Robert Trent Jones

Full Name
Robert Trent Jones
Website:
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Year of Birth
1906
Year of Death
2000 (aged 93)
Place Born
Ince-In-Makerfield, Wigan, England
Place Died
Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA

World Golf Hall of Fame – Class of 1987: Jones spent his final years confined to a wheelchair. After having one stroke, he awakened in his hospital bed to see his two sons at his bedside. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “You had a little setback. You had a stroke,” he was told. “Do I have to count it?” he replied.

Robert Trent Jones arrived in New York harbor aboard the steamship Caronia from the port of Liverpool on Monday, 29th April 1912, exactly two weeks after the Titanic had sunk on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. He, along with his mother and younger brother, was soon reunited with his father who had arrived nine months earlier to work as a carpenter with the New York Central Railroad building freight cars in Rochester.

As a boy, Robert caddied at the Country Club of Rochester, while Walter Hagen was still the club professional. It’s said that he saw The Haig drive to the club one day in a white Packard roadster and as the vehicle swept past him carrying the great man in his usual grand style, Jones vowed there and then to “somehow get involved with golf in some big way”.

He entered a 36-hole tournament aged sixteen, shooting a 69 course record score for his afternoon round and finishing as the low amateur, only one stroke behind the winning professional. Thoughts of broadening his horizons as a player soon evaporated though when a duodenal ulcer landed him in hospital for six months, killing off any thoughts of making it big as a player.

Instead, having dropped out of the eleventh grade at East Rochester High School in 1922, Robert started as a draughtsman with his father’s company, though he still hankered for a job in golf. Three years later, while working in a summer job as a golf instructor, he played an exhibition match for the opening of Sodus Bay Heights Golf Club and was offered the all-in-one job of greenkeeper, professional and manager at the club.

One of the wealthy Sodus members arranged for Jones to visit Cornell University, his alma mater, and introduced him to the dean of the school of agriculture, who made arrangements for the budding architect to take classes as a non-degree “special student” but only if he agreed to additional tutoring in mathematics and chemistry. Robert’s benefactor also gave him a generous allowance to help with expenses before he began his studies in the autumn of 1928.

Jones’s first design job arrived in 1931, close to home at Midvale Golf and Country Club in Perinton, to the east of Rochester, while he was still taking classes at Cornell. He wrote to the club’s president to express an interest in designing the new course and it was decided to give him a chance, but only if his work was overseen by a more experienced architect who turned out to be none other than the famous Canadian designer Stanley Thompson.

This was the start of what was intended to be a mutually beneficial association between both men as Thompson and Jones then agreed to join forces in a partnership entitled Thompson & Jones Inc. – though it was changed in March 1932 to Thompson, Jones and Thompson when Stanley brought his brother Bill into the frame – and their first collaboration wasn’t too successful as Midvale went bust and the club was unable to pay the architectural fees that had been agreed.

It was an inauspicious start for the new design company – but a sign of things to come during the Great Depression – and things didn’t get much better for a good while as Jones scratched around the state of New York, looking for potential design projects. He was fortunate enough to tap into the US government’s New Deal programs (funding public works initiatives) to upgrade a few municipal courses via the Works Progress Administration.

The Jones redesign of Green Lakes State Park Golf Course in 1935 proved to be very lucrative to him. The operation of the revised layout was leased to the architect for a dollar a year in lieu of a design fee and within a short space of time it was making him $10,000 to $12,000 a year, enabling him to get married and move out of his wife’s parents’ house into a home of their own. For the next decade, this was a nice little earner that saw him through the leaner times during the Second World War.

The relationship with Stanley Thompson withered towards the end of the 1930s when it became apparent that Jones no longer needed the other man’s reputation to secure jobs and more business was coming his way via the New Deal schemes. Perhaps his 37-page promotional booklet entitled Golf Course Architecture, published in New York City in 1938, helped hasten a parting of the ways with his Canadian colleague.

In this publication, he included quotes about courses designed by Thompson long before his partnership with Jones began and he also printed a quote mentioning the many famous courses his firm had built in North and South America – when it was Thompson who had gone to Brazil three years earlier to drum up business. It probably came as no surprise to anybody when their association eventually fizzled out.

After World War II, Jones teamed up with his namesake Bobby Jones to design the course at Peachtree, in Atlanta. At 7,219 yards in length, it was one of the longest in the country, with greens averaging more than 8,000 square feet in area – the 14,500 square foot 10th was reckoned to be the largest in the country – and enormous “runway” tees that would become something of a trademark.

Because Robert did such a good job at Peachtree, Bobby then invited him to renovate several holes at Augusta National, which he did in stages between 1946 and 1950. He first of all remodelled the green complex on the 18th, softening the transition between the upper and lower levels of the putting surface, then returned the following year to rework the greens on holes 8, 12 and 13, as well as completely reshape the par three 16th.

Around this time, the American Society of Golf Course Architects was formed, with Jones (aged forty) becoming the youngest member by eleven years – perhaps his relative youthfulness was the reason why he was asked to act as secretary-treasurer-minute secretary. Another of the fourteen founding members of an organization with an average age of sixty was none other than Stanley Thompson, despite the fact he lived and worked in Canada.

The Dunes Golf & Beach Club which debuted in 1949 was Robert’s first resort course and it went a long way to establishing Myrtle Beach as a vacation destination. Of course, cynics might think that the practice of inviting journalists to stop off on their way to covering the Masters every year also might have gone some way towards boosting the popularity of the course and its location.

It’s said that Jones received a fee of $8,000 for his design (twice what the ASGCA had just set out as the minimum for an 18-hole course) and also a cut of the $20,500 construction contract given to William Baldwin to build the course. William Baldwin Construction was just one of a number of companies that Jones set up at various times to deal with physically putting his plans into place.

During the period 1949 to 1959, Jones completed eighty-four courses. He had branched out from the Mid-Atlantic region – “only” twenty-five of his projects were in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania – into twenty-four different states, as well as constructing layouts in the Bahamas, Bermuda and Puerto Rico.

National recognition of his work probably began with the renovation of the Donald Ross-designed South course at Oakland Hills in Michigan for the 1951 US Open, which was one of the most difficult and controversial championships ever contested. Players thought the long, tight set up was unfair but Jones was happy to see the new bunkers, extended tees and hourglass-shaped fairways stiffen the test as intended.

Further upgrading work to other US Open courses was carried out in the 1950s: A.W. Tillinghast’s Lower course at Baltusrol in New York; Watson’s Lake course at Olympic Club in San Francisco; another Ross layout at Oak Hill’s East course in Rochester; and Perry Maxwell’s Southern Hills in Tulsa.

To keep on top of all this booming business, Eileen Vennell was hired as a secretarial assistant and Francis J. Duane, a young landscape architect who’d graduated from the State University of New York, was taken on as Robert’s first design associate. Duane would go on to work with the company for seventeen years, designing or remodelling around fifty courses in the United States and elsewhere.

Into the 1960s and Robert Trent Jones signed off on a hundred and twenty-seven projects during that particular decade, which represents an incredible average completion rate of one a month. Assignments were now arriving from far-flung places like Jamaica, Colombia and Europe – with new courses laid out in Spain (Sotogrande in 1965 and Las Brisas in 1968), France (Bondues in 1967 and 1968), and Belgium (Bercuit in 1968).

Roger G. Rulewich, a civil engineer, had joined the company in 1961 at the age of twenty-five, before either of Robert’s two sons got involved in the company, and he would give thirty-four years of loyal service to the company, becoming not just “a wonderful employee,” but the architect’s “most valued employee,” according to Jones himself. And not just a hired hand for Robert, either, as he became more like a third son.

Robert Trent Jones and sons - photo by Ron Fream

Jones’s son Robert Trent Jones Jr. quit his post graduate studies at Stanford Law School to set up a west coast office at Palo Alto in 1962 with the intention of expanding his father’s business into new markets throughout the Pacific Northwest, the desert Southwest and across the Pacific to Hawaii and beyond. Eventually, he’d enter into partnerships with a couple of local companies, Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall and Metcalf & Eddy, to provide planning, engineering, architectural and economical support for the projects he was working on.

His other son Rees Jones took over the east office in Montclair in 1965, as soon as he had finished a year of military training. He persuaded Cabell Robinson, an old pal from the University of California in Berkeley, to join the firm in 1967 and his father sent him off to Spain three years later to manage a European office (which lasted until 1987). Rees would be paired with Roger Rulewich, a fellow Yale graduate, for the decade that he worked directly for his father.

If the 1960s had been very busy then the 1970s were not much quieter, with a hundred and eleven layouts unveiled or re-opened for play in twenty-nine states and nineteen foreign countries. Europe was again a popular destination, with new courses created in Costa Smeralda in Sardina, Costa del Sol in Spain and Setubal in Portugal. The RTJ brand also extended further round the globe, to places such as Japan, Morocco and Fiji.

It’s calculated that Robert Trent Jones was flying around three hundred thousand miles a year by the early 1970s but his travel plans were eased somewhat by Pan Am paying him an annual sum of $10,000 to fly with them – thanks to the generosity of the company’s president Juan Trippe, a personal friend of the architect – and TWA affording him free membership of its by invitation only “Ambassadors Club”.

What nobody realized (until much later in April 1982, when a ten-page feature story entitled “The Feud in the Fairways” appeared in a luxury travel magazine), was the seriously troubled nature of the relationship between Robert and his two sons. The author likened the Jones family to that of the scheming Ewing’s in the TV series “Dallas”. At the root of the problem was the perception that Bobby was operating independently whilst still trading under the RTJ brand.

Things had come to a head in 1974 when Rees left the family business at the end of that year. Correspondence had flown back and forth in the months leading up to his departure, and more angry missives would be fired between the protagonists in the months following his exit. Bobby eventually established the Robert Trent Jones II company in 1976 but the blurred lines of Robert Trent Jones provenance were never really resolved.

More than half of the eighty-one projects undertaken by Jones during the 1980s were located outside the United States. Early in the decade, courses were created north of the International Boundary in Alberta and British Columbia, south of the Mexican border in Acapulco and on the island of Bermuda in the North Atlantic. European jobs accounted for a large proportion of the remaining foreign output. France took the lion’s share of the work on the continent, including Chamonix in 1983, La Grande Motte in 1987 and Moliets in 1986-8.

A couple of projects almost bankrupted Robert around this time. The first was at Vidauban in the south of France, which was intended to be the site for three courses, a couple of clubhouses, two hotels and three thousand apartments. After investing heavily in the venture, Robert was bailed out of a bad financial situation by his son Bobby who managed to settle his father’s debts then finish the 18-hole course.

The other enterprise that almost brought financial disaster to Jones was the Robert Trent Jones Club on Lake Manassa in Prince William County, to the west of Washington D. C., where the first of three series of Presidents Cup matches was hosted in 1994. Once again, Jones got involved in a land deal to build a 54-hole complex that never materialized but he managed to pay off his debts to fellow investors with the help of other real estate developers.

Jones was into his eighties when the 1990s came around and his work tailed off by the middle of the decade, but not before his company had a last hurrah with the creation of Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, funded by the pension fund scheme of that particular state. The aim was to provide upscale public golf at an affordable price for retirees and others, as well as attracting golfers from further afield as golfing tourists.

Roger Rulewich was the man who designed more than twenty courses for the old man over an intense, two-year period (216-holes were ready in 1992 and another 108-holes were brought into play the following year) which saw layouts suddenly spring up from the foothills of the Appalachians in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south. Roger, a loyal servant to Jones for 34 years, finally left the company in 1995 to start his own business.

Coral Ridge Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida – which Jones designed in the mid-1950, leased for ten years, then bought with money loaned from an insurance company – served as the family’s winter getaway. The only golf club that the architect owned and operated, it was actually the oldest of the many businesses in which the family was involved, and it was here that the architect spent many of his last years, finally passing away in his sleep on 14th June 2000, six days before his ninety-fourth birthday.

Extracts:

Author James R.Hansen, in his book A Difficult Par, had this to say about the architect:

“Robert Trent Jones’s journey from Ellis Island to the Ivy League launched him on the classic narrative arc of the self-made man’s triumph. He managed to rise from caddy to railroad car draftsman to an anonymous do-it-all job as golf pro-greenkeeper-club manager- chief cook and bottle washer at a little 9-hole course on Solus Bay in upstate New York to a position of unrivalled eminence in his profession as the chief author of America’s national championship golf courses.

He was unquestionably the world’s most famous, the most accomplished, golf course architect, and a friend of kings, tycoons, and U.S. presidents. And because his journey was unprecedented, nothing in the history of golf compares with Robert Trent Jones’s epic life story. As dramatic and poignant as are the golf-related lives of Francis Ouimet and Walter Hagen, or of Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan, or of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, or of Tiger Woods, none means more in the history of golf in America and around the world than the saga of Robert Trent Jones Sr."

Bibliography:

Golf’s Magnificent Challenge by Robert Trent Jones (1988)

A Difficult Par by James R. Hansen (2014)

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Courses designed by and courses remodelled and added to by Robert Trent Jones

Arcola

32nd New Jersey - Best in Area

The course at Arcola Country Club is largely the product of three English-born architects. In more recent times, Florida-based designer Steve Smyers has been involved in a renovation project at the club.

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Aronimink

3rd Pennsylvania - Best in Area 85th USA Ranking 98th North America Ranking

The course in play today at Aronimink Golf Club opened in 1928 and Dornoch’s most famous son, Donald Ross, originally designed it. Gil Hanse restored the old classic ahead of the 2018 BMW Championship.

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Atlanta Athletic Club (Riverside)

13th Georgia - Best in Area

Host to the 1990 US Women’s Open, the Riverside forms one of two great golf courses at the 36-hole Atlanta Athletic Club. Originally designed by Robert Trent Jones Snr, the layout was renovated by his son Rees in 2003.

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Bellerive

2nd Missouri - Best in Area

The golf course at Bellerive Country Club is routed round a winding creek, which is a feature on nine holes. With large undulating greens and bold bunkering this is certainly a firm tournament favourite...

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Black Hall

22nd Connecticut - Best in Area

The Robert Trent Jones Snr golf course at the Black Hall Club occupies heavily wooded terrain on a tight, 160-acre tract of land that lies less than a mile inland from Long Island Sound.

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Brasilia

18th Brazil Ranking

Designed by Robert Trent Jones in 1964, the course at Clube de Golfe Brasilia is the capital city’s premier layout and it utilises Lake Paranoá to great effect...

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