Robert Trent Jones, 56, is an urbane man with glistening oxfords, a button-down attitude and a drawing board on his mind. He is a golf course architect. Put it to him discreetly and he will concur that he is the best golf course architect in the world.
Louis Sibbett Wilson, 58, is a fierce man with mud on his boots, a straw in his teeth and earth-moving on his mind. He is a golf course architect. Put it to him directly and he will not deny that he is the best golf course architect in the world.
There are, it would seem, grounds for a major disagreement between these two personalities—but there is no disputing that they have become two vital and dominant figures in the biggest boom that golf course construction has ever known. Lovingly cultivated, glistening green strips of turf are being finished at the rate of about one a day, some of them on such unlikely terrain as plunging mountainsides, steamy jungles, sizzling deserts and soggy swamps—almost, it seems, wherever there is space. In the U.S. alone during 1962, more than 300 18-hole courses will be completed.
Building one of these recreational marvels is a complex and expensive bit of business. It can require a couple of dozen pieces of earth-moving equipment, up to 300,000 cubic yards of top-soil, 500,000 feet of tubing, six tons of grass seed and a cash outlay of $150,000 to more than $1 million, depending on the nature of the property. And the critical factor behind all this churning expenditure of time, energy and money is the golf course architect. For. a fee of $20,000 to $50,000 he judges whether a course can be built in the first place, decides how much it will cost and, finally, designs it—hopefully as a "true championship test" (as they say in the brochures) instead of just a parade ground with 18 holes cut into it.
July 1, 1962
For years Trent Jones (no relation to golf's Bobby Jones) combined his engineering ability with a quiet knack for public relations so effectively that he was the only golf course architect the public had ever heard of. But recently tumultuous Dick Wilson (he acquired the new first name in grammar school) has attained equal if not higher status, and the two are now engaged in a running active dispute that is only sometimes friendly. In theory, practice and personality Jones and Wilson have as much resemblance as a pitching wedge and a brassie. About the only point on which the two agree, in fact, is that theirs is a complex, difficult and sadly misunderstood profession.
"Wilson is a fine architect," says Jones charitably, "but he tends to mimic a bit too much. He uses some holes over and over again, and he builds too many doglegs. On some courses he'll dogleg 14 of the 18 holes."
"Jones is a nice fella and a good friend of mine," says Wilson, just as charitably. "But as far as his work is concerned, I think he gives an impression of too many straight lines. Straight lines are something you want to get away from."
"Wilson copies a lot of our ideas," says Jones, jabbing away relentlessly. "The long tees, the flanked trapping. We got a lot of fun out of this last year when we were putting in the Country Club of Miami and Wilson was near by building Doral. He'd come over to our course, take a look at some of the things we were doing, then run back and put the same things in at Doral. And another thing, I could design a course that everyone would think had been done by Wilson, but he couldn't ever build a Jones course."
"For heaven's sake!" (or words to that effect), says Wilson. "If I'd wanted to copy anything I'd have picked a better course than the Country Club of Miami. I never copied a golf hole in my life, even one of my own. Besides, Jones's work is too much on the artificial, manufactured side to suit me. It doesn't fit the ground as well as it should because he hasn't made enough effort to fit it. Even from the very first his work never showed this effort. Look at it like this. You can put a beautiful woman in an expensive dress, but if the dress doesn't fit, neither the woman nor the dress is going to look any good at all. It's the same with building a golf course. You got to cut the course to fit the property."
No matter what they say about each other, both architects are too good-natured to become overly wrought by their verbal scuffling. And they are too busy. Jones has built some of the hemisphere's most magnificent and best-known courses. Peachtree near Atlanta is his, the Dunes in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Dorado in Puerto Rico and Pauma Valley in California are his, too. So are the glamorous resort-area courses that are being built in Hawaii, the Philippines, Colombia, Jamaica and Spain. For years the directors of major tournaments have had a way of unfailingly summoning Jones when they wanted to toughen up their courses to torment the pros. Thus Oakland Hills and Baltusrol called him in before their U.S. Opens, as did Firestone prior to the 1960 PGA. His work became a prestige symbol in golfing.
But it is his very popularity that has brought Jones's critics down on him. They complain that his work is losing its singularity and effectiveness, that he has become a wholesale Rembrandt.
"Nonsense," replies Jones. "I could take on three times the work I do now. Just look at my courses. They are all great."
While his creative powers may or may not be overtaxed, Jones has one real asset going for him: nobody else in the world has a finer technical knowledge of golf course design. Starting in the fall of 1927, he spent three years as a special student at Cornell, hopping from undergraduate to graduate courses in engineering, architecture and agriculture. His study program was a catalog of what the well-prepared golf architect should know: surveying, hydraulics, landscape architecture, agronomy, chemistry, horticulture, economics and—significantly—public speaking.
Today, sitting at the cluttered desk in his penthouse office overlooking New York's financial district, and dressed immaculately in a dark suit, blue buttondown Oxford shirt and dark-striped tie, Jones explains in his cultivated voice just what a golf course is all about. "There are three basic types," he says: "The penal, like Pine Valley. You're punished when you miss a shot. The strategic, such as Augusta National. You're not punished for a bad shot, but you've got to play position to get the most out of the course. And the heroic. Merion is one. There are alternate routes for the weaker player, but to get into position for a birdie or par approach to the green you have to carry hazards off the tee."
As Jones talks he skillfully sketches on scraps of paper various types of greens or traps or holes he has built or would like to build. It is plain that the artistic side of golf architecture stirs him the most, not the bulldozing. He admits as much. "The heart of a golf course is in the designing," he says. "Any good civil engineer can handle the clearing and the drainage."
Dick Wilson is a ground-clearing, drainage-designing civil engineer, who bluntly says, "It takes a better man to build a course than to lay one out."
He learned the construction business from the bottom of a mudhole up. The son of a dirt contractor in Philadelphia, Wilson attended the University of Vermont on a football scholarship (as a quarterback), then joined the Philadelphia architectural firm of Toomey & Flynn in 1924. Flynn was one of the country's most imaginative course designers, and Wilson acquired his professional education translating Flynn's blueprints into reality.
Then came the Depression. It caught Wilson while he was working on the Indian Creek Club in Miami Beach and stranded him in Florida like a beached bass. He has lived there since. Building golf courses in Depression days was about as lucrative as peddling hard liquor to Mormons, so Wilson found a job managing the Delray Beach Country Club and took small renovation jobs when he could find them. He camouflaged airfields early during World War II and launched himself into golf architecture on a full-time basis in 1945. Business was slow at first, but by 1952 it had picked up sufficiently for Wilson to take on an associate, Joe Lee, a 30-year-old graduate of the University of Miami.
In a sense, Wilson already had a partner, a quite unwanted one. It was a wildly improbable, recurring nightmare. In his dreams Wilson kept seeing an exquisite golf course, designed by him, which was to open the next day; to his horror, it always had 17 holes.
To make sure, among other things, that the total number of holes he designs each year is divisible by nine, Wilson now employs, in addition to Lee, seven full-time project engineers. These men help him supervise the construction of the 10 or so courses he lays out annually. His ability to pick these men has had much to do with his success to date.
"Wilson surrounds himself with top talent," says the greens committee chairman of a course the architect is now renovating. "He has experts on trapping, on irrigation, on greens. If he hears of a good man he'll go get him."
"We can handle the details," says Frank Batto, who is one of Wilson's construction supervisors, "but it's his overall design we're working with and his finishing touches that make all the difference."
This method of operation has been proved successful on such Wilson-designed courses as Lyford Cay, done for E. P. Taylor (SI, April 2) in Nassau; Paradise Island off Nassau for Huntington Hartford; Meadow Brook and Deep-dale on Long Island; Villa Real in Havana; Doral in Miami; two (of which he is exceptionally proud) for the National Cash Register Company in Dayton; and two for the PGA national headquarters north of Palm Beach, Fla., scheduled to open in December. That the PGA should have hired him is indicative of the esteem in which he is held among knowing golf men.
Wilson's finest course to date, however, undoubtedly is the one he has just created for the Pine Tree Golf Club, a solid, dignified real estate and country club venture near Delray Beach. Opened for play last January, the course was built over a 168-acre stretch of sand and scrub pines. It is such a superb golf course that Arnold Palmer and Dow Finsterwald, both professionally connected with clubs near by, have applied for conventional, private memberships that will cost them $12,000. The remarks of other leading pros, recorded in Pine Tree's guest book, sound like critics' blurbs for a golfing My Fair Lady:
"The best course I have ever seen."—Ben Hogan
"A truly great course."—Jack Nicklaus
"The greatest course I have ever played."—Ruth Jessen
"Dick Wilson's greatest work of all."—Gardner Dickinson
"One of the best two I have ever played."—Ted Kroll (When asked what the other course was Kroll said, "I haven't played it yet.")
After playing a Wilson course, and observing the winding, softly mounded fairways, the gentle contouring of the greens, the artistically molded bunkers, in fact, the vast natural and muted beauty of the entire layout, it is something of a shock to meet its creator. In many respects Wilson resembles a disreputable, if cheerful, beachcomber. His sparse gray hair is usually windblown and his habitual costume is rumpled khaki slacks, sports jacket and a sport shirt with its collar open wide. Wilson can be shockingly forthright, but beneath his prickly outer crust there is an engaging honest warmth.
"Dick won't hesitate to chew someone out if he thinks they've blown something," says Bob Hagge, one of the members of the Wilson staff and the husband of pro golfer Marlene Hagge. "He reminds me of a ball of barbed wire and ground glass. But when the situation calls for compassion he will melt like a marsh-mallow. He's such a bug on honesty that he does all his business with a handshake. He is owed a lot of money that will never get paid."
The barbed-wire-and-ground-glass aspect of Wilson is becoming a golf legend. Several years ago he designed three courses for the Royal Montreal Golf Club in Canada. At a meeting of the club's board of directors, held when work was just getting under way, Wilson fell into violent disagreement with a board member who insisted that the club install plastic piping in the watering system.
Wilson slapped a pile of green bills on the conference table. "Here's $1,000 in cash that says the plastic pipe won't work," he roared. The startled board member wisely declined to make the bet, but stubbornly insisted on the plastic pipe. The plastic-pipe joints exploded under the water pressure, and the Royal Montreal is now engaged in a $500,000 lawsuit against the parties involved. An entirely new watering system will probably have to be installed.
Wilson once attended a meeting where a rather pompous multimillionaire who was picking up the tab for two proposed courses, launched into a lengthy preamble about his own importance. Everyone at the large conference was fidgeting. Suddenly Wilson picked up a wastebasket, slammed it down on the glass-topped desk of the industrialist and declared, "Let's stuff the nonsense in here and start talking business."
Wilson can be as outspoken about golf courses, even the most admired ones. "All they've got up there," he says of the Augusta National, "is the Masters. They've done a fine job with that, but they don't really have much of a golf course. Number one, there's too much demand for putting on those big, rolling greens. A fellow can be playing real good, but if he doesn't have his putting touch he'll score very badly. It's scenic, and the short holes are fine—the 12th and the 16th are two of the best holes in golf—but the par 5s aren't par 5s, they're 4½s. Also the golf course never plays its length unless the weather is bad. If they played that tournament at any other time of year but spring you'd have awfully low scores.
"Oakmont? It's one of the most unattractive courses I've ever seen," Wilson says of the site of this year's U.S. Open. "It looks as if it had been built by an amateur. If I had it to rebuild, I'd take out all those sharp lines that don't conform to the surrounding countryside. That first hole, for instance, it's like hanging out a window. You just hit your shots straight out in front of you. Oakmont is like a girl in a wrong dress," he concluded, resorting to his favorite cliché.
Wilson feels there are only two truly great established golf courses in the U.S. They are Pine Valley in Clementon, N.J., designed by George Crump in 1920 and considered to be one of the most demanding courses in the world and Merion, just outside of Philadelphia, the surprisingly successful work of an amateur architect named Hugh Wilson (no relation). They both exemplify theories of golf-course building that Wilson feels are vitally important. Behind them Wilson would place the No. 2 course in Pinehurst, N.C. and Shinnecock in Southampton, N.Y.
"A golf course should look more vicious to the player than it actually is," he says. "It should inspire you, keep you alert. If you're playing over a sleepy-looking golf course, you're naturally going to fall asleep. Pine Valley is a good example of what I mean. If I had to pick any course in the world to play someone at match play I'd pick this one. It looks a lot scarier than it is. I'd just go along playing the course and let the other fellow scare himself right out of the match."
Merion, however, is the course that has most thoroughly influenced Dick Wilson's work, just as it did Bill Flynn's. It is not excessively long—6,700 yards—and there are only one or two potential disaster holes, but Merion requires intense thought and concentration all the way around, Wilson says.
"A golf course should require equal use of every aspect of the game, rather than make a disproportionate demand on one or two phases, such as driving or putting," says Wilson. Merion does this.
To varying extents both Jones and Wilson have tried to suit their courses to a balanced golf game. They have gone in for long tees (some of them up to and over 100 yards) and large greens (8,000 to 12,000 square feet) that supply an endless variety of tee and pin positions. Their courses, as a result, create the same interesting challenge for pro and duffer alike. "With shapely, well-designed greens and long tees," says Jones, who first implemented his theories with the Peachtree course in 1948, "we can establish 2,500 different combinations on a golf course. The course never has to play the same way twice."
Wilson and Jones have done much to dispel the old notion that golf courses are laid out by nonplaying sadists who don't like the game and seek to punish those who do. They love the game intensely, they are good enough players themselves to shoot in the 70s and they both are continually seeking new ways to make courses prettier, more varied, better-balanced and more interesting for players of every classification. They may approach the challenge with conflicting philosophies and opposing personalities; each dogmatically avows that he alone is right; but between them they are giving golfers the finest courses ever built.