Quite remarkably, the man who created such legendary golf courses as Poppy Hills, the Links at Spanish Bay, Silverado and, in Maine, Sugarloaf, wasn’t even thinking about being a course designer when he was a young man.
Oh sure, Robert Trent Jones, Jr. would hop onto a bulldozer at his father’s worksites when he was in college to make some cash during summers. But Jones II had no plans on following his noted father, Robert Trent Jones, Sr., into the golf course design field.
“I was a player,” the younger Jones told me during a recent interview. “I played all sports as a kid and I really enjoyed baseball and football. I started playing golf competitively when I was 14 and was on the U.S junior team at Winged Foot.”
Jones II became an accomplished young player, winning the New Jersey junior title and a number of high school championships before heading off to Yale University, where he played number one for the Bulldogs’ golf team. After attaining a degree in law from Stanford University Law School, he launched a short-lived career as an attorney.
“I didn’t enjoy law,” he says. “The profession was too limiting for me and not creative enough.”
That’s when dad approached junior with an offer to join his company. An illustrious career as a course designer was thus launched.
“The first project I worked on was the remodeling and addition of new holes at Silverado in 1967 and 1968,” says Jones, Jr.
Although he admits to being influenced by his famous father (“Everyone is affected by their mentors), Jones, Jr. developed his own concepts on what a great golf course should be.
“I loved Winged Foot and didn’t particularly like Baltusrol. I didn’t like Ross’ crowned greens but I loved Tillinghast’s bunkering. Some of my father’s stuff was too long for me and I wasn’t a fan of elevated greens.”
One might say that Junior designs courses more with a driver or seven iron in his hands rather than a pen and protractor.
“I was a good player but I wasn’t particularly long off the tee, so I didn’t like overly long holes. And I always felt that there should be two ways to approaching a green, through the air and on the ground. Therefore, I don’t have a lot of elevated greens in my designs and I like to allow the player to run the ball onto the putting surface.”
He continues, “I was always a good short game player and I believe in placing a premium on shots on and around the green. I like contour on greens and don’t care for really large greens. I feel my courses are approachable. By that I mean that they can be played by a wide variety of abilities. You can tuck a pin behind a bunker or near a creek to challenge the best players, but I don’t make my bunkers too deep. And I make multiple tees so the course can be played long or short. I guess you would say my courses are flexible.”
For Trent Jones, Jr., variety in the spice of life, both in golf course design and his personal life. The Woodside, Cal. resident (“My home is in the air but I sleep in California”), who has crafted or remodeled more than 200 golf courses around the world and once built a putting green for President Bill Clinton on the White House lawn, is a poet and a devotee of all forms of music. When I caught up with him, he had just returned from reading one his poems at a Memorial Day service.
“I like to write poetry and I think lyrically when I am designing a course. I’m not one of these people who like to move land all around with a bulldozer and put catch basins all over the course. I try and route the course according to the land. I think there is more of an art to it if you do it that way.”
Jones, Jr., whose brother Rees is an accomplished golf course architect in his own right, is a man with firm opinions. I asked him about the state of golf.
“I call it the three twos--it takes too long too play, it’s too hard and too expensive. That is true today in the U.S, Canada and Britain, although we are making great strides with new construction in places like Tunisia and Dubai. I try to make my courses fun and playable.”
One of Jones, Jr.’s best works is tucked into the backcountry of southwestern Maine, Sugarloaf Golf Club, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. The layout is a masterpiece of golf course architecture, and a stretch of holes in the valley along the crystal clear Carrabassett River has been called “The String of Pearls.” Sugarloaf, generally considered the finest course in New England, is a perfect marriage between the hand of man and the beauty of the nature.
“I’m very proud of Sugarloaf as I am of all my courses,” said Jones, Jr., who also designed the recently opened Sunday River Golf Club, another acclaimed track in Maine. “There were major challenges in building Sugarloaf and I assure you it is the wilds of Maine. Sugarloaf is a wilderness course in the valley and on the river. Sunday River is on a mountain ledge and much more complex and three-dimensional. We had to incorporate sandy waste areas off some of the holes to stop balls, and people, from falling off the ledges.”
Jones, Jr. lent his skills to other premier layouts in the region, including Charter Oak Country Cub in Massachusetts, and Long Island National Golf Club and the Kaluhyat course at Turning Stone Resort and Casino in New York. One of his most recent designs, the highly anticipated Chambers Bay on Puget Sound in Washington, is due to open in June.
“I still love to play the game,” he says. “I think if you are going to go through the trouble of cooking a feast you should at least have the chance to enjoy it. I like playing a course before it is open. I call it the architect’s privilege. I can play as long as I want and it is absolutely divotless.”
He concludes. “I want to emphasize I am a part of a team and I have wonderful management, design and support people. I’ve been lucky in life and I’m a lucky leader of a great bunch of professionals.”
Not bad for a guy who had no intentions of following in dad’s big footsteps.