Robert Trent Jones was the most prolific and influential golf course architect of the twentieth century and became the archetypical modern golf course designer. Jones spread the gospel of golf by designing courses in forty-two US states and twenty-eight countries. Twenty U.S. Opens, America’s national championship, have been contested on Jones-designed courses.
New York Times bestselling biographer James R. Hansen, author of First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, recounts how an English immigrant boy arrived in upstate New York in 1912, just as golf was emerging as a popular pastime in America. Jones excelled as a golfer, earning admission to Cornell University, whose faculty consented to a curriculum tailored to teach him the knowledge needed to design golf courses. Cornell provided the springboard for an act of self-invention that propelled Jones from obscurity to worldwide fame.
Jones believed that every hole should be “a difficult par but an easy bogey.” As gifted as he was at golf design, Jones was equally skilled as a salesman, promoter, and entrepreneur. Golf Digest’s annual rankings of the 100 Greatest Golf Courses have regularly featured about fifty Jones designs, paving the path for his two sons, Robert Jr., and Rees, whose work would carry on their father’s tradition. Hansen examines Jones’s legacy in all its complexity and influence, including the fraternal rivalry of Jones’s distinguished sons.
“This remarkable book is fitting tribute to a towering figure.”
—Golf Course Architecture Magazine
“4/5 Stars. Outstanding…A tremendous addition to the study of the history of golf course architecture. It is a detailed and fascinating look into the life of a man who, it can be argued, did more to shape the face of modern golf, both directly and by his influence, than any other person in the game.”
—San Francisco Examiner
“This book is a defining moment in golf literature.”
—The Met Golfer
“An affecting family portrait. A prohibitive favorite for golf book of the year.”
“An expansive study of Jones’ life and work…authoritative and meticulously researched. . . . for the course architecture aficionado, it is a revelatory dissertation.”
“Superb…For anyone serious about golf, the history of the game or course design, this fine biography is a must. An in-depth biography of one of the greatest golf course architects of all time.”
—Shelf Awareness for Readers
“Painstakingly researched, filled with kinds of fascinating insights…Highly recommended.”
“The most complete accounting to date of the evolution of Mr. Jones Sr.’s design elements…A Difficult Par deserves to be, and has now become, an important volume in the historical record of golf course architecture and design.”
“Fascinating…Every golfer who has ever wondered about the philosophy behind course design will thoroughly enjoy this biography.”
“Complicated…narrative rich in detail.. Hansen ably shows us a life filled with unrivaled success and deep end-of-life disappointment.”
“In this magisterial study of Robert Trent Jones, James R. Hansen narrates the remarkable achievements of the world’s most celebrated golf course architect. Hansen not only delves deeply into Jones’s Walter Mitty-like personality, he sets Jones’s achievements into the context of America’s reach as the world’s leading economic and cultural power. A Difficult Par is a rich three-dimensional account of an extraordinary and uniquely American life.”
—John Strawn, author of Driving The Green and the former CEO of Robert Trent Jones II
“Most of us in the golf world felt this was a book that could never be written. It took a decade of dogged persistence on Hansen’s part to produce not just a candid and truthful biography of Trent Jones but a veritable masterpiece in sport literature.”
—David Mackintosh, veteran international golf writer, Buenos Aires Herald
“Robert Trent Jones was the most influential man in golf course design since Old Tom Morris. This biography by James Hansen is essential reading for all who love golf and golf courses. There is no book like it, answering far more questions about the leading personalities and practices of modern golf course design than any author has ever achieved.”
—Dr. Michael C. Hurdzan, former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects
“A Difficult Par is an American Dream saga—the story of an impoverished but ambitious young man without a high school diploma who married the girl of his dreams and gained fame and fortune as the world’s premier golf architect. In this remarkable biography, James R. Hansen combines an engrossing family saga of courtship, romance, marital love, father-son tensions, and sibling rivalries with a detailed chronicle of Jones’s business practices and a fascinating analysis of Jones’s theory and practice of golf architecture. Hansen skillfully describes dozens of Jones’s most celebrated courses, clearly demonstrating that Jones’s genius lay in his ability to design a course that would severely test the world’s premier golfers, but also provide an enjoyable round for hackers and duffers who struggle to break 100.”
—George B. Kirsch, Professor Emeritus of History at Manhattan College and author of Golf in America
“A Difficult Par paints a memorable portrait of the life and works of the father of modern golf architecture, and depicts his remarkable succession from immigrant to immortal. A must read for students of the game and its most noble names.”
—Warner Bott Berry, author of Scotsman’s Dream
“By a long way the best golf biography I have ever read, the first time, to my knowledge, that a historian of such eminence has shone the light of his professional skills on one of the game’s major figures.”
—Adam Lawrence, editor, Golf Course Architecture
“As a historian and simple lover of classic golf course architecture, I’ve been waiting a long time for a comprehensive biography of the man who shaped the landscape of the modern game. With A Difficult Par, James Hansen has done the game of golf a great service by delivering a beautifully written and defining examination of the complicated life and legacy of Robert Trent Jones, including the dynastic succession that continues to shape the game we know today. This wonderful book is an easy birdie and difficult to put down. A well-worn copy deserves to be on every true golf lover’s bookshelf.”
—James Dodson, author of Final Rounds and Ben Hogan: An American Life
Praise for First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong
“Even if you think you know everything about Neil Armstrong and America’s historic mission to be the first to land men on the Moon, this remarkable book by Dr. James Hansen contributes a host of fascinating new insights into not only the character of Apollo 11’s enigmatic commander but also into the nature of the spacefaring enterprise itself. It is a book for all time.”—Walter Cronkite “A powerful, unrelenting biography of a man who stands as a living testimony to everyday grit and determination. . . . Hansen has achieved something quite remarkable…. A magnificent panorama of the second half of the American twentieth century. . . . A must for astronaut buffs and history readers alike.”—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review “Let it be said at once that his book is an outstanding success…. Immaculately researched and packed with detail, but written in a way that will appeal to readers of all kinds…. This is an important book, and should be in every scientific library.”—Sir Patrick Moore, London Times Educational Supplement “A fine authorized biography brimming with groundbreaking research, fresh anecdotes and fair-minded analysis. . . . Hansen should be commended for decoding the enigmatic Armstrong: a space hero short on words but sky-high on Midwestern integrity.”—Douglas Brinkley, New York Times Book Review “[Hansen’s] mastery of detail is put to splendid use. The narrative of the moon mission is crisp and dramatic, the science clear. He deftly takes us back into those few days of global fascination with the adventure of the three distant voyagers, and the tense uncertainty about how it would turn out. The moon landing is old mental furniture for everyone of Baby Boom age and older….I finished Hansen’s Apollo story with a wholly fresh sense of awe at the magnitude of NASA’s achievement…. a compelling and nuanced portrait of the astronaut…. to understand Armstrong on his own terms is to see a large truth of our time.”—James Tobin, Chicago Tribune “A riveting chronicle…. [T]he book is a work of a true scholar…. The dramatic description of the actual landing … actually makes one’s heart pound, and one feels like going through it again and again….A must book not only for space buffs but for the general reader as well.”—Srinivas Laxman, The Times of India “[A] taut, well-told tale of our nation’s race to the moon and the man who took the first step.”—Doug Allyn, The Flint Journal “A great read.”—The Kansas City Star, Noteworthy Book of 2005
Praise for First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong”Even if you think you know everything about Neil Armstrong and America’s historic mission to be the first to land men on the Moon, this remarkable book by Dr. James Hansen contributes a host of fascinating new insights into not only the character of Apollo 11’s enigmatic commander but also into the nature of the spacefaring enterprise itself. It is a book for all time.”
Of all the golf course architects, why did you choose to focus your attention on Robert Trent Jones, Sr.?
No golf architect is more historically significant than Robert Trent Jones, Sr. In a career spanning 70 years, from his first golf course in 1930 to his death in 2000, he spread the gospel of golf by designing over 400 courses in the U.S. as well as 27 countries on five continents. Because his journey to the status of “the world’s greatest golf architect” was unprecedented, nothing in the history of golf compares with Jones’s epic life story.
Why is your book called A Difficult Par?
Trent Jones believed that every golf hole should be “a difficult par but an easy bogey.” 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’s 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.
In what respects was Robert Trent Jones Sr. responsible for the making of modern golf?
Trent Jones was the man behind many of the defining forms, shapes, and challenges of the modern golf course. He admired the skills of the touring pros, but also understood that the courses they played should test the limits of their skills. Jones made sure that golf at its highest levels was a kind of athletic chess, a game that had to stimulate the mind as well as engage the muscles. At the same time, he understood that in order to prosper in the long term as a popular sport, and not just as an arena for elite practitioners, the courses had to be fun for everyone. No one had ever understood the balance required to achieve that blend of complexity on the one hand and simplicity on the other until Jones made the connection between them explicit.
Jones came to be called “The Open Doctor.” What is the meaning of that name? Is it a moniker that got passed down to one or both of his sons?
Twenty U.S. Opens, were contested on Jones-designed courses, beginning with his radical transformation of Oakland Hills Country Club near Detroit, Michigan, for the 1951 U.S. Open, won by Ben Hogan, who famously remarked at the end of the tournament that he had finally “brought this monster to its knees.” Jones’s “doctoring” of the Oakland Hills golf course, i.e. transforming the layout by lengthening the course, narrowing the fairways, adding a number of strategically placed fairway and greenside bunkers, and changing green shapes to add championship hole locations, became the standard layout by which most modern golf championships was played. In the coming years several U.S. Open host clubs hired Jones to modernize and similarly toughen their courses, earning him the title “The Open Doctor.” In the process, Jones established a new paradigm for championship golf, one that remains to this day. The distinction of being “The Open Doctor” has since passed to his younger soon 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.
In what ways is your book not just a biography of Robert Trent Jones Sr. but a biography of the entire Jones family and the legacy of the entire Jones family in the world of golf course architecture?
There is no way to tell the story of the father’s life without delving deeply into the story of his two sons. Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Rees Jones both became world renowned golf architects in their own right. 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.
Did you come upon any interesting information in the research of this book?
My research uncovered over 400 love letters written between 1930 and 1935 by Trent Jones to his eventual wife, New York City debutante Ione Tefft Davis, during what turned out to be their long and torturous five-year engagement. These precious letters provide vivid and moving insights into Trent Jones’s driving ambition and dogged willfulness as well as into his financially miserable and spiritually exasperating early years as a fledgling golf course designer.
Can you shed any light on the feud between the Jones sons? Do you think they will reconcile?
My book sheds a very bright light on what has been a long-lasting feud between Jones’s two sons, Bob Jr. and Rees. A Difficult Par looks at the feud from every possible angle. Besides looking at it from the conflicting perspectives of each brother, it reviews all extant materials illuminating the thoughts of Robert Trent Jones Sr. and his wife Ione about the antipathies between their two sons. Those materials include personal letters never before seen outside the family as well as different oral history interviews conducted with Trent Sr. during the last decade of his life. 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.
There is some controversy about courses that are attributed to RTJ – which may or may not be his. Where does that come from? How do we not know what some of his courses are?
Creating a comprehensive list of the golf courses of Robert Trent Jones, Sr., or any other golf course designer, is more difficult than one might imagine; it is not a controversy unique to Trent Jones alone. The main difficulty lies in establishing clear, logical, and historically valid criteria for including any given course on the list. In the case of the majority of golf courses, more than one person was involved in the design process. Often there was a team of designers within an architectural firm that did the work together, in which cases it is nearly impossible to distinguish who did what. In theory, it may seem possible, by studying the detailed records of a golf course project, to specify the credit for the design where credit is due. The truth is, however, such records often do not exist—and, even when they do, the nature of the documentation is such that it does not reveal much about who did what in terms of designing the different elements of the golf course.
What is your favorite RTJ course?
Whenever Trent Jones was asked, “Of all the courses you have designed, which one is your favorite,” Jones always smiled and answered, “The next one.” So I will give the same sort of answer. My favorite RTJ course? The next one I play.