An Innocent Abroad
A firecracker from Belfast, Jess Ross is driving on the wrong side of the road and the right side of the fairway at the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur
By Michael Bamberger
September 11, 2023
EXTON, Pa.—Nobody would call this particular nook of bucolic Chester County, in the immediate vicinity of exit 312 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a garden spot, but Jessica Ross, one of the 132 competitors in this week’s USGA Women’s Mid-Amateur, seemed to like it well enough. Ms. Ross, from greater Belfast, was staying at the Hilton Garden Inn, as were some of her fellow competitors. The course they were playing, the North Course at Stonewall, was about 10 miles away, the last half of the ride on a narrow, hilly country road.
We were sitting in the hotel lobby, and Jess, a 28-year-old chemical engineer, had just finished the first competitive round of her life in the United States. She had shot 71, level par, in the first round of the 36-hole qualifier for the 64-player match-play portion of the competition, open to women 25 and older,
I asked her about her driving.
“My driving driving or my golf-course driving?” she volleyed back. Jess is a firecracker with a master’s degree who only plays golf on the weekend. She plays on Saturdays and practices on Sundays. Until I used the phrase “customer golf,” she had never heard of it.
She is a manager for AstraZeneca, the international pharmaceutical giant, and she doesn’t play any customer golf. Her job is to oversee and troubleshoot technical aspects of the company’s manufacturing. It’s way beyond my paygrade and English degree. Her work takes her around the world. She has been to San Diego, but the closest she got to golf there was to buy a jumper in the Torrey Pines pro shop. On a trip to Bloomington, Ind., the daytime highs were still in the single digits. She got a week off to play in this USGA event.
The original Stonewall course was designed by Tom Doak. The North Course, also designed by Doak, opened for play in 2003, 10 years after the original. I first walked the property in the early 1990s, when it was still farmland, and knew well the visionary behind it, the late Jack May, a Philadelphia lawyer. One of May’s goals in life was to play golf “unimpeded.” That is, fast, never waiting on another group. Jess would have liked Jack’s commitment to fast play, but not his smoking. She’s a total fitness person. I once flew through a wild storm from Philadelphia to Augusta, Ga., in a small private plane with a single pilot. We were the only two passengers on board. I remember thinking if a storm-induced crash didn’t claim me, the second-hand smoke from Jack would.
“There was a sign on the 1st tee that said your allotted time is four hours and 40 minutes,” Jess said. She was shocked. For a threesome, on a 6,000-yard course? At her home course, the Clandeboye Golf Club, foursomes get around in 3:30 or less. At the Mid-Am, some of the players are taking caddies. Jess prefers to push her own trolley. That is, push cart.
Jess’s handicap is plus-5, and back home she plays from the same tees the men do. Few can beat her. She grew up about 10 miles from Rory McIlroy, six years her elder. She has met him, once, for a nanosecond. As a junior golfer, she often saw Rory’s instructor, Michael Bannon, from Bangor Golf Club. “He’s lovely,” Jess said. She was one of the best junior golfers in her district, but she never considered the idea of playing collegiately in the U.S. “I wanted to go to university,” she said. That is, be a fulltime student. She went to Queen’s, a noted science-research university in Belfast. She got her master’s in five years. The whole family has the smart gene.
Back to the driving. Which did I want to know about, driving with two hands on the club or (ideally) two hands on the wheel? Her bag is a mix of Titleist and Ping clubs that she buys herself. Her American hire-car was from Avis. Her golfing federation was helping with some of the expenses of her trip, the hotel and the air travel.
We started with golf-course driving.
“I drove the ball well,” Jess said. “Kept it out of the rough.” She flies it about 210 yards, but that’s one of her few golf-swing numbers she does know. She’s a fitness person, a runner, a hiker, outdoorsy in every way. She wears a Garmin watch. But in her golf, she’s not a TrackMan gal. Like a lot of her countrymen, she’s a feel player.
We moved on to driving driving.
“My driving—” There was a pause. “My driving I guess has been fine.”
This visit to the United States is Jess’s third, after San Diego and Bloomington. If you, as an American driver, have ever driven in the United Kingdom, you know there’s an adjustment period, getting used to driving on the wrong side of the road.
There’s a portrait of Jack May on a clubhouse wall at Stonewall. Jack and I had a mutual friend, Fred Anton, and Fred once looked at the May portrait and said, “Eyes are to a portrait what greens are to a golf course.” Jess understood the insight immediately. If either fails, the whole work fails. Jess said the undulating greens on the Hanse course were demanding and excellent and the course’s main defense, in the absence of wind.
We decided to drive over to the golf course, for a quick look-see. Jessica Ross from Northern Ireland knows a lot of things that you and I will never know, but she had never heard of the golf-course architect Donald Ross. We googled the phrase “famous golf course architects.” Donald Ross was batting first.
With Jess behind the wheel, we drove by Ludwig’s Oyster Bar, where Jack May got Tom Doak to sign the contract to build his first private course. I witnessed this rushed moment in golf history. We turned off a commercial road and onto a country road. Jess’s driving was confident and excellent. We drove by farms. Many farms in Pennsylvania bear signs with Biblical quotes. We went by one that read Trust Not in Riches. We drove by St. Andrew’s Lane and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.
We drove down the long Stonewall driveway, bisecting the pristine and empty Doak course. We parked in the small club parking lot. Later, we saw a woman, one of the competitors, putting her clubs in her car. I asked Jess, out of the woman’s earshot, if she thought the woman had broken 80. About one-quarter of the field did not. “Based on body language, I’d say not,” Jess said.
The clubhouse was once a milking station on a dairy farm. “People were saying what a small clubhouse it is, but to me it’s big,” Jess said. It’s one of the most charming clubhouses you could ever hope to see. Jack May’s portrait greets you upon arrival.
Jess looked at the portrait. She looked at Jack’s eyes. She said, “I see what you mean.”
Jack, running a big law firm, played a lot of customer golf.
“My dad has always said golf will help you out in your career, but I have yet to see that day,” Jess said. “I think that’s a good thing, that your career is based solely on your work, and not based on your friends.”
She’s an amazing young person. When she walks, her hands swing so freely.
On the trip back to the hotel, she made a driving confession to me.
“I was driving along my first day and there was a car behind me and it started flashing its lights,” she said, “but I didn’t know what that meant so I kept driving.
“Then the siren came on and I thought, ‘Oh, no, what have I done?’ So I pulled over to the side of the road.”
And that’s when she realized that the vehicle behind her, with its flashing lights and blaring siren, was an ambulance, not a police vehicle.
Jess qualified easily for the match play portion of the event, which is expected to conclude on Thursday, same day as the men’s USGA Mid-Am. The winner of that event gets a lot of nice tournament invitations, including one to the following year’s Masters. The winner of the women’s USGA Mid-Am gets a lot of nice tournament invitations, though not to the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. But you get an invitation to the next U.S. Women’s Open, which in 2024 will be played down the road, at Lancaster Country Club.
There’s a Hilton Garden Inn near LCC, right off I-283. But Jess Ross (below, with the author) knows what all golfers know: Don’t get ahead of yourself. Jess shot a second-round 79 on Sunday, putting her right in the middle of the 64-player field for the match-play portion. More chances for driving fun.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]
Michael Bamberger was briefly a caddie on the PGA and European Tours, invented a golf club (the E-Club) that Lee Trevino used in his final British Open, spent 22 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated and joined the Firepit Collective in May 2022.
email: [email protected]