Robert Trent Jones, Sr.

Known by many as the father of modern golf course architecture, Robert Trent Jones, Sr. (1906 – 2000) was one of the most prolific golf course architects to have graced the game. His impact on golf is too great to be measured. Throughout seven decades he designed more than 350 courses and remodeled more than 150 others.

79 of his courses were used for the United States Open, or other national championships. His courses span 45 states, 35 foreign countries, and are played on every continent except Antarctica. He designed or remodeled 21 United States Open courses, 12 courses that have held the PGA Championship, 6 that held the World Cup, Valderrama in Spain, the site of the 1997 Ryder Cup matches, and the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club course in Manassas, VA., the site of the 1994 and 1996 President’s Cup matches. He also created a putting green at the White House for President Eisenhower, as well as a hole with three different tees at Camp David, the president’s weekend retreat in Maryland. At the request of his good friend Robert Tyre Jones, Jr. (known to the golfing world as Bobby Jones), he re-designed the 16th hole at August National, site of the Masters, to be one of the most famous and aesthetically pleasing 3 pars in the game today. In fact, he went by “Trent,” a name he chose to distinguish himself from the famous amateur golfer Bobby Jones. He was the first architect inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and was a founding Member and a former president of the American Society of Golf course architects. Fittingly, he was the first recipient of its Donald Ross Award, Ross being one of his greatest influences in design. With so many courses around the world, it is said that “the sun never sets on a Robert Trent Jones golf course.”

Jones’ philosophy of defending par against the evolution of golf equipment and the golf ball became the adopted strategy of the U.S.G.A. after his renovation of Oakland Hills in 1951. During that United States Open, the winning score was Ben Hogan’s seven over par. His 67 on the final day was one of only two sub-par rounds for the par-70 course. At its presentation ceremony, Hogan said, “I’m glad I brought this course, this monster, to its knees.” Later he turned to Jones’ wife and said “If your husband had to play this course for a living, he’d be on the bread line.” According to his son, Rees, Trent Jones Sr., “thought that a tournament with a lot of subpar rounds was a fraud.” Trent Jones was trying to make the world’s best golfers play golf, to make them think instead of just teeing it high and letting it fly. By re-contouring greens, he forced players to re-think going for pins. His use of fairway bunkering in common landing areas also forced them to think about Club selection off the tee, and added defense to the course as golf equipment would create longer hitters in coming generations. To this day, a Trent Jones, Sr. course will have huge bunkers, ponds, creeks, and undulating greens to provide an aesthetic beauty, all the while protecting par. His altering of U.S. Open courses earned him the moniker “The U.S. Open Doctor,” which was later applied to his son, Rees. Trent Sr. died at age 93 during the week of the 100th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2000.

Born in Ince, England in 1906, he was six years old when he emigrated to the United States, settling with his parents in East Rochester, N.Y. As a young boy, he was one of the top amateur golfers in the nation, but at 19 decided to design his own curriculum in college to prepare himself for a life in golf architecture. At Cornell University he studied surveying, hydraulics, horticulture, agronomy, landscape architecture, and public speaking. At this time he was the best golfer among golf course architects, but perhaps his greatest contribution to the field was creating courses flexible enough to hold the interest of players of all skill level, by being the first architect to create various sets of tee – his famous “runway” or “aircraft carrier” tee boxes, some as long as 100 yards are prevalent throughout his work. In fact, because he came into the field at a time when the country was suffering through the Great Depression, he worked on public golf courses that were part of the New Deal public works programmes in upper New York State – through this he became a pioneer in opening up the game to the public and moving away from the old school of golf, which had been an activity primarily for the social and sporting elite. His earliest influence was that of the great Scottish designer, Donald Ross. Jones’ philosophy however, was that a hole should be a difficult par, an easy bogey. He felt courses should challenge the golfers to take risks. This is not to be confused with the penal golf course philosophy, a popular theme in Ross’ architecture, in which a crowned green might reject a well-struck ball. “I’m not saying that there aren’t some fine courses built on the penal principle,” Jones once said. “The main trouble with a penal course is there’s no alternative route for the average golfer. Another trouble is that when a golfer make an error, the punishment seldom fits the crime.” On a Trent Jones, Sr. course, a good strategy, well executed, will often be greatly rewarded, so everybody can have a good time, from average player to accomplished player.

The green, in Jones’ opinion, is what holds the key to the balanced hole. His greens, unlike others, are intricately molded to provide for at least four distinct areas where the pin can be placed. These pin areas, relatively level decks of the green separated by contoured folds, are not unlike small greens in themselves, and by shifting the pin from one green region to another, as well as chaning the postion of the markers on the tees, a single hole can be transformed into a wide variety of holes. It is through his greens, as well as his different sets of tees that he democratizes the game for all golfers: “A pro or a good amateur should be able to puit his approach shot within twenty feet of the cup…that’s his target zone, and if he hits the right shot, his ball lands in the correct pin area he has an excellent chance to hole his putt for a birdie. If he doesn’t hit his target zone, he’s got to play a long and tricky putt over the contours. He has to settle for two putts and his par, which is all he deserves. On the other hand, greens built with more than one pin area don’t make scoring any more difficult for the average golfer. The whole green is his target zone.”

His courses embody the three cardinal virtues of beauty, challenge, and flexibility. “Follow the land, follow the land” was his mantra, as he warned his sons “don’t change the land.” His legacy is left in designing courses that look natural, are fun to play, judiciously punish bad shots and reward good shots, and while providing a stiff test for the expert, do not break the back or spirit of the average golfer.

On runway tee boxes

“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.”

On foreseeing technological advances in the game

“Bob Jones, Jr.: My father also recognized the advances in the science of equipment and agronomy and was somewhat farsighted in using them. When Spyglass Hill first opened, it was criticized 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!”

On defending his design to club members

When Robert Trent Jones, Sr. re-designed the fourth hole at the Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower Course in Springfield, N.J., before the 1954 U.S. Open, some members thought the par-3 over a pond was unfair. He offered to play the hole along with Johnny Farrell, the club pro, and two members, while other members watched. Playing from the 165-yard members' tee, Farrell and the two members each hit balls on the green. Trent Jones, Sr. teed up a 4-iron. His ball landed on the green, and rolled into the cup for a hole-in-one. Turning to the assembled members, he said “Gentlemen, the hole is fair. Eminently fair.”

His sense of humor/love of golf

Golf was always in his thoughts. After having one stroke, he awakened in his hospital bed to see his two sons at his bedside. “You had a setback,” he was told. “You had a stroke.” His response: “do I have to count it?”