May 28, 2008

The Pleasure Of His Company

Rees Jones is a member at too many killer clubs to remember, the jobs keep rolling in, and the money's good. Still, he's chasing something bigger

The best restaurant in Montclair, N.J., says Rees Jones, is La Couronne, just down the street from his office, under the commuter tracks, then to the right. Turns out it's clear across town, but when you were born, raised and still live in an idyllic bedroom community in the Garden State, and it takes an hour to go a dozen miles into New York City, I suppose across town seems just down the street. I join Rees and his wife, Susan, at a corner table in the front and congratulate them on 40 years of marriage. Their anniversary fell on Easter Sunday this year.

Rees realizes he forgot the wine. Local ordinance requires that diners bring their bottle and present it to the maitre d', so Rees schleps to a nearby liquor store in a light rain, returns with a merlot and hands it to the waitress, who pulls the cork and pours while glancing at the top of his head. Rees still has on a tattered golf hat. He quickly removes it, revealing -- and I say this as a friend -- the worst comb-over in golf. That's Rees Jones: one of the most successful golf architects in the history of the game, but a regular guy who wears a golf cap in the best restaurant in town.

Over dinner, Susan tells me how Rees gave her static about some of her recent purchases until she played her trump card: a stack of dues statements from club memberships. She's a cheap date compared to that.

"How many clubs do you belong to?" I ask.

"I have no idea," he says with a laugh. "Somewhere around 50 [see chart]. Most of them are honorary memberships from courses I designed -- Atlantic, Nantucket, RedStick, The Bridge; Bellerive, now that I've remodeled it. I played in an Old Chatham member-guest a few years back; didn't realize I was the member. But dues, I pay only at Pine Valley, Seminole, National [Golf Links], Maidstone, Montclair and Spyglass Hill."

It takes me a moment to absorb that blue-blooded lineup. Doesn't he realize times are tough for golf-course architects? I mean, I've gotten calls from some of them looking for work. Not a design job -- any kind of work.

But Rees Jones seems recession-proof. He has got plenty of earth churning in North America, doesn't have to beat the bushes in New Guinea, Croatia or Swaziland looking for clients. The money is good these days. His asking price is $1.5 million, up considerably from the $35,000 design fee he earned in 1980 for Gator Hole, a Myrtle Beach cutie now sadly gone. (He did it for the parents of Kelly Tilghman of Golf Channel fame.) His first $100,000 fee was for Oyster Reef on Hilton Head Island in 1982, and his first $1 million fee was for Cascata south of Las Vegas some two decades later. Despite the fees he commands, he still flies commercial ("I think my clients appreciate the fact that they're not contributing to a $10,000-an-hour airplane time share") but always first-class. Rees and Susan have a summer house in the Hamptons on Long Island and spend winters in Jupiter, Fla., where he just paid cash for a three-bedroom, block-from-the-ocean townhouse. They have plenty of room when their two daughters -- Alden and Amy, both in their 30s -- come to visit, and they're awaiting a second grandchild.

At 66, Rees Jones seems to love being Rees Jones. Still basking from last fall's Presidents Cup at Royal Montreal, which he remodeled, he's preparing for more attention in 2008 at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2, the AT&T National at Congressional, the BMW Championship at Bellerive and the Tour Championship at East Lake -- all Rees Jones re-dos. He's especially proud of Torrey Pines, which probably wouldn't be hosting the Open this year if he hadn't transformed it.

We first corresponded in 1975 and first met in 1982, at a meeting of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. He was 40, already a past president of the organization but not yet at the top level of his profession. I was a part-time freelancer, a few years from joining this magazine. He invited me to visit one of his construction sites. I've done so numerous times since then, even offering a few suggestions that he politely took under advisement. Over the years, I've played probably four dozen of his designs, at least 20 of them with Rees.

We've played other courses together, too. Rees filled out the threesome for one of my last rounds with my dad, at then-new Shadow Creek in North Las Vegas, Nev., a Tom Fazio design. Rees was so critical of the architecture -- this green was too big for the shot, that bunker didn't read right -- I finally had to tell him to hush up and enjoy the round. It's much more fun playing with Rees on an old classic like the National, or at one of his new courses, like Redstone outside Houston. But join him on one of his rivals' courses? No thanks.

LEARNING THE CRAFT

Even though he grew up as the younger son of legendary golf architect Robert Trent Jones, Rees likes to say his career is a rags-to-riches story. That's nonsense, of course. He started at least on second base, but his point is that he didn't care much for golf or architecture at first. Older brother Bobby (Robert Trent Jones Jr.) was the golfer in the family, competed in junior events, played collegiate golf at Yale. Rees was more into other sports, though he has improved his game in recent years, enough to win some local tournaments with a Handicap Index approaching 7.

When Rees attended Yale, he was the student manager of the golf team but was called on as a player during a tournament at Duke University Golf Club, which happened to be one of his father's designs. Rees shot qualifying rounds of 93-92, and a headline read, "Dad's Layout Baffles Son." Rees got payback decades later, when he redesigned the course (for free, because Amy was a student there). "I remembered all the places that gave me trouble and took them out," he jokes.

Academically, Rees was the kind of college student who took copious notes and aced finals by parroting the professor's lectures. With that sort of bathtub mind, he would have made a great lawyer. Until his junior year, he wasn't sure that he would follow his dad into the business. "But then I figured it would be foolish not to," he says.

He graduated from Yale in 1963 and did postgraduate study at the Harvard School of Design. "I have the best of both worlds: a Harvard education and a Yale degree," he says. After six months in the Army -- he also spent 5½ years in the Army Reserve to complete his service obligation -- he joined his dad's company, and as vice president soon was running the day-to-day operations when he wasn't out on some golf-course site.

He produced Trent Jones architecture but didn't entirely embrace it. Instead he admired the variety exhibited by A.W. Tillinghast at Baltusrol, Winged Foot, Ridgewood and Quaker Ridge. "Tillinghast built character into his holes, subtleties, shot options, was very innovative in his bunker building," Rees says. "He'd mix it up, didn't have a consistent style. Each course was an evolution of ideas."

Still, some Trent Jones did rub off. When Rees was 12, he had been put to work by his dad during the 1954 U.S. Open at Baltusrol. "I measured drives so my father would know where to put the bunkers in relation to the pros of the day," Rees says. "[On subsequent designs] he put in a short bunker for Jerry Barber and a long bunker for Sam Snead, and I learned from that."

To this day, Rees places fairway bunkers to catch Corey Pavin and Tiger Woods, but rather than using endless rows of bunkers, as his father did, he'll build one long, serpentine bunker, usually parallel to the line of play. Where his dad would pinch fairways to force long hitters to be accurate, until the last few years Rees accepted the argument that long hitters deserved wider margins for errors. But the equipment revolution changed his thinking, and the most recent addition to Torrey Pines is a bunker that tightens the fourth fairway.

He has also incorporated his dad's approach to green contours. "Dad taught me that contours can be as big a factor as bunkers in protecting pin positions. I like how he built small targets within big targets, separating them with transition slopes. The key today is green speeds. You can have fast greens if you have workable slopes."

His mother, Ione, a magna cum laude graduate of Wells College, was the philosophical parent. Initially she didn't want Rees to be an architect, fearing he would end up like his dad, consumed by the job. Rees pledged to be well-rounded, and today he enjoys discussing politics, films, college sports, fine dining -- topics of little interest to his father.

Ione's influence on Rees is evident in the dozens of handwritten notes he mails to acquaintances each month. "Short notes make long friends," she told him. But he doesn't care for e-mail, finding it too impersonal.

An even more essential lesson from his mother: "Life is people." He has cultivated a lot of lifetime friendships, some that eventually benefited him professionally. He has known Bernadette Castro since they were youngsters (their parents were good friends). When Castro was commissioner of New York's state parks, Rees donated his services in upgrading Bethpage State Park's Black Course to make it Open-worthy. She returned the favor by hiring him to remodel her family's golf course, Golden Hills in Ocala, Fla. Also in Florida, Rees is completing Bonnet Creek next to Disney World for his Yale classmate Bill McArthur.

Rees says that back in their undergrad days, Yale trained students to compete, and students there today are trained to contribute. He clearly does both, but in the design business, his competitive nature dominates.

MEASURING STICKS

The day Amy was born in 1974, Rees decided to leave his dad's firm and go out on his own. His mother-in-law was appalled because the nation was in a recession, but Susan supported the decision for the same reason. "My feeling was, no one was working right then, and once business started up again, he'd be in position to compete," she says.

Bobby had left the company two years earlier, converting Trent's West Coast office, and presumably a few of his clients, into his own. "Bobby got my father's name," Rees says. "I started with nothing."

Well, not exactly. He started with a one-fourth interest in his father's company -- after World War II, Trent had incorporated the firm in the names of himself, his wife and his two sons -- as well as a quarter interest in Coral Ridge Country Club in Florida. Maybe, as Rees insists, those assets had very little value, but they were safety nets.

(In 2006, the brothers sold Coral Ridge and the public par-3 course on the same property to private developers. Rees has since been retained to remodel Coral Ridge.)

Once Rees was on his own he generated some income by finishing a few jobs begun under his father, but after those projects turned out well, a rift developed between father and son. Trent wanted credit for the work; Rees, who actually did the work, needed the exposure.

"He told me, 'Since I created you, I created those courses,' " Rees says.

But the old man had met his match. In 1979, Rees quietly laid out the background to Ross Goodner, then a Golf Digest associate editor, and when Arcadian Shores in Myrtle Beach landed on our list of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses that fall, Rees was given credit for the design, with no mention of Trent.

Course rankings have always been important to Rees. Back when he worked for his father, he counted the number of Trent's designs and redesigns on America's 100 Greatest, and it became Rees' benchmark -- much like Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional major championships is Tiger Woods' target.

Since Golf Digest began publishing a list of 100 Greatest Courses in 1969, 21 original Trent Jones designs and 24 remodels have appeared. Rees trails considerably, with five original designs and 18 remodels so far. Although the competition is much stiffer these days, Rees could still exceed his father's yield some day. He loves his work, has no plans to retire and, as he says, has good genes: Ione lived to age 77, Trent to 93.

Once Rees began revamping courses for U.S. Opens, he also began competing with his father's legacy as "the Open Doctor."

"Dad was 44 when he redid Oakland Hills [the 1951 Open venue that really gained Trent national exposure]," Rees points out. "I was 44 when I redid The Country Club in Brookline [the 1988 U.S. Open site]. I guess I inherited that Open Doctor label from him, but actually, I've worked on more championship courses -- Opens, PGAs, U.S. Amateurs -- than my father."

By our count, Trent remodeled 10 courses for Opens, PGAs or Amateurs and did seven original designs for the same three championships. Toss in Trent's revisions to Augusta National, and that's 18 courses. Rees has 12 so far, all remodeling jobs.

Whether Trent's estate had exclusive rights to "Open Doctor" became a countersuit issue when, in 2006, Rees filed suit against his brother for recovery of taxes paid in final settlement of his mother's estate and for a portion of revenue generated from a new Robert Trent Jones line of clothing. Details of the settlement have not been disclosed, but Bobby's claim that Rees wasn't entitled to the "Open Doctor" title fizzled. Writers will use it this year without compunction.

Rees declines to talk publicly about his relationship with his brother. Bobby is more forthcoming. "We've had our differences over the years," Bobby says. "He has his way of doing things; I have my way. But I'm happy for his success, I really am. And he'll always be my little brother. I've tried to reach out to him, in hope that we can spend our remaining years enjoying life."

Is Rees disappointed that Chambers Bay, a design by Bobby, landed the 2015 U.S. Open, but no Rees Jones design has yet received an invitation for the championship?

"I consider Torrey Pines and Congressional to be Rees Jones designs," he says. "I changed the configuration of holes, added new bunkers, new greens, new everything. So I'd say we'll have two Rees Jones designs hosting U.S. Opens. Atlanta Athletic Club has the 2011 PGA, and we completely rebuilt both courses there. If Bellerive gets a major, if Cog Hill gets a major, well, they're Rees Jones designs now, too."

PUSHING THE PRODUCT

The first U.S. Open Rees remembers attending was 1950 at Merion outside Philadelphia, won by Ben Hogan in a playoff. Rees, then 8, positioned himself behind Hogan during the trophy presentation. "I was on the newsreels the entire week," he jokes.

There are those who contend Rees has yet to meet a camera he won't gravitate to. He schooled at the feet of the master of self-promotion, Robert Trent Jones, and has outdone him. One can't imagine, for example, the dour Trent Jones ever agreeing to dress up in surgical scrubs the way Rees did for a 1993 "Open Doctor" photograph.

If Rees spends a lot of his time promoting himself and his work, that's typical in today's crowded, competitive industry of golf-course design. Every architect is out there trying to close the deal. Pete Dye, who chucked a career selling life insurance to push dirt around, does his "crazier-I-get-the-more-people-call-me-a-genius" shtick. Greg Norman flies around in a helicopter crusading that his courses are good for the environment. Tom Fazio comes off like Walt Disney, willing to make your fantasy course come true, so long as you understand that fantasies don't come cheap.

For Rees, it has become second nature. When he casually redirects a conversation into a discussion of himself or his architecture, I don't think he even realizes he's doing it.

But Rees believes in his product, and he believes his product -- his style of golf-course design -- is good for us.

He has long been a strong advocate of "definition in design." He wants golfers to stand on his tee boxes and see all the problems, all the options, before hitting a shot. He doesn't believe in hiding hazards. He doesn't believe in deception, making a bunker 40 yards short of a green look like it's right on the collar. With GPS systems these days, he points out, you're not fooling anybody. He doesn't like doglegs because you can't see the entire hole from the tee. The one exception: hook-shape par 5s with the green on the far side of a water hazard. (In 1990, Rees wrote a magazine article explaining how studying a course's architecture could improve our games. Three years later, his brother expanded the concept into a book, Golf by Design. "He stole my idea," Rees complained. Sorry, Rees: Ideas can't be copyrighted.)

Rees practices what he calls a "multi-themed approach" in bunkering. If he builds oval bunkers in the fairway, he'll put sculptured bunkers around a green; on another hole, maybe a long, free-form bunker that runs from tee to green.

Many of his greenside bunkers -- particularly those at Torrey Pines -- look like miniature horseshoe stadiums, with sand pulled to certain upper decks for visibility. His bunkers' slopes are gentle, their edges usually crisp. He has been critical of the ragged, rugged bunkers featured by architects such as Tom Doak, Gil Hanse and the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, derisively calling them "collapsing bunkers" because he's sure that sooner or later the ragged faces will collapse. He thinks critics have been blinded by the drama of such bunkers. "Sure, bunker style is important, but what needs to be stressed is variety in placement and shot options," he says. Ironically, Rees has some ragged-edge bunkers at The Golf Club of Cape Cod, and the remodeled bunkers at his Atlantic Golf Club on New York's Long Island have a similar look. "They're coastal golf courses," he says. "The style fits there."

ON THE COURSE

Not everyone admires his salesmanship. One well-known golf architect recounts how, years ago when he was a grunt laborer on a Rees Jones project, Rees showed up for a site visit and spent the afternoon boasting about how great every hole was going to be. When the man approached Rees for advice about how to get into the design business, he says Rees responded, "Change your name." Presumably to Jones.

It's a funny story, but the point missed by the storyteller is that Rees was on site. In an age in which many architects (including his late father) sell designer labels to certain projects and never set foot on them, Rees insists on constantly visiting every project bearing his name, reviewing, editing, adjusting, making sure the work reflects his overall scheme and his little details.

"When you hit solid rock on your green site, you've got to move your green site," he says. "You don't learn that playing the PGA Tour. You learn that being out in the field."

Rees has a stock speech about how he wants golfers to think their way around his courses. I challenged him on that one time. Golfers want to relax, I said. They don't want to solve 18 brain puzzlers. How can they relax when you're making them study?

The only way to relax during a round of golf is when you focus on the course, he replied. "If you're thinking about problems at work, problems at home, you're not relaxing. I'm trying to give you a four-hour escape. If the course doesn't demand your complete attention, if your mind wanders, then you're not going to relax."

He's right. Great courses are like great books and great movies: totally absorbing. Rees' best works are captivating, even seductive: Ocean Forest on the Georgia shoreline, Nantucket and Atlantic in the ocean crosswinds, Shadow Hawk in a Texas pecan orchard, Sandpines in Oregon dunes, Haig Point on Calibogue Sound, and Torrey Pines South amid Pacific canyons.

The worst thing any golfer can say about any golf course is that it's boring.

Rees Jones courses are never boring.



THE 59-CLUB LIMIT

Rees Jones' club memberships:

PAID MEMBERSHIPS (6)

Maidstone C., East Hampton, N.Y.

Montclair G.C., West Orange, N.J.

National G. Links of America, Southampton, N.Y.

Pine Valley (N.J.) G.C.

Seminole G.C., Juno Beach, Fla.

Spyglass Hill G. Cse., Pebble Beach

HONORARY MEMBERSHIPS (53)

3 Creek Ranch G.C., Jackson, Wyo.

Andalusia C.C., La Quinta, Calif.

Atlanta Ath. C., Duluth, Ga.

Atlantic G.C., Bridgehampton, N.Y.

Bahia Maroma, Riviera Maya, Mexico

Baker Hill G.C., Newbury, N.H.

Ballybunion (Ireland) G.C.

Bear Creek G.C., Hilton Head Island

Belle Meade C.C., Nashville

Bellerive C.C., St. Louis

The Bridge, Bridgehampton, N.Y.

Canoe Brook C.C., Summit, N.J.

Carmel C.C., Charlotte

Cherry Valley C.C., Skillman, N.J.

Coral Ridge C.C., Fort Lauderdale

The Currituck C., Corolla, N.C.

Daniel Island C., Charleston, S.C.

The Dunes G. and Beach C., Myrtle Beach

East Lake G.C., Atlanta

The Georgia Tech C., Alpharetta, Ga.

The G.C. at Briar s Creek, Johns Island, S.C.

The G.C. of Cape Cod, Falmouth, Mass.

G.C. of the Everglades, Naples, Fla.

Golf de Sperone (France)

Golden Hills G. & Turf C., Ocala, Fla.

Haig Point C., Daufuskie Island, S.C.

Hammock Dunes C., Palm Coast, Fla.

Huntsville G.C., Shavertown, Pa.

Kohanaiki G. and Ocean C., Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

Lake Merced G.C., Daly City, Calif.

Lake of Isles G.C., North Stonington, Conn.

LedgeRock G.C., Mohnton, Pa.

Lookaway G.C., Buckingham, Pa.

Medinah (Ill.) C.C.

The Nantucket G.C., Siasconset, Mass.

Naples (Fla.) Grande G.C.

Ocean Forest G.C., Sea Island, Ga.

Old Chatham G.C., Durham, N.C.

Olde Florida G.C., Naples, Fla.

The Oxfordshire G.C., Thame, England

Oyster Reef G.C., Hilton Head Island

Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort

Quintero G. & C.C., Peoria, Ariz.

RedStick G.C., Vero Beach, Fla.

Redstone G.C., Humble, Tex.

River Oaks C.C., Houston

Robert Trent Jones G.C., Gainsville, Va.

Shadow Hawk G.C., Richmond, Tex.

Totteridge G.C., Greensburg, Pa.

Victory Ranch C., Woodland, Utah

Viniterra G.C., New Kent, Va.

Wintergreen Resort, Wintergreen, Va.

Woodside Plantation C.C., Aiken, S.C.