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Setting His Own Course

The layouts of Rees Jones go grandly against prevailing taste and received wisdom

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We live in the era of the Penal Golf Course—long and tough signature layouts that seem determined to beat the average golfer to a pulp. If you doubt it, play almost any so-called signature course built by Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, or Tom Fazio since 1985. What you will find is a beautiful, big-canvas layout that demands more power than finesse; often more stamina than subtlety; certainly more brawn than imagination. In fact, I can boil down the strategy I use to play these tracks to six words: Long accurate drive and gutsy iron.

The longer I play golf the more I prefer a very different kind of course. These layouts, only recently heralded by the golf press, embody the game's most venerable traditions, and in my opinion require more skill to play. They are the work of Rees Jones, the youngest son of legendary designer Robert Trent Jones, now 91, and younger brother of one of today's great penal course architects, Robert Trent Jones Jr.

In the past 10 years, the younger Jones has quietly vaulted to the apex of his craft with such original designs as the Atlantic Club on Long Island; Ocean Forest Golf Club on Sea Island, Georgia; and the acclaimed new Nantucket Golf Club on Nantucket. According to Golf Digest, he is one of the 25 most powerful people in golf today, but what is even more well known is that Jones is also this country's leading restorer of American golf's most sacred venues: The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, site of the 1988 Open and next year's Ryder Cup; North Carolina's Pinehurst No. 2, next year's U.S. Open site; Congressional Country Club, where last year's Open was played; and the vaunted Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island, which will host the 2002 U.S. Open and is perhaps the most magnificently refurbished public course in America. (The fact that so many Opens have been or will be played on courses restored by Jones has earned him the nickname The Open Doctor.)

A Rees Jones layout doesn't take you by the throat and demand homage to the ego of the designer. Rather in the tradition of the game's great old masters—A.W. Tillinghast, Seth Raynor, and Donald Ross—they lull you with their subtle charm and visual simplicity, wherein lies the danger to your scorecard. "I am interested in classic ideas, honest challenges, courses that are beautiful and fun to play for everybody," says Jones, summing up his approach. Brookline is a classic example of his philosophy. Here he quietly took a vintage Willie Campbell layout that most commentators thought antiquated, and restored its integrity by expanding, rebuilding, and shrinking greens; rebuilding old-style ragged bunkers; and returning uneven mounding to the roughs—in short, getting rid of the patina of modern touch-ups that had dulled America's first country-club course.

"The scuttlebutt among the pros was that the Open was returning to Brookline simply because it was the 75th anniversary of Francis Ouimet's great victory there in 1913—a sentimental selection, but no more," Jones recalls. Most commentators predicted that the pros would reduce the course to rubble in the 1988 Open; however, Brookline defied their power hitting and forced them to become shotmakers. The par-four fourth best symbolized what Jones had accomplished. Here he took a 334-yard hole that most pros could reach in one and reduced the putting surface almost by half and replaced the modern bunkers with a series of pesky pot bunkers. "During the practice round," he says, "just about every pro tried to reach the green in one, yet during the tournament almost none dared try it." Five under par won that Open—and showed the world what the game of golf was really about.

"I didn't have any idea that Brookline's success would have a larger impact on the design business," Jones says today. "But people have said to me that it may have marked the beginning of the end of penal architecture—courses that were built largely to impress or intimidate."

Brookline was also a turning point in Jones' career. For although he has been in the design business for 30 years—the past 20 on his own—it's only in the past decade that he has begun to earn the recognition he deserves. That is partly his own fault. He works with a staff of only six or seven from his home in Montclair, New Jersey. Jones is also modest. Unlike most big-name course architects, he doesn't employ a public relations firm to flog his design brilliance, and for years he has been reluctant to accept work that would keep him away from home and family (he has two daughters) for more than a few days. As a result, most of his courses are on the East Coast. Moreover, given the attention Jones lavishes on each project (he made 17 site visits to Brookline), he has to turn down many offers. So you don't see his name everywhere.

I have been a Rees Jones fan since 1988, when I first played Bryan Park Champions Course, a municipal course in Greensboro, North Carolina, that Jones designed from scratch. It was green and honest and flowed invitingly—a neoclassical gem that challenged your shotmaking skills, perhaps the hallmark of his design. The layout seduced me—I was pretty sure I would break 80—and then broke my heart: I barely cracked 90. And couldn't wait to go back. Just last year I had the same feeling when I played Huntsville Golf Club in Lehman, Pennsylvania, a course that's been collecting awards since the day it opened.

"I'm always glad to hear that somebody likes playing my golf courses," said Jones when I told him how much I enjoyed them. "That's music to a designer's ear. A course should be beautiful and challenging—but most important, it should be fun. This is, after all, a game." (When was the last time you heard a course architect say that?)

"Sometimes I worry that golf has become too much of a big business deal or an ego trip for the designer. We went through a phase in the '80s and early '90s where tracks were built to play like survival training courses. I know, because I worked on a few of them.

"Now, I am happy to say, I think the pendulum is swinging back. We are seeing courses being built that are much more friendly to all skill levels. My sense is that people are more interested in strategy than in the gimmickry of modern design, so I try and build courses that are player-oriented in a classical sense. The geography, the personality of the land, prevailing weather, history, even the people who will play it—those are the elements that dictate the kind of course you end up with.

"At Atlantic Golf Club on Long Island, for instance, we had a piece of land that was probably the closest thing you'll find to British linksland in America, so we created a natural rolling course of small greens and fescue roughs designed for walking players. The same was true at Nantucket—all this beautiful protected land and wetlands—250 acres, the ultimate walker's paradise. That's the way the game started and was meant to be played."

As we progressed along the third hole of the second course at Montclair Golf Club, where Jones and his brother Bobby grew up playing while their father was off making himself the preeminent mid-century course designer, I asked Rees where his reverence for tradition had come from. After all, his father became renowned for innovation: runway tees, huge multitiered greens, sprawling bunkers, and a philosophy of play he called "hard par, easy bogey"—ideas that flew in the face of traditional course architecture and that have flavored American design for 40 years.

"Well," Jones said, after lofting a neat little wedge shot to the middle of the green, "it probably started right here at Montclair Golf Club," which was laid out by an obscure local designer. In 1929 Donald Ross updated the course and, says Jones, "the irony is that most people today call it a Ross course.

"A lot of the ideas I have about course construction come from this place. I played it as a boy, and because of my father I also got to play a lot of golf courses built by the great designers: Ross, Mackenzie, Raynor, Tillinghast. Most of them are subtle courses—nothing jars the eye or visually intimidates you. But they're loaded with danger and strategy. My father learned a lot from these masters—for instance, many of his ideas about multilevel greens came from Stanley Thompson, the great Canadian designer. And he believed in flashing bunkers, which are a Tillinghast signature. The runway tees were purely his innovation

"Initially I followed the same path," explained Jones, after we had putted out and begun walking to the fourth tee. "But as I began to work on these older classic courses I saw how they were built, and my philosophy emerged in a form different from my father's.

"My idea is that a good course should have a number of opportunities—difficult in some places, easy in others, a range of challenging holes but also let-up holes and birdie opportunities. The key—for me—is strategy. I'm short on bells and whistles. What makes these classic courses so great to play is that they're full of strategy."

I asked Rees Jones about his relationship with older brother Bobby, whose signature courses I also love. They feel like big oil paintings come to life—they are almost too gorgeous and while fun to play are invariably difficult. For years some in the golf press have implied that the two are supercompetitive and don't really care for each other's work.

"That's simply not true," Rees Jones said. "We aren't what you might call socially close, but we each have a lot of respect for what the other has done. Bobby was the real heir apparent to Dad—I mean, he is Robert Trent Jones Jr., and he was an outstanding junior golfer. I am more like our mother, who was the philosophical parent—she was magna cum laude from Wells College. Golf was fun for me, but I loved other sports too, like basketball and baseball. I wasn't a terrific junior golfer, but my father really wanted me to play golf, so I did. It wasn't until I started traveling with him, marking golf courses, and going to Opens like Olympic and Congressional, that the bug really bit me.

"I followed the family tradition by going to Yale University, where Bobby played some very fine golf on the school team ahead of me. I, on the other hand, probably played my best competitive golf in the Army—a great way, I found, to avoid KP duty. Are we competitive? Well, back in those days, Yale turned out young men who were told to compete; now the university sends them out to the world to contribute. So I guess we did that—compete. Bobby left Dad's design firm in 1973, and I followed him a year later. I don't think Dad was happy about either of our departures from his business. But he understood.

"These days," he quickly added, "I don't think Bobby and I have to compete. We have each found our niche."

I asked Jones to describe the hallmarks of his style.

Another smile flickered across his face. "Well, it flatters me a lot when somebody plays one of my rebuilt golf courses and says, 'Hey, I can't see what you really did.' That means I have done my job properly. Reworking a classic like East Lake or Congressional means doing things most people simply won't notice as mine. It's what you do not see on my courses that makes them memorable."

One thing you do see on a Rees Jones golf course, I reminded him, is extensive mounding, for which he is often hailed—and sometimes criticized. "It's true. Early in my career I used a lot of mounding on the edges of fairways—they were designed to gently toss an errant teeshot back into play a bit. Perhaps I got carried away with some of the mounding, but—here's the interesting thing—there's really nothing new about that kind of mounding. British courses are full of mounds that bounce the ball here and there."

On the ninth green, which had a very challenging little swale running through its heart, Jones showed me how a cleverly built putting surface could be a game equalizer. "A lot of these greens were quite small; moreover, you simply had to land the ball in certain spots in order to have a chance at birdie. If you didn't, you could easily be looking at three putts. The shoulders were cut down to permit the ball to run off the putting surface into collection areas—meant for balls, I might add, not just for drainage. They used slopes in greens as hazards, unlike so many of the big fairly flat and unmenacing greens of today."

Much of Jones' work at Pinehurst No. 2 involved restoring greens to their original size, rebuilding bunkers to make them more faithful to Donald Ross' original intent, improving slopes on greens, and rebuilding the shoulders so that errant balls "release" and scamper off the putting surfaces—all in the name of golf as it used to be played. "Golf used to be about the short game," Jones said, as we left the ninth to go get lunch in the clubhouse—"making players really have to chip and putt to make birdies or save par. That's an aspect of the game I'd like to see come back strong in design philosophy."

Which raised a good point. It is conventional wisdom today that the strength of the modern player is making older courses obsolete. Many predict that course designers will begin creating tracks in the range of 7,500 yards to compensate for this. Last summer's USGA proposal to impose limits on equipment size was a response to this fear. Was Rees Jones really going to modify his design philosophy in light of this?

Jones looked at me and smiled shyly. "I don't think the answer is to make courses longer or equipment smaller. The answer is actually to make courses shorter and more challenging. Think about it for a moment. Length only benefits the long-ball player—a Tiger Woods, say, who can reach a medium-length par-five in two. If you make the courses shorter, tighten them up, shrink the size of the greens—in other words make the targets smaller—you'll put the fear back in putting and equalize the game, make the challenges and penalties the same for everybody."

As we headed to the clubhouse I realized what a revolutionary idea this was—golf's big future may lie in its simpler, smaller past. The doctor's words struck me as an excellent prescription for keeping the game we love growing and healthy.

Long Island, New York. "The best thing about this site is the dramatic interior views we've created. In keeping with nearby golf courses, The National, Shinnecock Hills, and Maidstone, we built a true links-style course. There are lots of diverse shotmaking and birdie opportunities and short par-fours into the wind, along with some subtle terrors, such as ramped approaches to greens that are susceptible to the ever-changing winds."

Sea Island, Georgia. "The routing is what's strong here. The plan utilizes to the max the property's proximity to a river, salt marsh, and the ocean. The winds play a role, but even on a calm day shotmaking is a must. The natural dunes roll right into the fairways and the vegetation is spectacular. It'll be the perfect spot for the Walker Cup in 2001."

Las Vegas, Nevada. "Desert courses have pretty much the same look—straight tracts of flat land—but not this one because there was so much topographical diversity. It opens up to players in thirds. I built it through a beautiful natural canyon area, the remains of an ancient riverbed, and on a plateau that yields extraordinary views of the city. Rio Secco is three golf experiences in one."

Nantucket, Massachusetts. "This may be the ultimate walking golf course. There are fabulous grasslands and no houses. A classic design that follows the flow of the land almost perfectly. Once again I was able to use my own land shapers, rather than contract help, and that made the difference. Like Atlantic, there are interesting juxtapositions, holes that go different directions into the wind, some long, many short, all pretty challenging, depending upon the weather."

Williamsburg, Virginia. "This was a very special project, creating a sister course to complement my father's Gold Course and then completely redoing the Gold, which reopened this summer. I think Dad likes the work I did on his course. My course, the Green, is longer but with a more forgiving layout. I used shoulder mounding to keep balls from going into the many draws and ravines around the property."

Bethesda, Maryland. "This was a complete redo. Among other things, we rebuilt every green front to back to return slope to the equation. We rebunkered the entire course and regraded the fairways too. I think some of the pros at the '97 Open thought it was going to be a piece of cake, despite the formidable finish, the first par-three eighteenth in an Open in decades. But the course held up more than the players and nobody complained."

The Short Course: New & Noteworthy, Picks & Pans

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Kudos to Arnold Palmer Golf Management for its handling of this famous old public course, refurbished three years ago. Courteous staff, terrific maintenance, great signs, fabulous views. A short (6,477 yards) but testing layout. $50-$80 per round with cart. 415-561-4653.

James Dodson is Departures' contributing editor for golf.


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