A new biography, A Difficult Par, written by James R. Hansen, focuses on the life and work of Robert Trent Jones Sr. The subtitle of the book, “The Making of Modern Golf” indicates the prominent role Jones has played over a career that spanned an astonishing seventy years. A shameless self-promoter, Jones used to boast that the “Sun never sets on a Robert Trent Jones golf course.” Over his lifetime, Jones designed or remodeled over 400 golf courses.
Hansen’s book, at 484 pages, is detailed. He had access to the “Robert Trent Jones Collection,” an archive of hundreds of thousands of documents that would fill the equivalent of 280 filing cabinet drawers. The title of the book is derived from Jones’s design philosophy of “Hard Par, Easy Bogey.” Among Jones’s better known courses are Valderrama, Spyglass Hill and Peachtree in Atlanta, which he co-designed with Bobby Jones.
Jones began his career at a difficult time, working as the Great Depression was gripping the country. As a result, he was not paid for the first several works he did. He teamed up with Canadian architect Stanley Thompson early in his career, and his inchoate genius came into view when he did the routing for the Capilano Golf & Country Club in Vancouver. He then took on a series of assignments for the WPA to sustain himself until the economy improved.
Jones is credited with advancing the “heroic” school of golf course architecture, a distinct style that blends elements of both the strategic and penal styles. Among the innovations Jones help to advance were long tee boxes, which allowed a course to be shortened or lengthened with ease.
Jones developed a reputation as the “Open Doctor” after his much criticized work at Oakland Hills in preparation for the 1951 U.S. Open. The current view of golf courses designed during the Jones era—including many of his works—is not kind. Concepts that are derided today such as a course having a “signature hole” were created by Jones.
One of his most significant contributions to the game was made during his 1946 alterations at Augusta National. He opened up the eleventh hole to play straightaway (previously it was a dogleg right). He also dammed Rae’s Creek on the 11th and 16th, greatly enhancing both holes. He was at the height of his prowess at his time; two years later he was brought in to make changes at both the National Golf Links of America and Winged Foot.
Hansen’s best work is in areas that are lesser known, in particular the creation of the secretive Vidauban course near the French Riviera, which nearly bankrupted Jones. The original concept at Vidauban was to build three golf courses, 3,000 condominiums and two large hotels. Hansen also describes in detail the complicated (and tense) relationships among Jones and his sons Rees and Robert, Jr. Another interesting story Hansen relates is the fact that Jones was present at a Coup d’état attempt on the King of Morocco, who he designed the Royal Dar Es Salaam course for. While he was on the property armed soldiers starting shooting at the palace and captured the King for a period of time. Jones was held by the armed captors during the harrowing event.
Hansen is a professor at Auburn University and wrote a bestselling biography about Neil Armstrong. He covers his subject in depth, and the book fills an important void in the history of golf course architecture, giving detailed insights into someone so well known that most golfers recognize him simply by his initials: RTJ.
Although Jones wrote an autobiography, Golf’s Magnificent Challenge, in 1989, A Difficult Par fills a void in the history of the game and can proudly take its place among the golf course architect biography section of a golfer’s library alongside The Captain, The Toronto Terror, Tillinghast, The Life and Work of Dr. Alister Mackenzie, Tom Morris of St. Andrews and Discovering Donald Ross.
A difficult par was awarded the USGA’s 2014 Herbert Warren Wind Award in recognition of its high standard of achievement in golf literature.