Some months back, a friend told me about a conversation he’d recently had with David Normoyle, golf historian and now my fellow Golfweek’s Best course-rating panelist. The pair were discussing the architecture of the postwar period. They hypothesized that for many courses, obtaining the honorific “classic” often means passing through a period where those courses are not at the height of fashion.
To be sure, there are plenty of counterexamples of instant classics (Cypress Point jumps to mind), but it is an interesting hypothesis in considering towering mid-century figures such as Dick Wilson and Robert Trent Jones Sr., whose works are going through this process right now.
As works of art subject to natural forces, all golf courses must be revitalized from time to time – their bunkers and greens rebuilt, their hazards analyzed in light of modern play. Jones Sr. was famous for producing (and making a market for) championship courses. As his designs pass the half-century and three-quarter-century mark, their current consulting architects play a substantial role in determining the relative cachet they will maintain within the Jones Sr. canon in the decades to come – whether they draw nearer to consensus classics such as Peachtree in Atlanta and Spyglass Hill in Pebble Beach, Calif., or drift toward the middle of the pack.
The two primary caretakers are of course his sons, Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Rees Jones, both fierce defenders of their father’s legacy. Where it gets interesting is in seeing how their clients’ differing goals have shaped their architectural responses.
Tanglewood Park in Clemmons, N.C., is best known as the stage for Lee Trevino’s first PGA Championship title in 1974. In October it reopened after a five-month Jones Jr. refresh that ticked several boxes in the course’s long-range master plan.
The greens, which “have a little bit of everything from (Jones Sr.),” according to Bruce Charlton, the company’s chief design officer, were “restored in place” or completely re-turfed after a drainage check-up. Fairway bunker positioning was reconsidered, a common practice in Jones Sr. restorations, as the center of his landing areas often fell at about 250 yards while today’s is closer to 280 yards. In some cases, Charlton said, “What was originally the back edge of the bunker now becomes the front,” as his shapers essentially just flip the hazard over like a pancake.
‘Still a great test’
Though Tanglewood had a reputation as a bear in its day, it’s worth noting that Forsyth County, which owns and operates the course, was not motivated primarily by attracting future championships in undertaking the work.
“The course is still a great test,” Charlton said, “But the real thing was to give the residents a flagship . The moves we made were based on fun.”
With that in mind, the updated Tanglewood also features widened fairways and broader entrances to greens, taking a bit of emphasis off the aerial game.
Rees Jones, for his part, has sometimes found himself in the position of “finishing” his father’s courses.
“My dad’s generation had the benefit of working with great land,” he said. “One of the reasons Peachtree turned out as well as it did is that Bobby Jones and my dad looked at 11 different properties before choosing the one that was ideal.”
The downside, he explained, was that their budgets were sometimes tighter. At Duke University Golf Club in Durham, N.C., for example, Rees Jones found himself adding fairway bunkers that existed on the original master plan but never were built.
In other situations, though, finishing a course has less to do with budget and more to do with technology – a response to modern equipment technology, yes, but also the ability to employ an architectural tool kit that didn’t exist in Jones Sr.’s day.
The Gold Course at the Golden Horseshoe in Colonial Williamsburg, Va., for example, had the benefit of Rockefeller patronage and a rolling site well-suited for the game. Long considered one of Jones Sr.’s finest designs, the Gold has hosted numerous U.S. Golf Association, NCAA and state-level championships.
In a renovation completed in 2017, Rees Jones and associate Greg Muirhead directed a slew of alterations toward providing improved, cost-efficient conditioning for the Gold. Selective tree clearing enhanced playability, as did rebuilding bunkers using the Better Billy system, which improved drainage and allowed the team to add flashed faces for a new level of visual distinction. Fairways and roughs were regrassed with Northbridge Bermuda, a modern hybrid turfgrass that’s cold-tolerant, greens up quickly in the spring and is well-suited to Virginia’s transition-zone climate. Greens were moved to 007 bentgrass.
Enhancing all-around presentation is a good strategy for safeguarding the Gold’s legacy as a great resort course, but Rees Jones also seized the opportunity to tune his father’s architecture a bit more to the modern game. One example can be seen at the second hole, a short par 5 that presents the resort golfer with a similar second-shot proposition as the 15th at Augusta National. Rees Jones, having lamented that “front-hole locations aren’t as dangerous as they once were,” nudged the green a bit closer to its defending pond. The team also expanded the green to the wings to add new hole locations and created a short-grass trough to enhance recovery options for approaches that fly long.
As a highly active championship venue, Rees Jones’ work at Bellerive has been more aggressive in an attempt to combat bomb-and-gouge. In his total rebuild of the 2018 PGA Championship venue, Rees Jones straightened out several doglegs to regain some of their teeth.
“Doglegs don’t play the way they did in my father’s time,” he said. “He built them so that holes would play longer, but now they often play shorter,” citing John Daly’s dismantling of Crooked Stick in the 1991 PGA as a seminal moment in the corner-cutting era.
At Hazeltine National in Minneapolis, built just two years after Bellerive, Jones Jr. explained that this was part of his father’s arms race with his archrival.
“I played the course while I was at Yale, and I was analyzing the design like an attacker rather than an architect,” Jones Jr. said. “I said, ‘Dad, why do you have so many doglegs?’ And he said, ‘Bobby, I want to out-dogleg Dick Wilson here.’”
While the sons handle the lion’s share of their father’s renovations, occasionally an outsider is brought on board.
In 2016, Prince Moulay Rachid of Morocco hired longtime Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw associate James Duncan to polish up the Red Course at Royal Dar es Salam Golf Club. Routed through a cork oak forest, the 1970 layout in the capital of Rabat serves as the country’s host venue on the European Tour, so the work would be scrutinized closely.
Ornamental fruit and flowering trees
“This is all tied to the legacy of King Hassan II and Robert Trent Jones Sr.,” Duncan said. “Different things were in fashion in golf at that time,” pointing out that few people today build the kind of soft bulldozer mounds that can be found greenside at Dar es Salam.
“But I realized,” he continued, “that I had to appreciate the Moroccan aesthetic. For example, the king wanted ornamental fruit trees and flowering trees, and Jones was happy to oblige. When I first got there, I frankly didn’t care much for them, but I have to concede they’ve grown on me.”
Duncan pointed out that institutional knowledge runs deep at Dar es Salam. He was able to draw on the elder Jones’ original green sketches and the long memories of the head pro and superintendent, both of whom have been at their posts since the course opened. Measuring over 7,300 yards with playing corridors that are fairly tight by today’s standards, Dar es Salam always has had the teeth to challenge the best. Duncan focused on green expansions, cleaning up sight lines through select tree removal — the island-green par-3 ninth now really pops — and rebuilding bunkers.
In a couple of places, the architect departed from the script in hopes of ramping up European Tour excitement. Dar es Salam lacked a half-par “swing hole”; in Duncan’s renovation, the brutal, long par-3 17th has gained a new tee and become a short par 4, adding setup flexibility.
“Part of what golf course architects do is have a sense of when to break the rules,” Duncan said. “Jones may not have done that, but it felt like the right thing to do, both for club play and for the tournament.”
Four championship-pedigree golf courses, four distinct approaches. It’s possible all will succeed on their own terms. As with all renovations of courses built by great architects, history will be the judge. Gwk