The Man Behind Modern Design

Robert Trent Jones had a style all his own


By Ron Whitten

June 2000

The man who started it all is gone now. Robert Trent Jones died June 14th at his apartment in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at age 93.

But the sun never sets on the Robert Trent Jones empire. In a career that stretched from the Coolidge presidency to the Clinton one, Trent Jones encircled the globe with tees, fairways and greens.

At the peak of his fame, a commercial jetliner was as much a tool of his trade as a drafting board or a bulldozer. The numbers are staggering. Trent had a hand in 420 golf designs spread over 42 American states and 28 other nations. His work has hosted 79 national championships, including 20 U.S. Opens and 12 PGA Championships. Add to that recent Ryder and Presidents Cups at Valderrama and Robert Trent Jones Golf Club.

In the 35-year history of Golf Digest's rankings of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses, 44 different Trent Jones layouts have been listed, the most of any architect. The 1999 list contains 14 of his most recognizable names, like Spyglass Hill, Congressional, Mauna Kea, Bellerive and Point O'Woods.

In the early 1990s, one last great hurrah of his company was Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a 24-course salute to his architecture that reminded us golf courses can be dazzling tourist attractions.

Trent Jones had a point of view generations ahead of his time. Just after World War II, he predicted livelier balls and clubs, improved maintenance practices and more athletic players, and designed accordingly. Atlanta's Peachtree measured 7,400 yards when it opened in 1948. In 50 some years, the horseshoe-shaped par-5 13th at his Dunes Club in Myrtle Beach has been reached in two only twice. He reinvented the island green in 1957 at Golden Horseshoe. His 1959 South Course at Firestone is still among the toughest par 70s in the world.

Other golf architects before him, like A.W. Tillinghast and Alister Mackenzie, made course design an art form. Trent Jones made it a lucrative business. But it didn't come easily. His first four clients filed for bankruptcy, so he tapped into the resources of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression to stay afloat. His big break came in 1939, when he convinced IBM chairman Thomas J. Watson to build a company golf course. That led to an introduction to his childhood hero, Bobby Jones, for whom he designed Peachtree and then remodeled parts of Augusta National.

After the 1948 death of Donald Ross, who had been preparing to update his design at Detroit's Oakland Hills for a future U.S. Open, Trent offered his services. The club gave him Ross' remodeling plans, which he scrapped in favor of his own vision. His remodeling created a monster course that was conquered, just barely, by Ben Hogan in the 1951 Open. Oakland Hills gave Trent Jones instant notoriety as an enemy of the pro. To cultivate his new image, he became a tireless self-promoter. He courted Herbert Warren Wind, and was the subject of a voluminous New Yorker magazine profile in August, 1951. Features in Time and Newsweek soon followed. He soon convinced other U.S. Open host clubs to hire him as their "Open doctor."

Trent was unafraid to take on golf's establishment. "(Their) idea is that galleries are attracted by low scores," he once said. "What people really want to see are great golf shots under tough conditions. The fans like low scores, but they also want great drama."

He had a showman's sense of the theatre of golf. He devised the first system that entirely roped off a golf course for tournament play at the 1954 U.S. Open. He even located spectator crosswalks so they would not interfere with play or damage turf in playing areas. But his idea of selling billboard space hanging from the ropes was rejected as being crass. Again, he was thinking too far ahead of his time.

Trent began to pal around with movers and shakers, and they became clients.

He designed courses for President Eisenhower, shiek Aga Khan of Saudia Arabia and King Hassan of Morocco. He did courses for Laurance Rockefeller of Chase Manhattan and R.J. Reynolds of Reynolds Tobacco, for Arthur Vining Davis of Alcoa and Juan Trippe of Pan-Am, for Harvey Firestone and Lowell Thomas.

By the mid-1950s, other than Ben Hogan, nobody was making more money from the game of golf than Robert Trent Jones. A decade later, Trent's annual income was reported as $600,000.

Even today, that figure exceeds the yearly income of all but a handful of course designers. His most memorable ad of the 1960s read "Give your course a signature," a slogan that begat the hollow homily, "signature course," and its even more repugnant progeny, "signature hole." But in Trent's day, a signature is what he delivered. No architect had a more identifiable style. It consisted of extremely long tees, fairways pinched on one or both sides by clusters of jigsaw-piece bunkers, huge sweeping greens protected by more elaborate bunkers or by his favorite hazard, a lake. No architect used water hazards as boldly, extensively or effectively as Robert Trent Jones.

There were logical reasons behind his sprawling designs. His long tee boxes, some reaching 100 yards or more, were meant to be quickly and easily mowed with a single pass of a wide gang-mower, and were meant to provide flexibility to each hole. "They create an infinite variety of combinations of holes," Trent explained.

His enormous greens spread out ball marks and cup replacements. They usually had four distinct decks with plenty of pin positions, each separated by long, sweeping slopes. His goal was to present large targets for average golfers, but much smaller targets for skilled players. He delighted in guarding some hole locations simply with a steep green contour.

He was sensitive to complaints that his huge greens led to epidemics of three-putting. "Speed is a factor in setting the size of a green," Trent once said. "When you have to give the putt a blow rather than use touch, the green is too large." Indeed, many of his enormous 7,000 square-foot greens play better at today's green speeds than they did 25 years ago.

His trademark bunkering, flashes of sand set off with jagged edges, was meant to emulate the natural look of windblown dunes. But they were the most labor intensive aspect of his designs and many a superintendent soon chopped away protruding fingers of grass because they were hard to maintain. If some of his courses seem mundane today, it's because the character of his bunkers has been compromised.

Trent was often compared to Frank Lloyd Wright, but in his heyday, he was really more like Cecil B. DeMille, orchestrating blockbuster projects in 15 spots simultaneously. Yes, his lieutenants did most of the work for which he received credit. But none of them ad-libbed. They all built courses to his style and philosophy. His architecture was a recognizable brand, faithfully reproduced by all who worked for him.

Among his young assistants were his two sons, Robert Trent Jr. and Rees. Also, the late Frank Duane, Roger Rulewich and Cabell Robinson. His field men included Jay Morrish, Tom Jackson, Ron Kirby and Ron Fream to name but a few. All later graduated to successful design practices of their own.

Trent even helped the careers of some who never worked for him. "When I was starting out, I looked at Trent Jones courses," Pete Dye said recently. "and I figured if I was ever going to make a name for myself in this business, I should just do the opposite of whatever Trent Jones was doing. He was the Goliath of the industy." (Years ago, Trent offered a response to Dye's architecture: "I don't think it makes any sense to go to such tremendous expense to replace beauty with ugliness.")

If there had been no Trent Jones, there would have been no Pete Dye. Without Dye, there would be no Nicklaus, at least not in the field of golf design.

And without Nicklaus, there would be no Fazio, at least not Fazio-sized budgets. In a sense, Robert Trent Jones started it all, the modern business of golf architect-as-celebrity producing real life calendar art. Everyone in the business, and everyone who enjoys modern architecture, ought to remember that every time the sun rises.