Eminence Green

Golf course designer Rees Jones chats about redoing two of New Jersey's most prestigious courses—Baltusrol and Montclair Golf Club.

LC Lambrecht/Golfstock.net.

Superlative golf course design runs in Rees Jones’s family. The son of Robert Trent Jones Sr., one of the most esteemed golf architects of the last century, and the brother of noted golf architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., Jones grew up in Montclair and, at 69, still lives there when he isn’t traveling the world. The designer or renovator of more than 100 golf courses, Jones has carved his own niche, earning himself the nickname, the Open Doctor. That refers to the U.S. Open, one of pro golf’s toughest tests. This June—when the Open returns to Congressional Country Club outside Washington, D.C.—will mark the seventh time Jones has renovated or revamped a venerated course to freshen its challenge for today’s top players. While proud of his accomplishments, Jones hastens to add, “Don’t forget to mention that I’m in the Montclair High School Hall of Fame.” That illustrious group, he notes, includes astronaut Buzz Aldrin and former New Jersey Devils owner John McMullen.

You’re currently redoing two of New Jersey’s most prestigious courses, Baltusrol, in Springfield, and Montclair Golf Club. What’s the mission?

At Montclair, we’re putting in better sand and relocating the bunkers so they come into play more and use the bunker style of the original designers, Donald Ross and Charles Banks. Baltusrol’s been a two-year project. The Lower Course has had every bunker rebuilt and reconceived, with many moved closer to the greens. The greenside bunkers were made deeper, too. We wanted to bring that championship course into the 21st century, too, and get it ready for [the PGA Championship in] 2016.

What do you mean by bringing a course “into the 21st century”?

Due to equipment advances, we have to lengthen courses just so they play the same as even 10 years ago. Also, with players often approaching greens with shorter clubs in hand, we need to build our greens today in quadrants and make their contours another form of hazard.

Why is it important to use the style of the original designers?

It’s good to go back to the designer’s intent if he spent a lot of time on the course and was a hands-on designer. Older architects used to not travel very much; they’d be on-site every day. With A.W. Tillinghast, my role model, every one of his courses had great detail. Some courses aren’t that way, and you have to put the detail in today. I like to do modernizations within the framework of what was already there when possible.

What can happen to a course’s detail over time?

A lot of courses in New Jersey, for example, have round greens that didn’t start out round. Riding mowers couldn’t get to the tongues [the narrow projecting contours] of greens. Riding mowers and mowing patterns can lead to gradual changes in the course. Many bunkers were abandoned during the Great Depression because they were too expensive to maintain. It’s largely a matter of maintenance practices and economics.

How is golf holding up in this economy?

The clubs keeping up with the times are the ones doing well. Lifestyles have changed so much. Parents especially don’t have as much time to spend at the club. We’ve got to provide more activities for the whole family.

What would be your perfect New Jersey foursome?

Maury Povich and I have become good friends through Hollywood. [Former USGA executive director] David Fay, a friend for many years, would be another. We’ve come close to winning some good member-guest and member-member tournaments. I shouldn’t say this, but I enjoyed playing with Jon Corzine before he got into politics.

Are you among those who think that equipment advancements have gone too far?

It only went too far for championship golf. We need the home run in golf for the average golfer. It’s a very hard game, and it’s not natural. But with equipment being better, I think that’s going to help the game grow in this poor economy. With the old equipment, the game of golf would be in a little trouble.

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