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- Golf course architect
Robert Trent Jones Jr., designer of more than 250 golf courses around the world, has plenty of strong views on architecture and the state of the game. The 82-year-old is the son of famed architect Robert Trent Jones Sr., and he’s seen many changes and trends in design over his six decades in the business – some he loves, others he would love to see discarded.
Jones Jr., a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, recently spent several days with Golfweek’s course raters at the Golfweek’s Best Architecture Summit at Ross Bridge near Birmingham, Alabama. Ross Bridge is part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, an ambitious project largely designed by the senior Jones that now includes 26 courses at 11 sites. Jones Jr. attended the summit to speak about his father’s legacy on the Trail and beyond.
Jones Jr. graciously answered many questions after playing one round of golf at Ross Bridge and another at nearby Alpine Bay Golf Club – which is not part of the Trail but which was designed by Jones Sr. and reopened in 2016 after having been shuttered for nearly two years. Following are selections of his replies. Editor’s note: These responses are not shown in their entirety and have been edited for brevity.
You have talked about how golf courses have changed in fashion, and you brought up a trend in which much of modern golf design has gone to wide, treeless expanses. You have a different opinion on that than some architects. What are your thoughts on trees, especially the removal of almost all trees in building or renovating a course?
Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania – host of nine U.S. Opens with four more scheduled – was the recipient of an aggressive tree-clearing program that is often cited by other clubs that plan similar tree removal. (Photo by Fred Vuich/Getty Images)
Robert Trent Jones Jr: Well, it’s been coming for some time. There were tree planting programs by greens chairmen and others to beautify a course in, let’s say, the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, even the late ’80s. We used to do tree-planting plans on open sites, which may have been a pasture. We would take endemic trees and make sure they were all the same species and in the right places for a golf course.
Now, superintendents are always concerned about their budgets, and the course owners are always concerned about the budgets, of course. So they complain, with some justifications, that the trees are consuming too much of their fertilizers, their water, and also that the root structures are hard to mow on. That’s a fair statement in some cases.
But to clear cut an entire golf course for better views or to go back to some past thinking, to me, is not programmatic. Because trees are one of the hazards that we use. (Famed Golden Era architect A.W.) Tillinghast spoke about the trees at Winged Foot. When you have trees that are as beautiful as old elms, the last thing you do is take them down. And he didn’t.
There are trees that are not golf trees, such as spruce that have branches down on the ground and you can’t find your ball much less play it. Golf trees are stalk trees, like palms or elms and the branches are up off the ground, so that if you hit a bad shot you can find your ball. They’re not deep woods.
What I am concerned about it is, all of sudden everybody thinks that because Oakmont (near Pittsburgh and host of multiple U.S. Opens) removed so many trees, that tree removal is something special because it’s now an open course. And it’s a great golf course. But I have crossed the Pennsylvania Turnpike (that runs through Oakmont), and I consider that a bit of a carbon mess.
The second thing, where people have copied this kind of tree removal, they should be careful because with golf in the summertime, you need shade to play. People complain because they have no relief from the sun in July and August.
I think it’s a fashion, and I think it should be thought out carefully. In Europe, where we do work, if you remove a tree from a course you have to plant another one somewhere. There are local jurisdictions like that in the U.S. where you have to get permission from the community to remove any trees. There are people who are not golfers but who are aware of the environment they are living in, and in this era of golf sometimes being a target for those who don’t play it, we have to be aware of those considerations and not do things that are anti-environmental from the point of view of those who don’t play.
You've been working on courses for decades. What is your take on the ebb and flow of such fashions in the game?
The Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail near Birmingham, site of the 2021 Golfweek’s Best Architecture Summit (Courtesy of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail/Michael Clemmer)
We’re here at the Robert Trent Jones Trail, named for my father. He was a post-World War II architect. That’s when he gained his most fame and distinguished himself from other architects, of which there were some very competent people. It wasn’t just because he remodeled golf courses for championships – that got him a lot of attention from the press, but he created a lot of golf courses such as the one we’re at today in rural places that were unusual for middle-class America. The fashion then was laying out a course with simplicity, laying it out with the land and framing the greens with small bunkers.
Now we’re kind of in the era of drama. Even I have done that at Chambers Bay (site of the 2015 U.S. Open in Washington) – it’s very dramatic. Bigger, bolder, stronger, more of it. Those who don’t do it well over-decorate the lady who doesn’t need it. Maybe water fountains in Florida, whatever. So we’re in a bold period of time, and that includes the idea of lots of sand or open spaces in the rough.
At Pine Valley – and I’m a member at Pine Valley (in New Jersey and the top-rated course in the U.S. by Golfweek’s Best raters and renowned for its dramatic sandy barrens) – if you miss a shot at Pine Valley you are penalized. You will lose a shot and maybe the hole. That’s the penal school. My dad, and I think myself, tended toward the strategic school. You can recover. You don’t want revetted bunkers with steep faces. That’s a penal school of thought, really old school. That’s a fashion that’s come back in a little bit that I disagree with because you have to hit the ball out sideways.
I’m seeing a lot of what I call naturalistic golf courses. You have to be in a very lovely site, a sandy site. You can’t craft that, and there’s not very many sandy sites. We all would kill for sand.
You’re seeing more and more what you might call rustic edges to golf courses and just unkempt areas. Unkempt areas that reduce the water consumption, especially in the West, are a good thing. We reduced 22 percent at Poppy Hills (in California) when we made the areas in front of the tees unkempt. It’s a dry area and not full of bushes where you couldn’t find your ball. It’s site specific, in my opinion.
It’s all very dramatic, and it can go too far. We’re in a TV era and watch golf (from the height perspective of) a TV tower, and a drone era where you take photos from up high to make a course look good. But we don’t play golf from up there. At best, we play golf with a vantage of six feet above the ground. When you looked at a golf course in the old fashion, you were looking at it linearly. Now you’re looking at it vertically.
We just did a course at Hogs Head in Ireland, and people like it because we made smaller bunkers, partially because the wind there is so strong. There are four or five cliff holes, and they’re very dramatic overlooking the sea, but the rest of the course follows the landscape. You don’t want to use exclamation points too much in a sentence, and you don’t want to use drama too much in a golf course.
What changes over the years stand out that you would like to see go away, and what stands out that you would like to see more of?
I’d like to see less of cart paths, or at least not in play. But for me, as I get older, I like the cart path to be closer to where I am playing. So there’s a little bit of a dichotomy there (said with a laugh).
I’d like to see the middle-America golf course come back. We have very high-end private clubs, let’s say the Seminoles, the San Francisco Golf Clubs, you know, the Long Island courses. Those are very high-end courses. They have been there a very long time, and they’re not going to have any problems. Then you see municipal courses or very inexpensive courses that are subsidized by the municipality. But what’s really suffering are the, let’s call them the country clubs of the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s. They have to watch their budgets very closely, and every penny counts. They also are not the same kind of social gathering places that they once were, in this new generation.
I would like to see kind of more middle-class golf courses that are well-designed. Not just for the golfer but for the community as a whole, because what is a golf course? It’s a big park. If you fly over the country and look down at any big city, the inner cities all have big parks for the communities, but the suburbs all have golf courses and that’s all they have. I call them the lungs of the community.
There are so many demands on land these days, and it's difficult to get permitting to build a new course near a population center. Should new courses be built to serve that purpose, or should older courses be rebuilt to serve that purpose as a community park?
Both. We have a vast country. We’re in the South now as we speak, where it rains and they grow trees and cut timber. There’s plenty of land.
On the other hand, in the West, it’s all about water. The West begins where the rainfall ends, and they’re fighting over water in the Colorado River basin and the far West. I think you’ll see far less new golf courses in the West. The USGA told me it takes about 17,000 gallons of water per round there, and as water becomes even more expensive and scarce, that will have even more impacts. And it’s not just the price of water, because many people in the golf space can afford it. It’s just the scarcity of it. That’s going to be an issue in building new courses.
How important is site selection to what you do? You mentioned Chambers Bay as a dramatic site with its elevation changes running down to the sound there. To build a truly great golf course, how important is the site selection and having an owner who allows you to do what you need to do on that site?
Chambers Bay in University Place, Washington, was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and hosted the 2015 U.S. Open, won by Jordan Spieth. (Courtesy of Chambers Bay/Martin Miller)
The owner must have a vision, and the architect must help that owner’s vision with their own creativity.
At Chambers Bay (which Jones built in Washington), it was a mined-out quarry. (Pierce County Executive) John Ladenburg had a vision to clean it up and make it into a regional park. And it’s not just a golf course – there’s a walking trail, kids parks, concert areas and other things. And within that, he wanted a championship-level course, and we helped him get there. And we succeeded.
The great golf courses are collaborative. Maybe an architect gets credit for it, like my father on the Robert Trent Jones Trail. But the truth of the matter, Roger Rulewich (who did much of the work on the Trail and for Jones Sr. for years) and the shapers and the ownership all had a lot to do on hole-by-hole, day-by-day discussions in the field on what made a course attractive in its own right. And the general public is the final critic, because they vote with their wallets.
Chambers Bay took some criticism after the U.S. Open …
Chambers Bay played brown, hard, fast and bumpy during the 2015 U.S. Open. Much of that was by design, but the course has switched grasses since that Open. (Harry How/Getty Images)
The course didn’t. The maintenance did. The fescue grass was part of the defense, and the course was intended to be hard and firm like this table (in front of us). It’s in a maritime climate, and there are only five maritime climates in the world: New Zealand, obviously the British Isles, a few others. So, a maritime climate supports fescue, and fescue is the original grass of golf. Why? Because it goes dormant in the wintertime and it becomes a firm surface upon which you can find your ball and also strike it with a crude club, and so on.
Now all kinds of grass types are available in the agronomy field, but we intended to use fescue because it was traditional, and we were doing a modern links. A modern links on steroids in a maritime climate. … We wanted a course where modern players with large-headed drivers can fly the ball but they have to land it in a certain place or else the ball will run out to the wrong place and you get a bad angle. So the point wasn’t how far you hit it, but how far it ran out afterwards.
So when (the Open came there) and they had a not happy situation by chance and some mistakes that were made and the agronomy issues, and the poa annua grass grew and the fescue didn’t, that became the story. But the real story is they had six people of great talent standing on the 10th tee (in the final round of the U.S. Open), any one of them who could win the championship. In a championship, that’s what people want to see.
Do you think the Open will go back to Chambers Bay?
Yes, but maybe the Women’s Open, and the Open eventually will. They just had the U.S. Four-Ball Championship at Chambers Bay (in 2021), and they did change the grass from fescue to poa annua and bent on the greens, so they can get the greens to be consistently smooth and faster.
It’s a little different concept, because now better players can throw the ball in and it stops. It does not run out as much. But the course wasn’t designed for that. The defense was that the ball would run out. The greens are strongly contoured with side-angle tie-ins that you might use as a backboard, like a pool player uses a cushion on a bank shot into the pocket.
Where do you fall in the distance debate and anything the USGA might do to regulate distance?
Robert Trent Jones Jr. has experimented with not allowing tees to be used, forcing players to hit tee shots off the ground, as a way to limit distance gains. (Golfweek files)
Sadly the USGA and the R&A let that genie out of the bottle in the ’90s. And then Karsten Solheim and Ping got into squabbles with the USGA over grooves. And the USGA, I would say, is legally risk averse, and rightly so. Because it’s supposed to be a sport, and they’re in it to conduct tournaments.
I have proposed a simple solution to be one rule change which would solve, in my opinion, the problem. We actually went out and experimented in 2002 at the architects meeting, and I proposed, let’s go play this course and nobody can use a wooden tee. Ban the tee, from the tee. And let’s see how many big-headed drivers the best players in the world would use just by just dropping the ball onto the ground. We did it, and it was pretty unpopular because you could cold-top a shot off the tee with a big-headed driver. You had to think about which club selection you might use. You might use a 3-wood or some other club.
If you think about that, and I’ve talked to players about it, the players hit it tremendous distances with tees that are long – that’s like swinging a baseball bat. All this technology, the big headed drivers and the dimple patterns on the balls, all have improved. And the turf has improved. And also, the athleticism has improved. Athletes figure out a way to attack, and they’re great at this.
Another answer, to my way of thinking, is design. Take the ribbon tees at Chambers Bay, with tees that are moving (and not flat, more flowing.) That’s a new idea, a ribbon tee that’s not firm and flat like a platform. Some of the pros actually complained to me about that. And others found that interesting, because now it requires them to think about what kind of shot they’re going to hit off the tee. And maybe it’s not a driver. They have to think about the hole and not get up there and thoughtlessly bomb it.
But you do agree, the ball is going too far?
Robert Trent Jones Jr. plays a round with Golfweek’s Best course raters at Ross Bridge near Birmingham, Ala. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
The ball is going too far at the elite level of the game. Not for me.
There are various elements of defense to a golf course. Length, which we just talked about. Width, or narrowness, whether it’s treelined or rough. Hazards, which are sometimes bunkers, trees, water. And the greens complexes and contours for putting. Those are the elements that we, as artists, use to paint our painting on every given site.
At the elite level, which is very small, there should be championship golf courses. You don’t need to worry about that for the average player. They’re not going to hit the ball very fall. The real issue is, is the game going to be fun and intriguing and exciting for those people who are just playing recreational golf?
The best architect of his time, in my opinion, was Tillinghast. And I play at San Francisco Golf Club, and he designed Winged Foot and several other great courses. He had the bunkering not only pretty, they were in the right places. You got a thrill when you crossed a bunker. You didn’t fear it; you challenged it. If you have bunkers like, say, C.B. Macdonald, which were straight walls or revetted bunkers, you fear them because if you’re in there you’ve lost a shot and maybe the hole or the match.
We have to think through not only length but the strategy that keeps people coming back and wanting to come back and play it again and again. The more you play a course, the more you’re going to love it if it’s well thought out.
Some Tour pros often say of a course that 'Everything is right there in front of you,' as if that makes a course more fair or better. Does that make you cringe as a designer?
The 17th green and 18th fairway of the Old Course at St. Andrews (Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports)
The Tour golf courses, in general – and we’ve built a couple of them, and my brother (Rees Jones) has done some work that has had Tour events on them, and my father did – basically the Tour is like a Four Seasons hotel. Every time you go to the next town, you know that the pillows are going to be in the right place. You know everything is going to be perfect. But you’ve already seen it. You’ve seen it in the last town, because they have a programmatic way to be a Four Seasons. And that’s what the Tour is.
The difference with real championships, major championships (aside from the Masters each year at Augusta National), is they haven’t seen that course in 10 years and they have to actually think and readjust. It’s like playing a chess master and saying, oh, I haven’t seen that move before.
So the Tour itself is set up basically as a traveling circus, and it’s a great time to go watch it or see it on television. But I personally don’t watch much golf on television like I used to, because it’s so predictable. Secondly, they score so much under par now that it’s routine, because the greens are in such great condition. Conditioning is everything for them. And that’s also unrealistic, because the other 51 weeks a year Mother Nature is in charge.
So what do I think about the course being right in front of you? I think people, well … they don’t say that about the Old Course at St. Andrews. And that should good enough.