"God is the best architect,"
This is an article from the May 31, 1993 issue
Robert Trent Jones likes to say. But he says it in a way that makes one suspect he's just feigning modesty.
Jones, most everyone agrees, is a 600-yard par 5 with bunkers on both sides and an elephant buried in the middle of the green. Among older golfers the name alone causes pupils to dilate. Jack Nicklaus, asked for his appraisal of the 86-year-old dean of golf-course architects—known as Trent—stammers, hesitates and finally declines to comment. Arnold Palmer, ding with a drink in his hand by a swimming pool in Hawaii, squints as if the name barely registers, and he's just minutes from Mauna Kea, one of the old man's signature courses. Another pro, a winner of several major titles, refuses to be quoted by name but bitterly resurrects some unflattering comments made about him by Jones some years ago. "You ask about his golf courses," the pro says, "but golf courses are not that important."
The tale is oft repeated: Ben Hogan had just shot seven over par over 72 holes to win the 1951 U.S. Open, at Oakland Hills (remodeled by Trent Jones in his prime), in Birmingham, Mich., when he wearily said, "I am glad to have brought this monster to its knees." The famous quip made Jones's reputation and ushered in the era of the high-profile golf architect. It also altered forever the relationship between the golfer and the golf course. Henceforth the land would speak to the golfer through a malevolent interpreter—the demon architect.
"I'm not a fiend. I don't hate golfers," insists Jones, who also designed the Baltusrol Golf Club, in Springfield, N.J., site of the 1993 U.S. Open, which will be played next month. Before architect Pete Dye made target golf the bane of the Tour, though, the touring pros thought otherwise. They incessantly groused that Jones's courses were too long, his greens too contoured, his penalties too severe. Lee Trevino once played a round at Spyglass Hill, in Pebble Beach, Calif., another one of Jones's many great works of art, and said, "They just ought to hang the man who designed this course. Ray Charles could have done better."
"Golfers complain a lot," Jones observed.
In 1970 Nicklaus griped about too many blind shots at Hazeltine, in Chaska, Minn., site of that year's Open.
"Maybe Nicklaus is blind," Jones replied.
Back home, in Montclair, N.J., Jones's sons, Bobby and Rees, would often read about the attacks on their father. "It made me angry," Bobby said recently. "Made me upset. I said, 'Dad, we've got to answer them!"
Rees read the same unflattering remarks and shrugged. "I was on Dad's side, but I guess I'm more accepting of different people's views," he says. "And I understood that Dad stirred up a lot of the controversy himself, to gain publicity."
The Jones boys grew up with this background of professional contentiousness, to which was later added a patina of familial tension. Trent Jones was usually away from home—he claims to have flown 12 million miles during his life, more than the average pilot flies in a career—and when he was home, his boys competed for his attention and approval. "He was away so much, the values we derived were mostly from my mother," Rees recalls.
The boys grew up: Bobby went to Yale and Stanford Law School; Rees to Yale, California and Harvard School of Design. Both young men joined their father's firm, known as Robert Trent Jones, Inc., learned the business and—particularly Bobby—battled with the old man. Bobby, now 53, split off in 1973, opening an office in Palo Alto, Calif., under the imposing shingle ROBERT TRENT JONES II. Rees, 51, started his own design firm one year later, based in Montclair, to brother Bobby's dismay. The older brother claimed all business west of the Mississippi, the younger brother worked the East and the Middle Atlantic states, and the father went after the clients of both. Praise among the men, when proffered at all, was so patronizing it approached insult.
"It was a Freudian psychodrama," says a writer who followed the Jones family saga for some years. "You had these three very intelligent, very talented men acting like children."
With time the hurtful impulses weakened; the three men reconciled. Jones Sr. and Bobby now describe their relationship as close, and they have resumed working on golf courses together. Bobby and Rees commend each other's work, if not as effusively as one would expect from brothers. The three are seen together at major venues, such as the U.S. Open and the Masters, and at meetings of the American Society of Golf Course Architects: the aged man and his two aging sons, all short, plump and sad-eyed and wearing short-brimmed caps.
"Together," says course designer Michael Poellot, "the Joneses would be the IBM of golf."
It was a better quote before IBM's stock went south, but the point holds. The three Jones design firms have altered the landscape of every continent but Antarctica; they have shaped dunes on the shores of every ocean and most minor seas; and they have introduced golf to several archipelagoes.
Nature can't sneeze without getting in the face of a Jones. When Hurricane Andrew struck Florida last August, it destroyed 200 trees at Coral Ridge Country Club (Trent), downed more trees at Inverrary Country Club (Rees) and brushed past the new Weston Hills Country Club (Bobby). Then, after bursting into the Gulf of Mexico and landing again near New Iberia, La., the storm inflicted major damage on Le Triomphe Golf Club (Bobby). Two weeks later Hurricane Iniki plowed into the Hawaiian island of Kauai and lore up four more of Bobby's courses: The Prince at Princeville and Makai, the Kiahuna Plantation Golf Club and the Poipu Bay Resort.
"Storms happen," Bobby says.
If you're a Jones, golf courses happen.
The actual number of Jones courses is unclear. Bobby has asked his dad to stop claiming that he has built 500 by himself, because "somebody's liable to count." But 700 seems a reasonable guess for the family output. Rees is the laggard, focusing his fine eye for detail on no more than five or six projects a year. His father, although reduced to shuffling around with a five-wood cane (a gift from Rees), started 20 courses in 1992 and recently signed a contract to build seven courses for the state of Alabama before 1994. Collectively, the courses will be called the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. And nobody is busier than Bobby, who has four associate architects supervising work at dozens of sites around the world.
Predictably, their relative output is a bone of contention. "I'm astounded by architects selling themselves by the number of jobs they do," Rees says. "If you build too many golf courses, you can't control their destinies." The typical Rees Jones layout is an exclusive private club or destination resort—Atlantic Golf Club, in Bridgehampton, N.Y., and Haig Point Golf Club, at Daufuskie Island, S.C., for example—where the land can be massaged with money and intellect until near perfection is achieved.
Bobby, who tires of reading that Rees is the best of the Joneses, counters by describing his brother as a "gentleman architect, part of the East Coast establishment." His own mission, Bobby says, is to democratize the game and make it more accessible to the masses, which is why he builds more daily-fee and housing-tract courses and why he follows his father's example by taking golf to foreign countries. When Bobby does take on a high-profile project, the results are often praiseworthy, e.g., The Prince, a course once described by golf writer Dan Jenkins as "the most enthralling that I, for one, have ever seen."
The brothers also go their own ways on design philosophy. Rees, the apostle of definition in course design, positions his fairway mounds and hazards to delineate the hole for the golfer clearly. "His philosophy," says Bobby, "is that you should have a specific line of sight for any shot. And that probably comes from his more conservative view of what a golf shot should be." Bobby, in contrast, puts more deception into his designs and is not afraid to taunt the golfer with blind shots or camouflaged slopes.
To those who know both sons, the interesting thing is not that they differ, but that they put so much weight on their differences. Golf writers are used to Bobby's practice of answering a question with one of his own: "How did Rees answer that?" Gratuitous asides seem part of a lifelong debate between the siblings, as when Rees says, "When I'm through with a job, I want my clients to think they have a limited edition."
Bobby claims the differences are exaggerated. "In terms of our careers, we're probably Siamese twins," he says. "By that I mean Rees's success and failure reflects upon me, and vice versa. People say it's uncanny the way we speak, the way we sound alike on the telephone."
Meanwhile the father carries on. Robert Trent Jones used to winter in Florida and summer in New Jersey, but now he spends the whole year in his Fort Lauderdale high-rise apartment, straddling the blues of the Atlantic and the Intracoastal Waterway. The decor, unchanged since the death of his wife, lone, in 1987, is a surprising onslaught of still more blues—royal blue, powder blue, sky blue, diabolical-water-hazard blue. An exercise bicycle sits in the living room, a therapeutic tool for his back, injured a few years ago in a golf cart accident.
Most days his driver, George, gets out the white Cadillac and drives Trent to his headquarters, just off the 17th fairway of Coral Ridge Country Club, which Jones owns with his sons. The offices are modern and functional; computers inhabit the design rooms. "Mr. Jones is still an innovator," says his chief operating officer, Alan Blake Davis. "He's on the cutting edge."
That's surprising, considering that Jones grew up imitating the swings of turn-of-the-century champion Harry Vardon and that other Bobby Jones (Robert Tyre), with whom he is sometimes confused, though there is no relation. His first courses were built with horses pulling slip scrapers. "When I was a boy in Rochester, New York," he recalls, "we went out twice a year to cut rough with sickle bars. When you lost a ball, the caddies would roll on the ground to find it."
Asked for memories of his sons as children, he hesitates. "When they didn't want to go to bed, I'd just take them to the driving range," he says. "But lone really raised the boys. I wasn't home much."
The boys noticed.
"My earliest memories," Bobby says, "are of World War II, when we'd turn off the lights and go downstairs and hide under the tables during air raid drills. My mother would tell stories. She graduated first in her class at Wells College [in Aurora, N.Y.], a Phi Beta Kappa. She met my father while he was nearby at Cornell. She came from that very Puritan background: strict individualism, self-confidence through knowledge, but with deeply humanitarian instincts. On the other side, you had my father, a free spirit. My mother loved that, but it drove her crazy sometimes. He'd come home and say, 'Dear, I just made a wonderful deal—we're going to buy the golf course!' And she'd say, 'We can't buy dinner!' "
The Joneses lived in Montclair, a collection of comfortable homes on a bluff affording a dramatic view of Manhattan. Jones Sr. had a small office in the city, but he often worked at home, littering the house with drafting materials and sketches of golf holes. Golf came visiting in the person of clients like the fabled Bobby Jones (with whom Trent built Peachtree Golf Club, in Atlanta) or famous writers like Herbert Warren Wind. "Our vacations," Rees recalls, "were at Myrtle Beach [S.C] or Pinehurst [N.C.], someplace where Dad was building a course."
Bobby played competitive golf from the age of 14 and led Montclair High to the state title in 1957. Rees played baseball, basketball and golf. One summer Bobby ran a bulldozer for his dad at Wilmington (Del.) Country Club, sharing a double bunk with his supervisor and getting up at five each morning. "In about two weeks," he remembers, "I had shaped a bunker and another tee somewhere. My father came out to see what I had done, and he said, 'Hey, this looks pretty good.' Then I told him it had taken me two weeks. He said, 'Go back to playing golf. You're going to break me!' "
Bobby did return to competitive golf. He won his sole match against Scotland as a member of the 1956 U.S. Junior golf team, took lessons from famed golfer and teacher Tommy Armour and helped Yale win the Eastern Intercollegiate golf championship. But never, he insists, did he or anyone else in his family project a playing career for him. "My mother would say, lightheartedly, 'Your father's a genius, a dreamer, and there's only room for one in the family.' " Bobby worked one summer as an intern for Missouri senator Stuart Symington. He then entered Stanford Law, hoping, he says, "to learn the secret language of government." Instead he learned that he didn't want to be a lawyer. He pulled out after a year and talked his father into opening a West Coast office—headed by himself.
If Bobby knew nothing about golf-course architecture, he didn't lack for exciting training grounds. Among his early assignments as his father's dogsbody were Spyglass Hill Golf Club, in Monterey's Del Monte Forest, and the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel Golf Club, on the lava-strewn Kawaihae Coast of Hawaii. "Dad was lonely and needed company, and I wanted to learn," says Bobby. "But it was hard because he'd undercut any idea I had. Just destroy it." At Mauna Kea, Bobby walked the site with his father, in search of hole routes. At Spyglass he learned about the economics of construction. "We didn't think about moving the land; there wasn't enough money," he says. "Spyglass was built for under $500,000—half the fee Nicklaus charges now for his design alone."
At times the father and son argued openly over shot values, aesthetics, business matters. "He'd have these hour-long fights with his dad over the phone," recalls a former Jones staffer. "Bobby wanted to be 'Mr. Jones.' He wanted the attention, the staff and the chauffeured car, and he didn't understand that his father had worked 30 years for those things."
The first time Bobby was principal designer of a golf course—Silverado Country Club, in Napa, Calif.—he provoked a clash by violating Trent Jones's mantra of "longer, tougher, harder."
"You have to remember, my father didn't play a lot of golf after he got to 55," Bobby says. "I was out there playing in this stuff, and I couldn't reach his par 4s in two. So I shortened Silverado, and my father disagreed with me violently. He let me have it in front of Ed Westgate, the owner, and Westgate said, 'Trent, I agree with your son. I can't play Spyglass Hill. I love it, it's beautiful, but I can't play it.' "
Bobby smiles. "My father didn't like that at all."
Another conflict involved the redesign of the Mauna Kea greens—a job that Jones Sr. gave Bobby only after developer Laurance Rockefeller threatened to give it to rival architect George Fazio. "Mauna Kea was, and is, a piece of art," Bobby says, "and my father didn't think there was room for refinement. But it's a resort course, and it was rejecting the ball." The problem was a prevailing wind that lengthened the course and made the crowned greens unassailable. "That's my brother's and father's style," says Bobby. "Their greens tend to be aircraft carriers on which to land the ball, surrounded by a sea of trouble."
Bobby took the severity out of the troublesome greens, making them lower and more concave, and changed some bunkering patterns—all to his father's chagrin. "He'd call me at four in the morning and say, 'What are you doing to my third green, Bobby?' I'd rub my eyes and say, 'I'm not doing anything right now, Dad.' "
Bobby eventually struck out on his own, setting up the Palo Alto office in a storefront. Today his headquarters is a three-story house on the edge of the downtown shopping district. It houses four architects, a staff of eight, a library and boardroom and mementos from three decades of course construction. Along with the expected paintings of golf holes, one finds photographs of Bobby with world leaders, such as former president Jimmy Carter, former Philippine president Corazon Aquino and industrialist-statesman Armand Hammer. "I'm sort of a nut about world humanity through sport," says Bobby, who was appointed by President Carter as a delegate to the Helsinki Accords. The new president, he is quick to add, plays out of Chenal Country Club in Little Rock, Ark., another of his courses.
The experience Bobby gained from politics, according to the firm's senior architect, Don Knott, is what gives him his preternatural persistence, which is reflected in his 18-year effort to build a golf course in Moscow and his 11-year struggle to persuade environmentalists to stop fighting a resort course in Olympic Valley, Calif. "He likes power struggles and confrontations," says Knott, "the sort of political ground where you go in there and battle it out." Another architect, a rival, credits Bobby for his intelligence and awareness: "He's one of the few golf architects you'll find who reads The New York Times every day."
The whole package, some say, makes Bobby as transparently manipulative as a Chicago alderman. When Desert Dunes Golf Club, in Palm Springs, Calif., installed a rock garden and a colonnade of saguaro cacti around its 17th green a couple of years ago, he flew down there to argue for restoration of his original design. "This is a very natural course," he told the owner, smoothing his way into an explanation of how the cacti and rocks just might conflict with the harmony of line he had established between the course's contours and the mountain backgrounds.
"I understand his feelings," Bobby said afterward of the owner, who is Japanese. "His tradition is Zen gardening, in which sand and rock are used to create a meditation piece."
Allusions to Zen or to Renaissance art come easily to Bobby, who speaks the languages of spirituality, commerce and environmentalism with equal facility. Golf plan architect Ron Fream says, "When a prospective client asks me if I go out on the site and wait for the spirit of the land to infuse my being, I say, 'Ah! He's been talking to Jones II!' "
Above all, Bobby is relentless. Golf architect Tom Fazio characterizes him merely as "professionally aggressive," but other architects paint a picture of a man willing to go to almost any lengths to win a contract—including backstabbing and misrepresentation of his rivals' work. "I don't like his ethics," says Tom Weiskopf, the Senior tour rookie who now designs courses with architect Jay Morrish. Another rival says, "He's vindictive when he loses." Much of the ill will dates from the mid-'70s, when business was slow and competition keen among the architects, but Bobby is still regarded as his father's son when it comes to bad-mouthing competitors. "Players used to rip a Robert Trent Jones course because they didn't like the man," says one Jones associate. "Bobby's work gets put down for the same reason. Actually, he's every bit as good as his father now, and maybe better."
Surprisingly, Bobby's grandiosity docs not extend to his golf courses. More than any other marquee-name architect, with the possible exception of Tom Fazio, Bobby builds courses the way players say they want them built—not too hard, not too long and not too tricked-up. His greens are open in front and rarely elevated, allowing short hitters to run the ball to the hole. He usually resists the impulse to decorate the landscape with exotic flora and improbable waterfalls. There is, as a matter of fact, no identifiable Jones II style. "I don't try to impose a signature," he says, "except on the check from the client, of course."
And that check need not be exorbitant. When Tom Fazio was collecting raves for Shadow Creek, in North Las Vegas, a $37 million gem commissioned by casino owner Steve Wynn, Bobby reminded everyone, "You can get 10 of my courses for what Wynn paid." The inherent value judgment didn't seem to bother him at all.
It would bother Bobby, though, if you could buy 10 of his courses for one of Rees's.
"I don't have Dad's name," Rees says.
In stating the obvious, he puts his finger on a continuing source of tension with his older brother. Not that he concedes there is tension. "I think it worked out well for Bobby to have Dad's name," says Rees, "because he wanted to travel the world. It's worked out well for me, because I want to have my own identity." Rees says this while sitting on a stool in the kitchen of his Montclair headquarters—an old house strikingly similar to the one Bobby operates out of in Palo Alto.
This form of flattery, however sincere, used to get under Bobby's skin. "Whatever I did, he followed," Bobby once told The New York Times. "I was in the Boy Scouts, he went to the Boy Scouts. I went to Montclair High School and Yale. He went to Montclair and Yale. I went to California. Rees went to California. It's a little strange."
Rees, asked about the old quote, says, "I don't know where that came from. When I went into business for myself, in 1974, I went to a little room and waited for the phone to ring. The first job I had was for such a low fee, I don't even want to talk about it. I didn't have Dad's name."
Rees did have the experience gained running his father's East Coast office, and he gives most of the credit for his development to two of his father's longtime employees, construction superintendent Bill Baldwin—"my second father"—and Baldwin's No. 2, Austin Gibson. Having taken design courses at Yale and landscape architecture at Harvard, Rees also had the formal training Bobby lacked.
But without the name, Rees had to scramble. His early work was mostly remodeling existing courses, a task that expanded his design vocabulary beyond the Jones vernacular. When he got to build on his own, he got good reviews for courses like Inverrary Country Club, in Lauderhill, Fla.; Arcadian Shores, in Myrtle Beach; and Miami's Turnberry Isle Country Club. And just as the remodeling of U.S. Open courses had made his father's reputation, the redesign of The Country Club, in Brookline, Mass., for the 1988 Open made Rees's. The players liked the way he used mounding to turn holes visually, the way he gave the golfer the sense of always being a little elevated and able to see the available shot options. "I knew when I got Brookline, that was going to turn the corner for me," says Rees, who visited the course 17 times in the summer of '85. "That put me in the upper echelon, where I could truly express myself, because I would have clients with great sites and good budgets."
Indeed, since 1985 Jones has designed a number of acclaimed golf courses, including Haig Point, Pinehurst No. 7 and the recently opened Atlantic Golf Club. He has also inherited his father's title as "the Open Doctor" for his makeovers of Hazeltine, site of the 1991 Open, and of the Congressional Country Club, in Bethesda, Md., which will host the event in 1997. Some jokingly refer to Rees as the popular Jones, and even Weiskopf will interrupt a flow of anti-Jones invective to throw in a bit of praise for Rees's work.
"See, I like Tom Weiskopf," Rees says on a spring afternoon, driving his Jaguar from Montclair to Long Island. "And he likes me. I think it's that simple. The real problem in this profession is that nobody wants to concede that anybody else is doing good work."
Bobby acknowledges that Rees is more popular: "I think I'm much more of a risk taker and take a higher profile and am therefore attacked more easily than Rees is. But I also think I've probably had more fun and more rewards in life. My mother used to say Rees was an 'old soul.' By that, she meant he could be taciturn."
Taciturn or not, Rees was elected president of the ASGCA in 1978, at the age of 36. Bobby's peers didn't grant him the same recognition until 1989, when he was 50. Trent, an ASGCA founder, was elected president in 1951.
The recognition both men crave most, of course, comes from the man in the blue rooms high above the Fort Lauderdale strand. In his elegant coffee-table book, Golf's Magnificent Challenge, Jones Sr. wrote: "Without sounding too much like a proud father, which I am, I'd say the two best architects today are my sons, Robert Trent, Jr., and Rees."
In person, though, he says, "Tom Fazio is the best."
At such moments the Joneses seem locked in an endless trip on which the boys elbow each other in the backseat while Dad, at the wheel, acts cranky. "I do know that I love them," the old man wrote, "and I am proud of them, as individuals and masters of their profession."
And maybe that's exactly how it is. All three of them insist that they have put aside their differences since Ione's death. Bobby, in particular, is credited with pulling his father out of a period of despondency and inactivity. "Bobby's got his dad involved again," says a Jones insider. "He's put the fire back in his eyes."
Last year Bobby and his dad worked on a golf course together for the first time since the '70s. The site was in France, north of St. Tropez, in a forest of parasol pines. Father and son walked the hills, Bobby making sketches for the front nine, Trent making sketches for the back nine. Bobby's nine, predictably, had open-entrance greens and soft, flowing contours. His father's nine was 150 meters longer, had stronger contours and forced the golfer to play to the greens over cutoff bunkers. But neither man went to the mat over the differences, and both express satisfaction with the results. "It wasn't creative tension, like it was when I was growing up," Bobby says. "It was creative dialogue, and it was fun."
Not that there weren't disagreements. There was a tree in the middle of the 18th fairway, between the landing area and the green. Bobby thought the tree should stay. His father thought it should go.
"The tree is still there," Bobby said recently. "We've decided to let God choose whether the tree should or shouldn't live."
If He knows what's good for Him, God will stay out of it.