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"God is the best architect,"
Robert Trent Jones likes to say. But he says it in a way that makes one suspect he's just feigning modesty.
Jones, most everyone agrees, is a 600-yard par 5 with bunkers on both sides and an elephant buried in the middle of the green. Among older golfers the name alone causes pupils to dilate. Jack Nicklaus, asked for his appraisal of the 86-year-old dean of golf-course architects—known as Trent—stammers, hesitates and finally declines to comment. Arnold Palmer, ding with a drink in his hand by a swimming pool in Hawaii, squints as if the name barely registers, and he's just minutes from Mauna Kea, one of the old man's signature courses. Another pro, a winner of several major titles, refuses to be quoted by name but bitterly resurrects some unflattering comments made about him by Jones some years ago. "You ask about his golf courses," the pro says, "but golf courses are not that important."
The tale is oft repeated: Ben Hogan had just shot seven over par over 72 holes to win the 1951 U.S. Open, at Oakland Hills (remodeled by Trent Jones in his prime), in Birmingham, Mich., when he wearily said, "I am glad to have brought this monster to its knees." The famous quip made Jones's reputation and ushered in the era of the high-profile golf architect. It also altered forever the relationship between the golfer and the golf course. Henceforth the land would speak to the golfer through a malevolent interpreter—the demon architect.
"I'm not a fiend. I don't hate golfers," insists Jones, who also designed the Baltusrol Golf Club, in Springfield, N.J., site of the 1993 U.S. Open, which will be played next month. Before architect Pete Dye made target golf the bane of the Tour, though, the touring pros thought otherwise. They incessantly groused that Jones's courses were too long, his greens too contoured, his penalties too severe. Lee Trevino once played a round at Spyglass Hill, in Pebble Beach, Calif., another one of Jones's many great works of art, and said, "They just ought to hang the man who designed this course. Ray Charles could have done better."
"Golfers complain a lot," Jones observed.
In 1970 Nicklaus griped about too many blind shots at Hazeltine, in Chaska, Minn., site of that year's Open.
"Maybe Nicklaus is blind," Jones replied.
Back home, in Montclair, N.J., Jones's sons, Bobby and Rees, would often read about the attacks on their father. "It made me angry," Bobby said recently. "Made me upset. I said, 'Dad, we've got to answer them!"
Rees read the same unflattering remarks and shrugged. "I was on Dad's side, but I guess I'm more accepting of different people's views," he says. "And I understood that Dad stirred up a lot of the controversy himself, to gain publicity."