Robert Trent Jones Sr. forever changed course design, and his two sons continued his legacy with their own remarkable careers.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of NCGA Golf
By James R. Hansen
In the history of golf-past, present, and future-it is unlikely that there will ever be a family of golf architects more productive, more distinguished, or more historically significant than the family of Robert Trent Jones: Robert Trent Jones Sr. (1906-2000), and his two sons Robert Trent Jones Jr. (born 1939) and Rees Jones (born 1941).
Together the three Joneses constitute a veritable dynasty of golf architects, with a whopping 173 years of golf course design and construction between them: 70 years for Trent Sr., from 1930 to his death in 2000; 53 years for Bob Jr. (Bobby), from the time he started working in his dad’s business in 1962 to the present; and 50 years for Rees, from the time he began assisting his father in 1965 to the present.
In those 17 decades the Joneses created nearly 900 golf courses, located in more than 50 different countries on six of the world’s seven continents (minus only Antarctica), and in every U.S. state but two (somehow missing Mississippi and South Dakota). With a typical golf course averaging some 150 acres, those 900 courses constitute 150,000 acres, or 235 square miles, of golf courses designed by Jones and sons, the equivalent of 178 Central Parks or six Disney Worlds. To design all of those courses, Trent, Bobby and Rees logged more than 15 million miles, or 602 trips around the earth.
And what golf courses did they design. More than 100 national or international championships have been played on courses that one of the Joneses designed or redesigned. The list includes 27 U.S. Opens, on such courses as:
- Atlanta Athletic Club (Highlands)
- Baltusrol (Lower)
- Congressional (pictured below)
- Hazeltine National
- Oak Hill (East)
- Oakland Hills
- Olympic Club (Lake)
- Southern Hills
- Bethpage (Black)
- Torrey Pines (South)
The latest addition in the summer of 2015 when the U.S. Open was played at Bobby’s Chambers Bay (pictured above), on Puget Sound in the state of Washington. The Jones portfolio also includes 20 PGA Championships, seven Ryder Cups (with two more on the docket), four Presidents Cups, two Walker Cups, a redesign of Augusta National, and such assorted events as the World Cup, U.S. Amateur, U.S. Women’s Open and U.S. Senior Open.
When Trent died just short of his 94th birthday in June 2000, 44 of his courses had been ranked in Golf Digest’s “100 Greatest Golf Courses” listing, the most of any architect ever. Not just products of their father’s influence but outstanding creative architects in their own right, Bobby and Rees contributed outstanding, highly distinguished courses of their own. In 10 different countries Bobby built courses that Golf Digest came to rank as the best course in the land; and nine of his courses earned distinction of being ranked in Golf Magazine’s U.S. Top 100. In the building of the Jones reputation, Rees did more than hold his own. For his redesign of courses in preparation for major championships, he earned the moniker “The Open Doctor,” originally given to his father for his revolutionary redesign of Oakland Hills Country Club (South Course) in Michigan for the 1951 U.S. Open. Rees applied his astute remodeling skills to seven U.S. Open venues (including Bethpage Black, pictured below), eight PGA Championship courses, five Ryder Cup and two Walker Cup sites, as well as the Presidents Cup at the Royal Montreal Golf Club. Other courses that he has redesigned served as FedEx Cup Championship sites, including East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, the permanent site of the PGA Tour’s season-ending Tour Championship.
Such numbers are astounding, truly never to be matched in the world of golf. But as fantastic as the numbers are, they do not do justice to the epic story of the Jones family and the historic significance of its three lifetimes of monumental achievement in the world of golf.
Jones Sr. was a 6-year-old emigre from England in 1912 who established himself in working-class East Rochester, New York. He managed in the 1920s to get into Cornell University without a high-school diploma, and developed a self-styled curriculum that trained him in landscape architecture. After surviving financial misery and spiritual exasperation during the Great Depression of the 1930s, he established a successful golf course design business. Following World War II, Jones boldly remade the face of modern golf throughout the U.S. and the world with his innovative design of championship golf courses.
In all his efforts “Mr. Jones” was not just a pioneer, but perhaps the premiere pioneer of American golf course architecture. As oldest son Bobby explains, “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 programs in upstate New York. 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. 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 professionals-but also the beginners, by giving them forward tees, thus democratizing the game.”
Jones Sr.’s design philosophy was that every good golf hole should be “a difficult par but an easy bogey.” It was Jones Sr. who set the standard for just how tough golf needed to be on major tournament championship courses, notably the U.S. Open.
“Michigan’s Oakland Hills in 1951 was really the first time a course was redesigned to host the U.S. Open,” Rees recalls. “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 finally brought “the monster,” as he called it, to his knees, but his winning score was still 7 -over par.”
Not just Hogan, but many of the golf professionals of the 1950s and 1960s decried Jones’ courses as too harsh. “The pros were more vocal in those days,” Bobby explains, “They were not constrained by PGA rules and etiquette to always be polite. They said what they thought. Some didn’t like all of his work, partly because he was seeing where the game was headed, to longer and longer tee shots, to higher and more controlled shotmaking.”
But Trent wanted his courses to be enjoyable to average players. “One thing that Dad did that I’ve followed in designing championship courses,” Rees asserts, “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.”
As pioneering as Jones Sr. was in defining the shape of the modern golf course, at heart he was in many ways a traditionalist, especially when it came to his views on the truest character for a golf landscape.
“‘Follow the land, follow the land’-that was always my father’s mantra,” Bobby remembers. ‘”Don’t change the land.’ Back when he learned how to design golf courses, 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. Today, more and more of us are going back to the old ways, to the principle that the land should be first and last.”
For his many pioneering contributions to golf course architecture, Robert Trent Jones Sr. became, in 1987, the first architect inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He was also a founding member and an early president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. He was the first recipient of the ASGCA’s Donald Ross Award, an award that Rees also received, in 2013.
Thirty-three of the 182 current active members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, or nearly 20%, are offspring of the Jones architecture tree. Many times during his career, and especially in its closing years, Mr. Jones would be asked, “Of all the golf courses you have designed, which one is your favorite?” Peachtree? Firestone? Mauna Kea? Spyglass? Valderrama? The people asking the question delighted in showing off their knowledge of the names of his great courses. They tried to guess which one he would designate as his favorite, or perhaps was most proud of designing. Would he answer, as other architects had, that “just as a parent must be with his children, I like them all equally?” But that was never Mr. Jones’ answer. The answer he gave was truer to his character, his ambitions, and his lifelong dreams: “The next one.”
JAMES R. HANSEN is a Professor of History at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. The author of 11 books, his most recent,” A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Jones Sr. and the Making of Modern Golf” (Gotham Penguin, 2014) earned the prestigious Herbert Warrant Wind Award from the United States Golf Association for the year’s best golf book.[box]
Trent, Bobby and Rees Jones were inducted into the NCGA Hall of Fame in February. Bobby and Rees reflected on their careers:
What is a Robert Trent Jones Sr. course?
Bobby: He transformed the game of golf after World War II. He also added water features, especially ponds, on the back nine of Augusta National at that time. He realized that the new equipment, especially with the advancement of the sand wedge, that a bunker was no longer a punishing shot. Adding water hazards was quite unique at that time.
Rees: He built so many it’s hard to define it as one type of golf course, but I think what dad really did was start runway tees as a trend. They were for every type of golfer. Before that, we had just a single tee box. Dad really created multiple options with a runway tee, so that everybody could find a comfortable challenge.
What is a Robert Trent Jones Jr. course?
Bobby: I like to include both the aerial game and the ground game. We’re strategic architects. I like to think that we give everyone options to play at each course that we design. Every site determines the concept of our philosophy.
What is a Rees Jones course?
Rees: I was called a naturalist at one time, and that’s what I like to do. The term minimalist is being used now, and I think that means a natural golf course, and using the lay of the land as it exists. I also want to design a golf course where you use all14 clubs in your bag, and a golf course that is flexible. I think a golf course today, especially in this market, has to be enjoyable to play. It has to have ebb and flow. It allows you to recover after a bad hole, and doesn’t just beat you hole after hole.
What’s your favorite memory of your father?
Rees: I think the best memories I had with my dad were playing golf with him. He taught me how to play golf. I think that is the gift he gave me. I think Bobby and I couldn’t have been as successful designing courses if we weren’t fairly decent at the game of golf. I really believe that if you are a single-digit handicap, you know how the good players play, and you know how the poor players play, and you have to design for both.
Bobby: I think my favorite memory was right here at Spanish Bay in 1990. We had an architects meeting and we tried desperately to mimic the links golf courses of the British Isles with Tom Watson and Sandy Tatum at Spanish Bay. My dad came out for the first time and saw it, and he looked out and saw the silver, lean fescue look. We walked out on the course, and he said,”Bobby, you got this right:’That was high praise from the master, and I remember that with great love.