Robert Trent Jones did not invent golf course architecture, it only seems that way. In a career that spanned nearly 70 years, Jones built or rebuilt some 400 courses in 45 states in the U.S. and 35 countries worldwide, with more than three dozen of them having played host to national or international championships. Still, the numbers tell only part of the story.
Jones made an art form of heroic architecture, institutionalizing the risk-reward shot in modern courses. With his oft-quoted philosophy to make every hole a hard par but an easy bogey, he also had a profound impact on tournament golf. Jones built or remodeled some of the most muscular courses the pros have ever faced, including Firestone, Hazeltine, Spyglass Hill, Baltusrol and Oak Hill.
In his early years Jones’ designs often engendered criticism as too severe, and the complaints reached a crescendo when he remodeled Oakland Hills for the 1951 U.S. Open. When a victorious Ben Hogan boasted of having brought that “monster to its knees” and Herbert Warren Wind followed with a laudatory-and widely read-article in The New Yorker, Jones was introduced to a mass audience and the cult of the golf course architect was born.
“I think the hole is eminently fair.”
Jones was born in Ince, England, in 1906, and he immigrated with his parents to Rochester, N.Y., three years later. He was a scratch golfer by his early teens but an ulcer sidelined him from tournament competition. A high school dropout, Jones was working as a draftsman for a railroad company when Donald Ross came to Rochester to build Oak Hill.
Jones was fascinated with what he saw, and in short order, he parlayed some golf connections into a special entry to Cornell University. There he designed his own course of studies to prepare for a career in golf course architecture, and although his special status precluded a degree, he learned his lessons well enough that in 1930 he formed a partnership with Canadian architect Stanley Thompson.
Jones’ first masterwork came in 1948 when he collaborated with Bobby Jones on Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta (to avoid confusion, Jones adopted the name Trent, from the river in England, and it stuck). Peachtree had all the design features that would become Trent Jones hallmarks: enormous, subtly-contoured greens that offered a host of pin positions, expansive tees that permitted numerous setups, unobtrusive hazards and a fanatical devotion to preserving the land’s natural beauty. Among the many architects to be influenced by these design features are Jones’ two sons, Robert Jr. and Rees, both prominent architects in their own right.
As a young man Robert Trent Jones, Sr. occasionally caddied for Walter Hagen at the Country Club of Rochester.
Of course, it’s impossible to duplicate the real thing, in part because Trent Jones brought an unmistakable showmanship to his craft. This was never more evident than in the wake of his remodeling of Baltusrol’s Lower Course in 1952, when a particularly outspoken member criticized the newly-designed fourth hole, a 194-yard par-3 over water. Eager to rebuff the sniping, Jones grabbed a spoon and heroically marched his critic and a few bystanders to the tee. He took a swing and the ball took one hop and dived into the hole.
“Gentlemen,” said Jones, “I think the hole is eminently fair.” Jones, who spent his final years confined to a wheelchair, held sway in 2000 at 93. After having one stroke, he awakened in his hospital bed to see his two sons at his bedside. “What are you doing here?” he questioned. “You had a little setback,” he was told. “You had a stroke.” “Do I have to count it,” he asked.