing, and it said, ‘Shelby Golf Course, by Donald J. Ross.’”

The scroll contained nine pages, each with a separate fairway and green complex sketched on grid paper characteristic of Ross’ designs, along with extensive handwritten notes in the margins. Not many of Gibson’s colleagues at Metro Parks were golfers. Anyone else might have tossed them in the trash. But Gibson knew immediately what he was looking at.

“I said, ‘Good night. These things are priceless!’” Gibson shares. “I knew Donald Ross was the best golf-course architect that had ever lived.”

Dick Horton agreed. 

Horton led the Tennessee Golf Foundation for 35 years. When he retired in 2018, a Nashville sportswriter called him “the godfather of Tennessee golf.” Horton brokered peace between Tennessee’s long-contentious amateur and pro factions, and he grew the Foundation from one with a $3,500 annual budget to a $22 million powerhouse working alongside the Tennessee Golf Association and the Tennessee Section of the PGA. Horton was a visionary. If Gibson was the ideal person to discover the drawings, then Horton was the perfect person for Metro Parks to call about them.

Not long after Gibson’s a-ha moment, Horton’s phone rang. Metro Parks was moving offices, the caller explained, and someone had discovered what looked like old golf-architecture plans.

“Can you tell me a little bit about them?” Horton asked. “Can you see anything on those drawings?”

The Metro Parks caller unrolled the plans. There was a name typed at the top of each page, he said: “Donald J. Ross, Golf Course Architect.”

Horton gasped.

“Oh, those things are really valuable,” Horton said. “You might not want to give those away.”

The caller replied that Metro Parks didn’t need nine raggedy pages of 69-year-old drawings, but Horton could have them if he came and picked them up. 

“It’ll take me 15 minutes to get there,” Horton said, “but I’m on my way.”

Horton had a talent for killing two birds with one stone. One of those birds was finding a local home for the First Tee, the children’s golf program that opened its first chapter in 1997. Another bird was doing something about Riverside Golf Course.

Riverside—coincidentally located in Shelby Park, near the site where Ross first envisioned his nine holes—wasn’t Horton’s responsibility. It was a municipal course, owned by the city. But it was a drag on local golf, and that made it Horton’s concern.

“They had two employees, one with a mower that mowed the entire golf course at one height,” recalls Horton. “They charged a dollar to play, and they had a little Quonset hut that was the golf shop. There was golf on there, but it was no more than a glorified field that was mowed down nicely and had nine flagsticks in it.”

For years, the course had been the municipal golf system’s underfunded odd one out. But Horton saw opportunity. So did Nashville’s parks director, Jim Fyke (who died in 2017). Ross’ newly rediscovered plans were the historic stone to kill both the birds at once.

The two men came up with the idea of a public-private partnership: The Tennessee Golf Foundation would raise the money to finally build out Ross’ plans. The city would provide the land and maintain the golf course for Nashville’s First Tee chapter.

The Riverside site wasn’t big enough to build out the entire nine holes that Ross had designed, but Billy Fuller—the design associate for Bob Cupp, who donated his firm’s services to the project—came up with a solution: Instead of constructing the full golf course, just build Ross’ greens instead. Those were his most genius design element anyway.

At long last, construction began in 1999, roughly 80 years after Ross put pen to paper. For Fuller, it was a chance not only to get inside the mind of one of his profession’s titans, but also to share that genius with children who typically don’t have access to golden-age golf-course architecture.

“The most interesting part of the golden era to me is that it was all about golf,” Fuller says. “And then along came the ’60s, and golf and real estate got married. In 2008, they got a divorce. But from the ’60s to 2008, probably 80 to 90% of the golf courses that got built were more about real estate than golf. When you get to do golf where it’s not about real estate, it’s a totally different mindset. Totally different.”

In May 2001, VinnyLinks opened to great fanfare, unveiling nine golden-age greens to the First Tee kids and the public. Gill was at the opening, of course. So was former President George H.W. Bush (the First Tee’s honorary chairman at the time). Horton took them and their wives on a tour of VinnyLinks in a four-seat golf cart. The Bushes rode in the back seat; Gill’s wife, musician Amy Grant, rode shotgun while Horton drove; Gill stood on the back. Secret Service agents followed in a second cart close behind.

None of the corrupting influences that ended golf-architecture’s golden age touched either end of this course’s 80-years-long journey from concept to construction. Ross drew up his plans for a course in a public park; Fuller built the greens out knowing that this would be the course where thousands of children would hold a golf club for the first time. There is serenity and possibility in this place. It is literally a playground.

For golf-course-architecture historians, VinnyLinks also evinces the artistic growth that Ross underwent in 1919. Today, Ross is most famous for the style of dramatic sloping, undulating greens that make Pinehurst No. 2 his masterpiece. But that was a style into which he grew over decades. At the beginning of Ross’ career, in the earliest years of the 20th century, sand greens were still commonplace in America, making undulations impractical. Small, flat, square-shaped putting surfaces were the norm for Ross and everyone else. 

For Ross, though, that began to change around 1915. Growing grass on greens allowed him to experiment with concepts he’d grown up around in Scotland. He began designing greens that were tilted and elevated with softer edges and, eventually, his trademark contours.

The greens at VinnyLinks show Ross at a period of transition. There are none of the nearly sadistic swales that veterans of Pinehurst know. But many elements are distinctly Ross. At the fourth and sixth greens, mounds stand ready either to repel a shot coming up short or help guide a rolling shot toward the flag. And anyone who has seen Royal Dornoch’s second hole will recognize the scaled-down homage at VinnyLinks’ ninth: a putting surface pushed up 4 feet, sloping sharply downward on all sides, fortified to force a bad chipper into an unhappy game of ping-pong from one side of the green to the other.

“What ended up being on the ground today is as close as we could get it to what Ross designed,” Fuller says. “In some cases, greens might have been smaller on the ground than what was on the plans, just because of the space we had. But, overall, the concepts of what was on those plans got put on those nine holes.”

The course is steeped in simplicity: At a par of 28 (an opening par 4, followed by eight par 3s) and measuring just 1,210 yards, no one would accuse VinnyLinks of being difficult. But that is not the point of a playground. A putter, a wedge and a couple of short irons are more than enough artillery to handle the course, and a player can get around in less than an hour without rushing. Adults play for $7; kids get on for $3. Similar to Ross’ day, the course is walking only. (Motorized vehicles don’t belong on playgrounds.) And because VinnyLinks is built into the side of a large hill between the neighborhood and the river, elevation changes between tee and green inject some element of complexity and challenge.

“It’s just fun,” Fuller says. “I’m a huge fan of golden-era golf design, because those guys formulated the strategy that we’ve all come to appreciate. And a lot of them were, quite honestly, geniuses at it. It’s just fun to get inside their heads and see what they would have done during that era.”

VinnyLinks, First Tee of Nashville

Although VinnyLinks deserves one, not all treasure hunts have a happy ending. The 20-year-old clubhouse has its share of maintenance issues. So does the course. Remember, it’s a municipal course and it must wrestle against every other public service for the city’s dollars. The precious greens are now a tad bumpy, and their edges have shrunk inward from Ross’ original design.

But mistaking VinnyLinks’ scruff for an ungratifying conclusion would miss the point entirely. The course itself was never the reward. Through the First Tee, VinnyLinks brings hundreds of children to the game every year. An untold number of them never would have held a golf club otherwise, much less learned to putt on Donald Ross greens. 

Like a winding putt across those contoured complexes, the dream that birthed this place hit just the right spots to take just the right turns at just the right times: Gibson, who recognized Ross’ plans when few others would have; Horton, with the vision and connections to turn the drawings into something bigger than a golf course; Fuller, with the skill to bring the drawings to life after eight decades of sleep; and the city’s children, thousands of whom over nearly 20 years have made those efforts worth it.

One of the latest children to experience this gift is now on the ninth green. No older than 10, the boy watches as his long putt navigates the spine bisecting Ross’ creation. The putt falls and, for a few seconds, the sound of children shouting—the world’s purest sound of joy—fills the air.

This is where the treasure lies.