RTJ2 in clover: an interview with Robert Trent Jones, Jr.

He is probably not the most innovative golf course architect. His designs are not the most difficult, nor the costliest, nor the most brilliant. But hole-by-hole, Robert Trent Jones, Jr. may be in all the best golf course designer working this days, balancing solid creativity with playability and a unifying esthetic sense, and a wealth of logistical and landscaping experience derived from apprenticing with his well-known father, not to mention 20 years building courses on his own. Along with RTJ2's brother Rees, the three represent an dazzling pedigree of American golf design.

At 60, Jones is at the peak of his powers and success, as his cheery disposition and ample waistline testify. The characteristic receptive Jones charm and thick, expressive eyebrows are animated with a cagey and mercurial wit and, some might say, eccentricity. Prone to fits of doggerel, Bobby Jones loves to celebrate occasions small and large by reciting a poem he's written. The ease with which he goes from one subject to another, whether it's about the Japanese sense of landscape, classical music, international politics, makes it seem as though he's motivated by nothing but intellectual curiosity. And when the name of a celebrity or diplomat pops up in his conversation, it's so low-key as to suggest that Sam Waterston, Richard Holbrooke are just as apt to drop RTJ2's name.

Jones spoke late last month at the official opening for the Sandestin Raven, the 199th golf course he's designed. Here's what he had to say up close, later that night:

On the golf course architecture business 35 years ago:

There was no money in it back in 1966. The Spyglass Hill course -- for two years we actually had to help raise the money through membership sales -- $2500 apiece, for a lifetime membership. That's it, for that and fifty dollars a year you could be members. And they were hard to sell!

But finally they got enough done -- and the whole cost of construction and design for the golf course was $487,000. That's all the money they had back then.

Now, to give you an example: Poppy Hills, twenty years later, almost the same kind of site, and basic construction: $2.5 million. And now it's even more expensive with environmental constraints, and a lot of technical innovations like computerized irrigation systems.

On how designing has changed:

When we would build a golf course in the early days, it was greens, tees, and bunkers. The first thing I would do, my father taught me, was take a topo[graphical] map, and draw in the Vs -- the Vs were drainage areas where the water would go -- draw through-lines, and avoid them. Stay out of the lowlands. And that was the basic plan -- just follow the land, so that your targets were dry. And you moved maybe 100-125,000 cubic yards of dirt maximum, and we would build the greens up for drainage, built bunkers above ground for drainage -- it was all about drainage.

Today, you build a course down into the land. And that's what we see here [at Raven/Sandestin]. If you have land that's near the water table, you have land that's easily malleable. Many more architects find it more interesting golf-wise.

On the history of course architecture:

It's really only in the last century that the course has been architected. Now, there are golf courses, there are architected golf courses, and there is golf art. Golf art is the top tier, in my mind. They can be very natural, or they can be crafted. You just kind of know it -- you know it as a player, and there are a lot of esthetics...

It's almost subliminal -- you just feel good. You don't know why you feel good. Why when you go to a museum do you like some paintings over others? Some technical person might explain it to you so maybe you'd understand it better, but it doesn't change your emotional reaction. That's a rare, rare thing. Of course, not everyone is going to agree about what is art.

On politics, and the difference between communism and capitalism:

I've worked with many economies, I've worked in Communist economies -- six courses in mainland China, and Russia itself. Right now in the U.S. we're in a pure capitalist economy. Almost laissez-faire in America. And you know the difference between capitalism and communism? -- in communism, as everyone knows, man exploits his fellow man, right? -- in capitalism, it's just the reverse!

I was not deeply involved in the civil-rights movement in the 60s -- but I was at Yale, we were aware of Selma, we were inculcated in that spirit. But I carried it into Asia, and I was very concerned about the colonialism. I sided with the people who were Asians, which was not always popular in places like Hawaii, although we were building courses there.

And as a consequence of that I felt -- well, when Benigno Aquino was released from prison in the Phillipines -- I testified in Congress before him in 1975 before Hubert Humphrey and the Foreign Relations Committee. Then I was instrumental after he came out or prison helping them, and then he was assassinated, I was involved with all that. But I'm very quiet -- I plotted with his family to overthrow Marcos and I ran the American campaign in that time, and it was a super-secret campaign. We didn't even speak on the phone except when we were in other countries.

Right now I'm proud of working with refugees. I work on a group called Refugees International, and I wrote some poetry and dedicated the CD on the millenium, it's on our website, for them. We have a 25-member board, including former refugees, it's an international board... In the Balkans, in Kosovo, no American soldier died -- but three of our board members did die serving the refugees.


On how the role of the architect has changed:

I struggle with that actually. There are so many good designers out there. But what is a designer? Is it the bulldozer operator? Is it the guy who draws with a pen?

So, I wrote a poem called "Green," to celebrate the bulldozer guys.


They work in sweat-caked backs

With their heart

With their minds

Designers draw wonders from their pens

But bulldozer operators are my special friends


So, what is a designer? I think a designer is sometimes a person you wouldn't expect to be a designer, because you speak to them and they may not be articulate, -- they can't draw, but they can really run a blade. And that's important.

It's teamwork -- it's a school of design. It's an architectural team. So what I do now, I'm a mentor, trying to help others, younger people come up. Knowledge is hard-earned. From many, many trials and errors. At this point in my career, I don't do the routings, the way I used to do my father's routings, or I did my own routings -- I might make a suggestion on the drawing-board, and tweak it a little bit -- Bruce [Charlton] does a lot of that, together with a couple of guys, -- but in the field is where I like to work. It's where the golf is. I sense the air, -- you know, I look at what's going on....

I do my work through the good work of others. I see myself as the vessel the water runs through. Let them flow and I'll direct it. I listen to *their* expectations, and respond to them.

On the design process:

First, you have to have an understanding of what the mission is, and then you look at the land and see what the parameters are. Then there's what we call the "fixits," -- what can you not do, what can you not cross -- and any environmental laws, any issues that are local -- these are layers of meaning.

And then within that you create a disciplined response which is called a routing -- basically a series of stick-drawings, which form the doglegs and the shots -- the point-to-point shot -- and then you begin to embellish it.

I imagine several different alternatives. The land, what's the land doing, what's the land saying. What's the air doing. In the course of working, it gets more refined -- it's like editing your own work as a writer.

What's his favorite part of the process?

Working in the dirt, when I do the green sketches, when I'm tweaking the aesthetics and the shot values, with the workers. That's my favorite part, in the field, with Bruce and other architects. That's where it transforms from architecture to art. That's what I enjoy -- that's my real passion. You give your total mind and heart to that, that day. You just are in it. Sometimes it's not that day -- you have to go in and sleep on it and come back the next day, and it hits you.

On his career and posterity:

All I can say is I was blessed to be part of the growth, and have a chance to leave our art on the earth and hope others will take care of it.

Golf's as living an art as there is, cause it's literally alive, and if you don't cut it every day, it reverts to nature. It's truly an act of faith, as an art. It doesn't stay there, and you can't send in somebody to fix it -- it dies in a month. And in an existential, Christian kid of way, it's a true act of faith. Maybe I've wasted my life but I don't think so, cause I hope I've brought everybody a lot of joy. And I hope they'll want to take care of it, for the joy that it gives, for their own sake. And that's what happened in Russia, the young people came out and cut the grass in order to learn how to play. That gave me great joy.

On whether equipment changes will affect how his courses will play, and other concerns about the future:

Do you think that the armament-builders in medieval times were worried when gunpowder came in and bows and arrows went out? Of course I worry! I have to figure out some new defenses.

Do I have concerns? I have concerns that people -- crude people in the future, in the name of what they thought we were doing, and perhaps because of perhaps a higher and higher skill level at the top 1 percent, will destroy the very essence of what we did. And therefore we try to leave a record that can be referred to. I mean, who knows what Donald Ross was thinking? Everybody speaks for him -- but you know, you've got to get him on a very long-distance line to find out!