James R. Hansen’s recently published book, A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Jones Sr. and the Making of Modern Golf, is more than your average golf book. In 500 pages, the New York Times bestselling author and internationally distinguished historian carefully examines the remarkable career of Robert Trent Jones, golf’s foremost architect, as well as that of his two sons, Robert Trent Jones, Jr., and Rees L. Jones, both of whom are also distinguished golf course architects.
In recognition of its high standard of achievement in golf literature, Hansen’s A Difficult Par just received the United States Golf Association’s 2014 Herbert Warren Wind Book Award. “Robert Trent Jones was a colossus of the game and his contributions to golf course architecture undoubtedly influenced the way championship golf has been played over the past 65 years,” said Michael Trostel, senior historian for the USGA Museum. “In A Difficult Par, James Hansen uses exhaustive research methods to deliver a comprehensive depiction of the man who shaped the landscape of modern golf, skillfully weaving together the story of family and business to break new ground on one of the game’s most celebrated and significant designers.”
Hansen shares the compelling life story of the man behind many of the defining forms, shapes, and challenges of the modern golf course. Jones, who passed away in June 2000, designed or redesigned a staggering number of courses between 1930 and 2000. His numbers include more than 400 golf courses spread over 43 states and 27 other countries including instantly recognizable courses such as Spyglass Hill in California, Mauna Kea in Hawaii, Hazeltine in Minneapolis, and Ballybunion (New Course) in Ireland, to name a few.
The book’s title is taken from Trent Jones’ belief that every golf hole should be “a difficult par but an easy bogey.” The author explains: “Throughout his long career, this principle guided the design of all of his courses throughout America and the world. But the title connotes much more than this literal meaning. Starting in the middle of the Great Depression, Jones’ quest to become the world’s greatest golf architect was far from easy to achieve, either personally or professionally. The title, A Difficult Par, conveys a sense of the difficult times and circumstances he had to overcome to become one of golf’s most distinguished architects.”
A Doctor in the House
Because of his stellar designs and redesigns of 20 golf courses where U.S. Opens were contested, Jones became affectionately known as “The Open Doctor.” His first such effort was the radical transformation of Oakland Hills Country Club near Detroit for the 1951 U.S. Open. After winning the tournament, Ben Hogan remarked that he finally “brought this monster to its knees.”
Some of the doctoring elements that Jones employed at Oakland Hills included narrowing the fairways, adding strategically placed fairway and greenside bunkers, and changing green shapes to add championship hole locations. All of these elements became part of the standard layouts on which most modern golf championships were played. After his work at Oakland Hills, several U.S. Open host clubs hired Jones to modernize and similarly toughen their courses, earning Jones the moniker “The Open Doctor.”
In the process, Jones established a new paradigm for championship golf, one that remains to this day. In fact, the distinction of being “The Open Doctor” has since passed to his younger son, Rees Jones, who, following in his father’s footsteps, has worked regularly for the past 20 years to prepare U.S. Open venues for national championship competition. His brother, Robert Trent Jones, Jr., designed Chambers Bay Golf Course, the site of this year’s U.S. Open near Tacoma, Washington.
The book is not just a biography of Robert Trent Jones, Sr., but also a biography of the entire Jones family. “There is no way to tell the story of the father’s life without delving deeply into the story of his two sons, both of whom became world-renowned golf architects in their own right,” said Hansen. “But their sibling rivalry over the years grew so intense that their personal enmities, bordering on the pathological, came in many ways to overshadow their many considerable accomplishments. In this sense, A Difficult Par is a family biography, one telling the troubled saga of the Jones dynasty in golf architecture, a family—fractured as it was—that contributed more than 900 golf course designs worldwide.”
Throughout the pages of the book Hansen looks at the filial feud from every possible angle. “To his dying day, Trent, Sr. remained stubbornly optimistic that his two sons would not only someday reconcile but also come back to work together for the parent company. Unfortunately, I feel that there is absolutely no hope that the two brothers will ever let bygones be bygones.”
Of all the many golf course architects, none is more historically significant than Robert Trent Jones, Sr. Over a span of 70 years he spread the gospel of golf in his many designs. “Because his journey to the status of ‘the world’s greatest golf architect’ was unprecedented, nothing in the history of golf compares with Jones’ epic life story,” said Hansen.
A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Jones Sr. and the Making of Modern Golf is sure to appeal not just to golfers and fans of landscape architecture but to everyone interested in life stories in pursuit of the American Dream. Published by Gotham Books, A Difficult Par is available at major booksellers.
Rick Stedman is an avid golfer, RVer, and writer. Rick writes a weekly golf blog, “The 19th Hole,” which is published every Saturday at rvlife.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.