Where To Golf Next

Becken marks Ross bucket list complete

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As far as golf goes, Brad Becken hasn’t won any majors and he’s never competed on the PGA Tour

As far as golf goes, Brad Becken hasn’t won any majors. He’s never competed on the PGA Tour. In fact, he carries a Handicap Index well north of scratch. In summation, Becken is as darn near as unrecognizable as a cart concession peddler on the local muni. 

Except he holds one impressive accomplishment that seems like it belongs in a utopian golf state. Because it darn near feels imperceptible.

By the end of 2017, the then 70-year-old had played every Donald Ross course in existence. That’s right. All 359 of them, give or take a few that have closed down since the quest began.  

“With respect to the Ross courses, he became possessed,” said Mark Larson, a frequent playing partner who met Becken about six years ago. “I thought at times I would have to take him to an exorcist.”

Becken doesn’t disagree. 

The tale of Becken’s odyssey, strangely enough, had only started nine years ago. The former Irving Trust Co. and Goldman Sachs vice president transitioned into retirement circa 2005 and actually stumbled upon the obsession by accident.

His epiphany was analogous to walking into a backyard one spring day and suddenly noticing an unplanned oak sapling taking root. Sort of like a how-about-that moment. 

In terms of Ross courses, Becken’s eureka flash became — to paraphrase “The Naked Lunch,” William Burroughs' classic novel — his frozen moment when he saw what was at the end of the fork (sans drug-induced state, of course).  

It all came to fruition shortly after he and his wife, Ann, moved back to Chapel Hill, N.C., in 2010. He had spent the past 25 years in Los Angeles tending to Goldman Sachs’ financial clients. While there, Becken took a greater interest in golf and joined the Los Angeles Country Club. Eventually he became a member at Chapel Hill Country Club. 

During a round at Chapel Hill C.C. with a friend he incidentally met at L.A.C.C., Becken asked the head pro if there were other enjoyable courses to play in the neighboring area. In what would turn out to be a twist of clairvoyance, the friend made an idle comment about the existence of a Donald Ross Society. Becken had never heard of it.

As it turned out, Hope Valley Country Club, a pristine 18-hole Ross layout close to Durham, was recommended. To that point, Becken had only played two Ross courses in his life. 

“I remember afterward, the pro telling me, ‘If you liked Hope Valley, there are a lot more [Ross courses] in N.C,’” said the soft-spoken Becken.

So, without any ambition or pretense of tackling all the Ross courses, Becken sought out Ross layouts. Becken was enjoying them so much that he found himself venturing into Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. 

As a side note, some reports have insinuated there could be more than 400 Ross designs, but because he was designing in the early 1900s, not all reports and drawings were preserved. Some presumably were lost. Additionally, some courses underwent renovations and newer designers took credit. 

That’s part of the reason why the Donald Ross Society was established in 1989. Its mission focuses on maintaining the integrity and original design of all Ross courses, especially those that undergo renovations or restorations. 

By 2015, Becken realized he had played about 225 Ross courses. That’s when his oak-sapling-how-about-that discovery hit him like an anvil. Why not try to play them all, he thought?

“Once he grabs ahold of something, he doesn’t let go,” said Mike Fay, who co-founded the Donald Ross Society in 1989. 

Said Becken: “Up until then, I had never really contemplated trying to play them all. I was having fun and the more I saw, the more I liked, so I kept at it.”

When Becken started in 2010, Fay had already knocked off between 200-225 Ross designs — over the course of many years. Since Hope Valley, Becken reached that number within five

By this time, Becken had taken to Ross designs like a med student in residency. He studied and absorbed everything he could. Ross trademarks, such as routing to green complexes to bunker depths, consumed him. He devised methodical plans to knock off the rest of the remaining courses. And the travel strategy comprised no trips more than three to four days at a time. 

Brad Becken, current president of the Donald Ross Society
Brad Becken, current president of the Donald Ross Society, played his 359th Ross design in 2017, at the time thinking he had checked them all off his list. Ten more soon were discovered — and Becken played them too.

First, he got buy-in from his wife, Ann. 

“She was very supportive,” said Becken. “I don’t know if that means she was glad to get me out of the house.”

Second, he wanted to ensure he’d continue enjoying the experiences. The fun factor came first. It didn’t matter that his handicap hovered around 20, either.

“He’s fun to play golf with because he’s doesn’t care and he takes nothing seriously,” said Fay, adding that he has played about 15 rounds with Becken. “He takes a good look at the grounds. He’s become more and more of an expert on plans.” 

Recognizing Ross patterns became unavoidable. He wanted to remember the architecture on each hole and often carried a Nikon camera, always evident in his front pocket during swings. He said he likely has amassed more than 10,000 photos, which he often compares to drawings.

Along the journey he accumulated buddies and met Donald Ross Society members. Larson, a Ross Society board member for three years, recalled meeting Becken at a Philadelphia golf event. They developed such a close friendship that he joined Becken on between 15 and 20 trips.

“There were no limits on how far we’d drive to some places. Remote locations,” said Larson, emphasizing remote. “Both Brad and I are at points in our lives where our passion for the game eclipse our proclivity. Both Brad and I absolutely love to play and neither one of us has any unrealistic expectations of what their game is going to give them. I always know I’m going to laugh my butt off with Brad.” 

Upon introduction on the phone, Larson — a Pittsburgh suburb native — burst into a story that would exemplify Becken’s mission. 

On one trip, he met Becken in Tarrytown, N.Y.; they had dinner and then met in the hotel lobby by 5 a.m. the next day. They high-tailed it to northeastern Pennsylvania, got in 18 holes, and then drove to another course in New Jersey, where they hoofed it. Then came the two-hour drive back to Tarrytown.

“I’d be dropping dead by day’s end,” laughed Larson about some of the trips. 

“He’s the kind of guy who would play three courses in one day if he could,” said Fay.  

Without question, the travel aspect required commitment. The 10 Ross courses in Canada posed a challenge, for they were spread out. It took Becken a minimal four trips to the Great White North in order to cross those off the list. There were two in Nova Scotia about 100 miles apart, another in New Brunswick that required a fair amount of travel, three in Winnipeg and the rest in Ontario.

“These were all not next door,” laughed Becken.

“Most people aren’t aware there are even Ross courses in Canada,” Fay quipped.

The farthest course he drove to? That would be Malone Golf Club, an original nine-hole layout by Ross. (Robert Trent Jones eventually added the other nine holes). The course is located in Malone, N.Y., near the U.S.-Canadian border in upstate New York where signs were posted in English and French. Becken estimated it took about 13 hours from Chapel Hill to the course.

“There was no good way to get there,” said Becken. “I drove to Albany and then the next day I had another three-hour drive. You go to Plattsburgh, if you know where that is, and you turn left. But it was definitely worth it.”

For the most part, Becken would play two-thirds of the courses as a single player. He would pair up with members from a particular course or with those he met from the Donald Ross Society. He would try not impose on weekend play, knowing they were the busiest times for most clubs.  

Of course, there were other challenges. Some clubs were exclusive. Aronimink Golf Cluband Gulph Mills Golf Club, both in Philadelphia, and Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, weren’t easy to get on. Gulf Stream Golf Club in Delray Beach, Fla., proved to be tough, too.  

“To do them all is tough,” said Fay. “There are about a half dozen that are really tough nuts to crack. Seminole (Golf Club) in North Palm Beach (Fla.) is the toughest of the bunch.”

The Chapel Hill C.C. pro had former assistants across the land and they helped. Most courses were welcoming when they found out about his goal. 

Finally, in September of 2017, Becken achieved what was thought unachievable: he played Rolling Rock Club in Laughlintown, Pa., his final course. Or so he thought. 

Shortly after attaining the goal, he saw there was a book by author Chris Buie claiming there were 10 more Ross courses no one knew about. The Donald Ross Society confirmed it.

“I thought I was done,” said Becken laughing. So what’d he do? He assiduously played the next batch of 10, finishing at Malone Golf Club, and bringing the total to 369. 

“Brad saw the book and that there were several more Ross courses added and — I’ll never forget it — he said, ‘Oh [expletive]! I need to get these scheduled!’ I just laughed,” said Larson.

All in all, Becken wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything. Asked if there were any unknown gems that surprised him, he spoke rationally.  

“I played Seminole and it’s out of this world, but you expect it to be out of this world,” said Becken. “Like Oak Hill or Oakland Hills. If you walk off thinking these courses are magnificent, that’s what you would have expected anyway.

“But a couple that fell into the ‘Are you kidding me?’ category were White Bear Yacht Club in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and Glens Falls Country Club near Saratoga Springs, New York. I thought, ‘How come more people don’t know about these? Both are exceptional.’ 

"I remember talking to the pro at Glens Falls afterward and I said, ‘Where has this been on the list?’ Meaning left off the magazine golf lists.”

Becken doesn’t deny the passion he has. More than anything, he embraces it. So much so that amid the journey, he joined the Donald Ross Society in 2012 before taking a board seat in 2015. He now currently serves as its president until October. 

“When you get to a certain point, it doesn’t matter how hard it is, you’re just not going to stop,” said Larson. “It’s like getting to within a 100 yards of Mount Everest at the peak. No matter how hard it is, you’re going that extra 100 yards.”

Looking back, it’s been a long time since his friend casually mentioned there was a Donald Ross Society. Becken has come a long way since that idle conversation.   

“Brad has seen more Donald Ross courses than Ross saw,” said Larson. “Because there are about a third of his courses that Ross never visited.”

On a contextual level, it certainly makes one think. And what if more Ross courses happen to pop up? 

The answer is easy. 

Becken will just shrug and play them. 


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