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Architect's Spotlight: Rees Jones

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If you’re a golfer, chances are you’ve played a course designed by a member of the Jones family. That’s because Robert Trent Jones and his two sons, Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Rees Jones, have created or renovated more than 900 golf courses throughout the world.

Rees Jones learned golf by “osmosis,” traveling as a child with his architect father, as well as competing as a junior golfer in college and while in the Army. After graduating from Yale, he worked in his father’s design firm, then launched his own New Jersey-based Rees Jones Design.

With over 170 golf courses to his design or redesign credit, his original courses are an impressive array including Atlantic Golf Club, RedStick Golf Club, Nantucket Golf Club, Waldorf Astoria Golf Club, Ocean Forest Golf Club, Haig Point Club and Cascata Golf Course. However, Jones may be best known these days as “The Open Doctor,” a title he deservedly earned after his work in preparing U.S. Open venues and multiple other championship courses including PGA, Ryder Cup and Walker Cup events.

He’s won just about every major architect and design award there is and holds the distinction of being one of only six people bestowed the Donald Ross Award, the Old Tom Morris Award and the Don A. Rossi Award. We sat down with Jones to talk about his illustrious career.

You followed in your father’s footsteps. But was there ever any option besides going into the family business?
RJ: Back then if your father was a doctor, you were going to be a doctor, so of course I learned by osmosis from my dad. We didn’t have a lot of money, so when dad was designing a course, like the Dunes Club at Myrtle Beach, that’s where we would go on vacation. Golf just naturally rubbed off since we spent a lot of time around it.

When did you know golf design was going to be your career?
RJ: I played lots of junior golf, played on my high school team and when I was at Yale, and even in the Army, so I was learning a lot about golf courses just by observing. I could have these discussions about all the courses I played with my dad: he was influential, like having a great professor teaching me. So during my junior year at Yale I pretty much knew I would be doing this as a profession, even though it was not a very lucrative business at the time.

Besides your dad, who influenced you, and what other golf architects do you admire?
RJ: I didn’t really follow my father’s pattern of choking off the entrance to greens. I’d have to say I emulated A.W. Tillinghast the most. I’ve done work at Bethpage, as well as at Baltusrol and Ridgewood, and his shot options influenced me—that you can access the green through an easy route or fly the ball to a tucked pin in a harder location. I love Donald Ross, though his style was bunkers far away from the green and he used more slope around the greens. I have emulated Alister MacKenzie’s sculptured bunker style
as well. As far as courses go, Merion and Pine Valley were big influences on me, naturally.

You’re known as “The Open Doctor.” Do you feel more pressure working with someone else’s design than with your own from scratch?
RJ: I traveled to all these Opens with my dad as a kid, so I knew a lot of the elements first-hand that go into their design. There’s a photo of me standing behind Ben Hogan and George Fazio at Merion in 1950 when I was 8 or 9 years old. I went to Baltusrol in 1954, and 1955 to Olympic, so it was the ultimate honor to get my first job of this type at Brookline. I didn’t realize if the first one was well accepted I’d keep getting the next one and the next one.

Do you design courses differently than in the past, with the advanced technology and athleticism now in the game?
RJ: Yes. For championships, we’re adding length. We have to expand courses to 7,500 yards for the Mike Davises of the world. But these courses are usually never intended to play that long: they need the extra length to give them the flexibility to have drivable par 4’s and shorter par 5’s. Most of the courses that get bumped up to 7,500 yards really only play 7,200-7,300 yards—it’s all about having setup options within the big number.

Three founders and one architectat Lookaway Golf Club’s 1999 grand opening: (from left) Harry Ferguson, Rees Jones, Bruce McKissock and Bill Waldman. 

When redesigning a course, do you have a type of player in mind? Do you start at the pro-level?
RJ: One of the things I’m most proud of is all of the U.S. Open, PGA and Ryder Cup courses I worked on are playable for the golfers who pay for their rounds, yet can be transitioned to championship play with the height of the rough, speed of the greens and narrowing of the fairways.

You’ve earned every accolade and award in the business. What’s next for you?
RJ: Well, as golf is being questioned for its long-term viability, I think my next phase will be to design courses that are more playable—smaller bunkers and larger chipping areas. I want to bring young players to a game where they can enjoy it.

So will golf still be viable?
RJ: We just did a redesign of Galloping Hill Park and Golf Course, and this is the first time a public course will host the New Jersey State Open Championship in 2016. Over Memorial Day weekend I wanted to get a tee time, so I called and they said, “I am sorry Mr. Jones, we can’t accommodate your group; we have over 1,400 tee times over the three- to four-day weekend.” So what does that tell you?

Do you think having golf in the Olympics will give the game a boost?
RJ: We will have to wait and see if NBC gives it a lot of airtime. It is sort of like the marathon coverage where you just see the finish—seems like they prefer covering the faster sport. I think it all comes down to how much coverage NBC gives it.

If you could only play two golf courses for all eternity, which would you choose?
RJ: I’d only have to choose one: the Old Course at St. Andrews. I’d return to the roots of the game—I played there with my father as a youngster. I also shot a 74 there, after bogeying the last two holes, both three-putts.

Have you ever thought how different your life might have been if it weren’t for golf?
RJ: I was a pretty good baseball player. In my freshman year of high school, we were state champions and I hit 200 points higher than anyone on my team. But my dad made me quit to play on the golf team and, boy, was my baseball coach upset. But dad made the right call I guess—things worked out pretty well. Baseball is really the love of my life. My mother used to take my brother and me to all the Dodgers-Giants games. It’s a great game for me to bond with my grandkids, as well.


Lookaway Golf Club.

Jones Reflects on His Work in Our Area

Broad Run Golfer’s Club (West Chester, Pa.) has been a very successful public course. The elevation changes are what make that design, and I think we worked that in very well.

Wilmington Country Club South (Wilmington, Del.) is my father’s design, and we just did some tightening there. It has hosted some big events, a U.S. Amateur, and it was built during that period of big greens. It seems like for every one of my father’s designs, there is a Dick Wilson design side-by-side (Wilmington Country Club North), so you had the best of the arch-itects from that era in one place. My designs often seem to be side-by-side with Fazio in that respect.

Lookaway Golf Club (Buckingham, Pa.) is a beautiful site, with good movement of topography, and lots of wetlands. The 18th hole up the hill was influenced by the 18th hole at Pine Valley, and the seventh hole with the stream is sort of like the 11th hole at Merion. It has been extremely successful with a full membership from the outset. There is great camaraderie—people seem to bond at that place, and everyone is invested there like it’s part of their being.

LedgeRock Golf Club (Mohnton, Pa.) is a group of three men who put that together, and Chip Lutz was the major guy behind it. It’s a great piece of ground, and was sort of like a gift to that community from all involved.

Hunstville Golf Club (Dallas, Pa.) is one of the best design experiences I have had, and Dick Maswell, Huntsville’s founder, is one of the finest people I have ever worked for. When I told him I needed more space, he went out and got me the land for 11, 12, 13 and 14—just a great combo of holes. When we were laying out the 11th hole, we debated to play the hole from a right fairway or a left setup, and he said let’s do both. It’s what every architect loves to hear—more options! They have a lot of Philadelphia golfers as non-resident members there.
 

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