Catching up with Robert Trent Jones Jr.
- Clive Agran
- Aug 8, 2011 1:39 PM ET
What can you learn about architecture legend Robert Trent Jones Jr. (pictured left) over a few holes in Portugal's Algarve? As Clive Agran (pictured right) discovered, it can be everything from fiscal policy to his ten most coveted golf course designs around the world.
LAGOS, Portugal -- A rather elderly man approached as I strapped my clubs to the back of a buggy.
"Robert Trent Jones," he announced, proffering a hand.
Famous people, I suppose, have to introduce themselves just like us ordinary folk or risk appearing somewhat presumptuous.
Having previously pleaded with his handlers for a 10-minute interview, it was now my very good fortune to be playing alongside RTJ2 at the opening of his latest creation, the Onyria Palmares Beach & Golf Resort, which is at the western end of the Algarve in Portugal.
He looked relaxed, cheerful and friendly and, despite the innumerable hazards he's created in the nearly 300 golf courses he's built in more than 40 countries around the globe, I instinctively warmed to him.
What was already fast developing into a truly great day acquired an almost surreal state of perfection when I learned that we were to commence the shotgun start on 19. Sadly, the vision of a couple of swift beers to kick-start the round evaporated in the Portuguese sunshine when I discovered that there was, indeed, a 19th on this 27-hole layout.
I'd played here a couple of times before when it was plain old Palmares, and there were only 18 holes, but the place now was barely recognizable.
Standing on the elevated 19th tee awaiting the gun, Jones explained that the project was a "blow up," which is architect-speak for starting again. Surveying the breathtaking panorama of hills, beach and Atlantic, he declared with the relish of a victorious field-marshal looking out over a battlefield, "Nothing survived."
The only downside to playing in the "stand out" group was that we attracted more attention in the way of spectators and cameramen than my dodgy swing could comfortably handle. Despite the pressure, I struck a tolerable drive down the 19th and scrambled a credible double bogey, only one shot more than Jones, who was once a very serious golfer and is now a steady 13 handicapper.
As the round progressed and RTJ2 explained, my appreciation of the art of golf course design grew even as the tally of lost balls rose. For example, I don't think I would ever have been consciously aware of what is known as the "principal of harmony" where, for example, the outline of the mounding behind the green mirrors the silhouette of the mountains in the background, and how the use of diagonals creates greater visual appeal and more interesting holes than do straight lines.
Like me, Jones is a sensitive and creative individual, but, unlike me, he likes poetry. Evidently passionate about what he does, he explained the rhythms and rhymes that he endeavors to develop when creating a course.
He's a sort of landscape poet crafting stanzas within the parameters laid down by nature and the discipline imposed by the rules and conventions of golf. And because he likes rhymes, he took pleasure in the fact that the four holes down by the sea went 5-3-5-3.
"These holes are sort of two-dimensional whereas those in the hills are three-dimensional," he revealed. "Three-dimensional holes present more of a challenge to a designer."
A thoughtful, intelligent and cultured man, he raised numerous topics during our five-hour round, including politics. "I'm a social liberal but a fiscal conservative," he confessed. And I learned that of all the U.S. Presidents he had golfed with, John F. Kennedy was the best.
He talked about his father: "You know, he invented the concept of the signature course. He was in Brussels and, although he didn't much care for art, he reluctantly agreed to visit a gallery. There he saw a painting that was signed by Rubens, and it was explained to him that the master only signed paintings that he had done himself and didn't sign those that were merely painted by those in his school who endeavored to replicate his style. When my father returned home, he advertised in a newspaper offering to design Robert Trent Jones 'signature' golf courses."
The only character flaw I detected in RTJ2 was his evident delight when one of our group (including him!) hit into a bunker. It was a sort of vindication, I suppose, of his decision to put the bunker where it was. But did it reveal a slightly sadistic streak in an otherwise extremely friendly and charming man?
"No, my brother inherited the sadistic gene," Jones said. "Bunkers act like lighthouses. They tell you 'don't go there.'"
They aren't always hostile, he explained: "When sited on the edge of a ravine, for example, they can stop your ball rolling into deeper trouble. And there are other problems besides the ones we designers create. The wind, for example, is an invisible hazard."
Somewhat surprisingly for an American, he used a soccer analogy to describe the job of a golf course architect.
"The golfers are the strikers, and we're the defenders," he said. "An easy defense is to make the course long, but it's more satisfying to be more subtle."
What sort of striker/golfer does he have in mind when designing a course?
"A 10-handicapper. If he enjoys it, he'll act like a bell-cow and attract others to follow."
Now 71, is he considering retiring? "My friends ask me that, and so I ask them why they retired. They say so that they can travel and play more golf. Traveling a lot and playing golf is what I'm doing now, and so why on earth should I retire?
The Top Ten golf courses around the world Robert Trent Jones Jr. wishes he had designed
- Video: Rose on 'Dan Patrick Show' | Travelers
- Punch Shot: Will Mickelson ever win an Open?
- Rose on NBC's 'Today' | Used 'force' at Merion
- Nine-year-old shoots 58 in junior tournament
- Obama mentions McIlroy during Belfast speech
- Rose wins first major | Tops Phil | Scores
- Stock watch: Buying the champ, selling runner-up
- Woods' major futility | Stuck on 14 | Tracker
- Others race to try Rose's putter | What's in the bag?
- Mickelson criticizes No. 3; USGA responds
- Six flak: Lefty's Open runners-up | Posnanski
- U.S. Open: Articles, videos, pics | Coverage | Social
- Weekly Fix: Finding the right tempo and path