In his seven decades as golf ’s most prolific architect, Robert Trent Jones, Sr (1906-2000) logged an estimated eight million miles, created or remodelled more than 350 courses, including more courses for national championships than any other golf architect. The list of just his US Open venues includes Atlanta Athletic Club, Baltusrol, Bellerive, Broadmoor, Congressional, Hazeltine, Oak Hill, Oakland Hills, Olympic Club, Country Club of Rochester, and Southern Hills.
His courses, which embodied the three cardinal virtues of beauty, challenge, and flexibility, endure in some 35 American states and over a dozen countries on every continent except Australasia and Antarctica. ‘Trent’, a name he chose to distinguish himself from Robert Tyre (Bobby) Jones, was a small and gentle man who was capable of near-sadistic use of huge bunkers, ponds, creeks, and undulating greens in order to defend his courses from onslaught not just by the world’s greatest players during the US Open but also from the evolution of modern golf equipment and the golf ball. But Jones was dedicated to the proposition that all golfers are not equal. By creating his distinctive elongated ‘runway’ tees, some as long as 100 yards, he made it possible for average golfers to play the same course.
Jones worked on courses that have held the PGA Championship 17 times and on venues for the World Cup six times. He designed Valderrama in Spain, the site of the 1997 Ryder Cup matches, and the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club course in Virginia, the site of three President’s Cup matches. In the late 1940s, he worked with Bobby Jones on a redesign of some holes at Augusta, famously turning the sixteenth into one of the world’s greatest and most beautiful one-shotters.
In addition, Jones’s legacy rests with his two sons, Robert (‘Bob’ or ‘Bobby’) Trent Jones Jr (born 1939) and Rees Jones (born 1941), both among the world’s preeminent golf course architects. Together the three form ‘the first family of American golf.’
Hansen: What makes your father not just a pioneer but perhaps the pioneer of modern American golf course architecture?
Bob Jones: My father was a pioneer in several aspects of his work. The first was that he came into the field at a time when the country was suffering through the Great Depression and he worked on public golf courses that were part of the New Deal public works programmes in upper New York State. So he was a pioneer in the sense that he was helping to open up the game to the public and move away from the old school of golf, which had essentially been for the social and sporting elite. That pioneering spirit continued after World War II. You can see it reflected in several of my dad’s architectural features, including his invention of the elongated or runway tee, which he designed not only to meet the challenge of the players who were hitting the ball farther – the experts – but also beginners, giving them forward tees, democratising the game.
Rees Jones: Most of the courses prior to World War II had very small tee boxes. Dad initiated the aircraft carrier tees. He would tell the story of building Peachtree in Atlanta, which he did with Bobby Jones and which was where he inaugurated his long tee concept. He told Robert Woodruff, the head of Coca-Cola, who was backing the course’s development: “I’ll bet you can cut a shot a hole off your score by playing the regular versus the back tees.” So Woodruff played one round of golf from the back tees and then another from the forward tees and he did shoot 18 shots better. Dad made courses more flexible. That was his concept.
Your father’s mantra was that a golf hole should be “a hard par but an easy bogey.” Was that a pioneering concept in golf?
Bob: Essentially he was a strategic architect, not a penal architect as the Europeans had been. The first European architect in the US had been Donald Ross. Ross was himself a pioneer in many ways, certainly in how he laid out so many courses, in which he came up with simple plans that were then carried out by others on sites that he often never saw himself. Ross’s courses tended to be penal; the ball when it landed might be rejected from his crowned greens. He also designed deep bunkers from which one might have to play out sideways occasionally, whereas my father’s philosophy was to let everybody have a good time, from average player to accomplished player.
On the other hand, your father was also the architect who set the standard for how tough golf needed to be on major tournament championship courses, notably the US Open?
Rees: Oakland Hills in 1951 was really the first course that was redesigned to host the US Open. My father knew that it had to be refurbished because it had lost a lot of its character and nuances through the neglect caused by the Depression and Second World War. It had to be brought back like we later brought back Bethpage Black for the 2002 Open. Both had to be updated to make sure they were rigorous examinations. The 1951 Open at Oakland Hills was the first time a course was made into a truly premier examination, one that would crown the absolutely best player, which it did in Ben Hogan. Hogan may have brought the monster, as he called it, to its knees, but his winning score was still seven over par.
Not just Hogan, but didn’t many of the professionals of that era decry your father’s courses as too harsh?
Bob: The pros were more vocal in those days; they were not constrained by PGA rules and etiquette. Some didn’t like all of his work, partly because he was seeing where the game was headed, to longer tee shots, higher and more controlled shotmaking. So Dad pioneered different design defences based on what was actually happening in the game. Rees and I worked as boys at Baltusrol in 1954, measuring the tee shots on the long par five seventeenth. Standing inside the ropes we charted the pattern of where tee shots landed and ran out. Dad wanted this data so he could set the bunkers for future championship courses. He tended to bracket bunkers around the landing area to punish better players or force them to make intelligent decisions about where to place the ball.
Did he actually make golf more difficult for everybody, not just the touring pros?
Rees: One thing that Dad did that I’ve followed in designing for championship courses is he created a very rigorous examination for the elite golfers but then by cutting the rough, widening the fairways, and taking the speed out of the greens, he could give the course back to the members as an enjoyable facility. Of course, a lot of these courses today are hard for everyone.
Bob: He wanted the game to be fun for everyone, but he knew that where you got the most publicity was championship golf. So he could remake a US Open course, or make a new course that would host the Open such as Bellerive or Hazeltine, very hard. He was definitely into hard. He made all the design elements tough and challenging.
And he was current with the relevant sciences and technologies of his time – and even thinking ahead with some of them, such as agronomy, civil engineering, and construction?
Bob: He taught me how to use a slide rule back at a time before computers. He was capable of doing all the elements of golf course architecture, not just the fun part that the golf pros of today like to do. Dad was able to do the technical parts. He did the hydraulics; he could calculate water flow and drainage. When first explaining how to route a course, he’d show me a topographical map and say: “See the Vs? Avoid the Vs because that’s where the water runs. The water runs the opposite direction of the Vs.” My father also recognised the advances in the science of equipment and agronomy and was somewhat farsighted in using them. When Spyglass Hill first opened, it was criticised by some people, including Jack Nicklaus, for being too hard. Twenty years later, the pros who played in the Pebble Beach AT&T would all say they absolutely adored the course and that it suited their game, as they were hitting the ball much farther. In effect, the game had caught up with his design!
Your father studied landscape architecture, civil engineering, and agronomy at Cornell University in the late 1920s. Previously, I wonder if any golf course designers had any formal training in agronomy or turfgrasses?
Bob: My sense is no. Men like Old Tom Morris and Donald Ross knew their grasses by working as keepers of the greens. But they had little if any formal training. My father knew his grasses. He would say to me “That’s a German bent” or “That’s a fescue. You see how thin and wispy it is.” I went with him once to Tifton, Georgia, to the USDA agricultural station, and he pointed out the different plots where the USDA was hybridising grasses. He was always fascinated by the new things that might be available. He would take risks and use some of them, sometimes with sad results.
Didn’t he introduce some of the new American turfgrasses into Europe?
Bob: Yes, I helped him with Sotogrande and he used Penncross bent on the greens and one of the new Tifton Bermudas on the fairways. He arranged to carry sprigs of some Tifton grasses into Hawaii, which to this day has a strict agricultural code. He got the Pan Am pilot to carry it through for us, by offering him a game! That’s how the Tif grasses got into Hawaii in the 1960s.
Rees: Dad was also the first golf architect to really promote moving away from the old style greens where the soil would be pushed up and the greens made somewhat rounded to construct a surface that promoted the drainage of water via runoff. His disdain for push up greens helped lead to the USGA Green Section specifications for how best to design a green.
Wasn’t your father also a pioneer in the extent to which he was willing to travel?
Bob: My dad liked to travel. He was restless. As a boy, he got on a ship and emigrated to America. To him travelling was getting out from under the Depression and the oppression of earning a living and being in one town. Working early in his career for the Canadian architect Stanley Thompson, he travelled quite a bit, going out to where Thompson was building courses in western Canada, at Banff in the Rockies and Capilano outside Vancouver. Dad enjoyed a free trip on the Canadian Pacific Railway. He went wherever Thompson asked him to go, not only to do work but collect the money.
Rees: Dad always talked about how happy he was when the DC-3 came into being, because when he was doing Peachtree with Bobby Jones he’d take the train there and back. It would take a week to ten days. The plane made him more efficient.
Bob: With the DC-3 and the Boeing jets that became available, Dad was able to expand what had been a regional business, one that had mostly focused on up and down the East Coast, into a genuine national business. In the early 1950s I flew with him to Chicago on a DC-3 and then got on the Rock Island Rocket and took a train to Colorado Springs, where he was working on Broadmoor Golf Club. Then Juan Trippe, the founder and president of Pan American Airlines, became a friend of my father’s. Dad worked with Trippe on a course on Eleuthera in the Bahamas. There was a project in Bogota, Columbia, resulting in El Rincon. He also went down to Brasilia. He didn’t go outside of North and South America, not yet, because that’s where Pan Am went, until the sixties, when he went to Europe, first working on Sotogrande in Spain. He himself did very little work in Asia. He preferred Europe. He was comfortable there.
By the 1960s the name of the designer of a golf course became an important part of the industry for the first time. Do you think the development of a golf course ‘signature’ is associated primarily with your father?
Bob: Yes, I think so. Golf architecture per se would really have only been known within the sport, and particularly at the high levels of the sport. People would have referred to Montclair, Winged Foot, or Garden City. They wouldn’t have been known as ‘designed by.’ I would say what actually transformed golf architecture into a recognised art form was the article that appeared in 1951 in the New Yorker by Herbert Warren Wind, in which he portrayed my father as a an artist of a sort. Now for the first time the creator, the golf architect, was seen as important, because he was taking defence for the game. After Wind’s article, not only was my father something of a celebrity but it was perceived that what he did to design and set up a course was much like a general under siege: he had to create tactics and strategies to reveal the best players in the game, not simply to do the greenkeeping.
What about your father as a businessman?
Rees: Dad was probably preeminent at selling and promoting himself. He gave golf architects an identity. Most of the architects of the golden age of golf course design prior to World War II – Ross, Tillinghast, MacKenzie – got their identity as architectural greats after their lives were over. Dad managed to get his identity early in his career, as a result of his own actions.
Bob: He very good with the press. He was friends with them. He played golf with them, loved the camaraderie, the repartee. This was not the Internet world. You played golf and you had a few drinks. My father didn’t drink much but he would hang out with the leading journalists like Will Grimsley of the Associated Press. Dad would take him out on the course and show him what he was doing. The writers liked him and wrote about him.
Was he more artist or businessman?
Bob: Dad always wanted to be a businessman. He was not really. My mother used to say, he’s really not a businessman, because to be a CEO is really fairly boring: laborious accounting, running numbers, negotiating deals, talking tough, making hard decisions. My father was much more the creative person who could foresee that tourism was going to take off, that you could build great golf courses in unlikely places. He wanted to invest in Europe, and did, not always with good results. He invested in Hawaii. He wanted to be a businessman because he wanted to own something, not just be a servant in the sense of being a caddy, which he started out as, or being a golf pro, which he had also been, or just an architect. He wanted to be equal to those for whom he built courses. Dad always emphasised that business was the highest form of social status in America. He didn’t care about politics. He started out a Roosevelt Democrat, then easily became an Eisenhower Republican. Whoever was in power, he was his friend.
As pioneering as your father was in those many different aspects, at heart in many ways was he not also a traditionalist in his views on the truest character for a golf landscape?
Bob: “Follow the land, follow the land.” That was always his mantra. “Don’t change the land.” When he learned how to design, during the Depression, there was no money, and the technology wasn’t there to do much even if the money had been. So the routing was everything; the land itself was supreme. Now, for much of our modern era, the land has been nothing. You wanted to build a golf course in the swamps, you cleaned up the swamps. You wanted a mountain course, you moved the mountains. It was a completely different approach, almost the reverse. The new environmentalism of the past twenty years has slowly been changing that approach, fortunately. Today, more and more designers are going back to the old ways, to the principle that the land should be first and last. I think my father and the other great golf architects who came before him would want us to do our utmost to enhance their concept that a golf course grows out of the land. Golf should never be rudely imposed upon it.
James Hansen is Professor of History and Director of the Honors College at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. The author of ten books and countless articles, his 2005 book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, spent three weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list and has been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Turkish, and Croatian. Jim’s first round on a Robert Trent Jones course came in a junior tournament played at Otter Creek Golf Club in Columbus, Indiana, in July 1969, the same month of Armstrong’s Moon landing.
This article first appeared in issue 16 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2009.