Few names in the world of golf are more recognizable than Jones. It’s borderline royalty. While Bobby Jones undoubtedly deserves the lion’s share of credit, golf course architect Robert Trent Jones certainly paved a large stretch of the path through his contributions and that of his sons.
In 1939, RTJ became a father to his firstborn, Robert Trent Jones Jr. Two years later the triumvirate was completed by the birth of his second son, Rees Jones. Thus began golf’s version of the Kennedys in the form of the “Jones Family Legacy.”
As a lifelong architect and the son of a legend, Robert Trent Jones Jr. has experienced the game and universe of golf in ways that few could relate. Throughout his forty-plus year career, he’s placed his version of the RTJ namesake on 280 golf courses, which span 40 countries and 6 continents.
RTJ Jr. was kind enough to sit down with us for an interview. Staying true to the OTC code, the only condition was that we would have some difficult questions. This is no fluff piece. To Bob’s credit, he was more than willing to step in the ring.
What was it like growing up in the world of golf as the son of a very well-known architect?
When I was in the cradle, my parents gave me a rattle. My dad would lean down and place my little fingers around the rattle and say, “this is the grip Bobby, and your name is Bobby Jones, so you’re going to be a golfer.” That’s the mission that he gave me. I played all the usual team sports growing up in New Jersey but the idea of succeeding or failing on my own also appealed to me. So eventually I traded in my baseball bat for golf clubs.
You went on to play for Yale, but after your college career your mother said it was time for you to get a real job. Did you immediately find your way into architecture or were there other things you wanted to pursue?
Yale was a place which inculcated students with a feeling of public service. I majored in American Studies and was very interested in politics. So I applied for an internship with Senator Stuart Symington (D-Missouri).
One day Senator Symington came up and said, “oh, you’re young Jones. Do you want to play tomorrow at Chevy Chase Club?” I said yes, sir. He said, “I’ll pick you up at nine o’clock and we’ll go play. There are two things I want to say… your job is to be very quiet and make five foot putts… because we’re going to beat these guys and you’ll learn more in four hours on the course about politics than you will in any library.”
That inspired me to apply for law school. I attended Stanford Law School for a year but after seeing how much arguing it required, I decided to go into the family business. My dad said okay and I got my hands dirty being an apprentice for ten years.
Given your time in DC and long career in golf, you’ve been able to play with numerous presidents. Do you have any anecdotes you can share about those experiences?
My dad played with Eisenhower quite a bit and he helped them put in the “Eisenhower Putting Green,” which was taken out during the Nixon administration. When President Clinton was elected, he wanted to reinstall a putting green. Him and I had played together a good amount in Arkansas, so I got to work on that project. We were debating where the putting green should go and they said it can’t go by the helicopter landing on the South Lawn and it can’t go in the woods. Secret Service was concerned that he would hit balls off the back porch toward the woods, which he did from time to time, because it would be confused as “incoming (fire).” So I surveyed the plans of the White House lawn and said, “well that’s where the Eisenhower Putting Green was.” And Bill said, “perfect, that’s where we’re going to do it.”
I got to chip and putt with President George W. Bush on that same green. He had a dog named Barney and as I went to pick up my ball out of the hole he said, “No, don’t do that! Barney will take care of it.” Barney stuck his snout down in the hole and pulled out the golf ball.
I knew both of the Bush’s well and I would say they played very fast. They also played strictly by the rules. They were serious about the game and they always putted out. Mr. Clinton, who I admire and enjoyed greatly… counted all his strokes, but sometimes he forgot a mulligan here and there.
Speaking of restoration, a lot of the work that was done to iconic Golden Age courses in the 80’s and 90’s is now being wholly reversed back to their original designs. What are your thoughts on that?
First of all, there was no golden age of golf. There was a golden age of sports. There was certainly no golden age of golf courses. That’s the modern adaptation of that phrase, probably by Tom Doak in the 90’s and his company called Renaissance Golf. So he’s promoting the idea of going back to the 20s.
I have a question when people talk about that… let’s use Bel-Air Country Club as an example. It was done by Thomas and it’s an excellent work which I’ve played many times. I tweaked it a little bit and so did the Fazio’s, Dick Wilson and so on. The course, particularly the back 9, was excellent. So to go back to the course of the 1920s is like saying, “What kinda of car do you drive? …Well, I drive a Porche… Well, do you want to put a Volkswagen engine in it and see how it runs?”
The game has changed completely from the time the course was built in the 20’s. Reversing it back to that age is more of an artistic statement than it is a statement of our time and how the course will play for its membership. There’s no one answer. Some people like Monet paintings and some people like Picasso. Some people like classical music and some people like rock and roll. There is no one answer.
I know you welcome criticism, especially as it pertains to your designs. During the US Open at Chambers Bay, Gary Player famously criticized you for the design, saying “the man who designed this golf course had to have one leg shorter than the other.” Did that bother you?
[Chuckles] It’s just locker room talk that got public, by Gary’s choice. I’ve known Gary a long, long time. Gary Player as we all know, is very outspoken on many different subjects including South African politics and other things. He’s welcome to his opinion, but I don’t respond to personal criticism. I respond to criticism of the course, to defend it or give reasons why we did something. I considered those comments to be in the more nature of personal criticism. We’ve talked about it since and had a détente between us and we’re speaking to each other respectfully again in-person.
There are many design critics and armchair architects in the world of golf. Hardly any architect, with few exceptions, is exempt from scrutiny. What’s one challenge the general public doesn’t understand about the difficulty of building a golf course?
The people who now are so called “(Golf Course) Raters” and/or commentators, generally speaking, have not had the experience of getting their hands in the dirt. They’re really looking at it strictly as a finished product. I think the idea of raters, which was done essentially to sell golf magazines, have in some degree acted like a jury. People can have a different opinion. Do they like what they saw recently at Bandon Dunes? That’s kinda a golf cult that is willing to go there and play different courses. There are many courses there and you’ve got to really want to go play golf. If you go to Pebble Beach, there are many great courses there but there are other things to do.
Think of it this way. I’m a goalkeeper in soccer. I’m in the net and I can use my hands but all the other players can only use their feet. I’m on the team, but they don’t talk to me. And same thing is true is with golf architects… “Why’d you do this? Why’d you do that? It’s terrible, it’s this or it’s that.” I think that feedback is valuable because I’ve learned from it.
You and your firm have designed or renovated approximately 280 courses worldwide, which is a big number – Many of the leading modern architects take on only a handful of projects, or less, per year. How would you contrast these approaches? Does production quantity impact design quality?
The approach in the 60’s was one great project seamlessly followed by another great project. There weren’t that many golf courses being built because of Vietnam. It became a large-scale production enterprise when the golf course became a sales tool for real estate in Florida, the Southwest and to some degree, Hawaii. That’s when Nicklaus entered the field.
Jack’s obviously the greatest golfer of his era but he also saw golf as a business. To him, golf architecture was interesting, and he’s quite good at it, but it took a lot of trial and error for him to gain an understanding of the nuances of subterranean stuff like irrigation systems and drainage. He was fortunate because people wanted to have his signature on their course to help sell the real estate. That’s when the production era really began. I don’t really know how to answer the question. I think it’s more an issue of economics, there are a lot less golf courses being built right now.
The free money era ended in 2008 and golf course real estate projects pretty much ended then. There’s a lot of remodeling and updating going on because the game has changed at the championship level. The ball goes farther and that’s encouraged older clubs to remodel their courses. When we say our firm did 280 courses… we did design and substantial remodels, but it’s not all original work.
In the 90s, roughly 400 golf courses were built per year. That was followed by over 1,000 course closures between 2000 and 2011 (as reported by the National Golf Foundation). Was the golf course industry careless during that period of rapid expansion? Do you feel any sort of responsibility for the boom/bust cycle?
Well, my responsibility as a scholar and lover of our sport is to say… there is no such thing as the golf industry. That’s business. The sport is what I’m dedicated to. In that sense, what you’re really defining are people who didn’t care about golf and were using it as a marketing tool for the real estate industry, just as some people would use an ocean at a resort to attract people without a golf course.
The opportunistic elements of the housing and suburban sprawl in the nation was, if anything, misguided. I think the idea of master planning golf courses with the sale of real estate without the integrity of the sport being maintained, was a mistake. However, I think the statistics that you mentioned of 1,000 courses closing is way exaggerated. They might’ve been little 9 hole pitch-and-putt courses or something that wasn’t worthy of lasting the test of time.
Courses that are attractive to people to play will survive no matter where they are. Pine Valley is pretty remote and it’s been around since 1916 or so. Pebble Beach was once remote. Obviously all of Scotland is remote. People will seek those great courses, it doesn’t matter when they were built.
There’s a growing contingent of people promoting the idea that par doesn’t matter. Do you subscribe to that philosophy and is the concept of par important to you as an architect?
I’m a creative person and we’re in an era of data. You see the caddies and the players looking at their yardage books. The commentators will say this shot is precisely 182 yards and it’ll probably be a sawed off 7-iron into these wind conditions. Everything is reduced to data. I’m more of the school that you feel your way through the course. It’s like a dance.
I think the idea of par was made by par as a value, like stocks and bonds. Par represents the basic value of that share. So if par is supposed to be what the course is value is, and you’re way under it, you change the value of it in competition. Bogey is a real measure by which most average golfers play.
I don’t think par matters to the match player. What matters is who won the match and who has to buy the beers. In televised golf, it’s a show. Oftentimes, it’s televised from the air down. That’s not how we play the game, we play the game on the ground. It’s a very different way of thinking. Par is really not that relevant in competitive golf, but there are really two different games. It is relevant in everyday golf.
There are three main schools of golf course architecture – Strategic, Penal and Heroic. Would you say one is superior to the others and which school would you ascribe to yourself?
Well, I would add a new category in our era called Natural or Environmental. Within the game itself, strategic courses give various alternatives on how to play the course according to your skill level, age, weather etc. It’s by far my favorite. Penal is more like the British courses where you have small embedded bunkers. You might be up against the sidewall and have to take a penalty stroke just to get out. Heroic is a rare element of the game where only great heroes of the game can overcome the challenge of the course. For example, Tiger hitting two shots to get onto the 18th green at Pebble; crossing the ocean twice to get there. Only heroic players take on shots like that.
I think the combination of strategic with a little heroic now and then is my favorite. My element of design, which I hope was a contribution was to be more natural. Some people call that environmental or conservation, where you can conserve or use the natural element of the land. Each site is different and we use all three schools of design.
Do you care if courses that you’ve built are considered unfair, or would you characterize golf as an inherently unfair game?
The only “fair” thing in golf is the fairways. That doesn’t actually mean fair, it means pretty in the lore of the game going back centuries. You have the roughway, which is over sand dunes, and the fairway. If you’re a big hitter you can hit across the roughway and if you’re a tactical hitter, like me, you play around them on the fairway.
When Tiger won the Open Championship in 2000, he didn’t hit a single shot into a bunker. That’s amazing. He was aware of the chessboard his way playing. That’s extraordinary discipline followed up by execution. That’s a testament to the game being much more than skill. It’s mental and psychological. The young players today seem to be playing checkers and have double jumps over everything. The older, shorter players, like me… we play chess. That’s much more complex.
Looking back on all of your work, are there any specific holes or design choices that you reflect on and wish you’d done differently?
Well I’m a golfer first and an architect second. If I go out and triple-bogey a hole I made three times, man, I’m gonna change it [chuckles]. Everybody has their opinion. You really don’t know when you’re building it in the dirt how it’s going to play until you actually play it.
We have to recognize it’s an entire work. There isn’t one that element you want to do over again. Having said that, I’ve had the privilege of redoing my own work with my colleague and partner, Bruce Charlton. We’ve redone Poppy Hills multiple times. First in the 80’s and more recently we redid it to promote water conservation and to make the ground game more important. So we’re updating our own courses.
Golf courses are a work in progress. Trees grow. The game changes. What we try to do is make the course interesting, not necessarily hard