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Monday, May 5, 2014

Bio of Trent Jones, Warts and All

Some of my favorite golf courses were designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., but that's not why I consider the story of his life written by James R. Hansen, A Difficult Par, one of the best biographies I've read in a long, long time. What I really enjoyed about the book was the totally unvarnished view it presents of the man's life and accomplishments, good, bad, and otherwise. Quite frankly, most golf biographies are hagiographies barely worth the effort it takes to turn the pages. This one I couldn't put down.

Robert Trent Jones, Sr., may well have been the most influential golf course architect of the game's flowering in the second half of the twentieth century. He was an English immigrant who arrived in the U.S. just as golf was on the verge of becoming a popular past time. His up-by-the bootstraps early life is a prelude to the ego-driven success he enjoyed as the premier designer of his day. As Hansen presents him, Jones was a brilliant architect and a shameless self-promoter. The interplay between the two sides of the man gives the reader rare insight into his spectacularly successful career.

Hansen gives excellent descriptions of everything from the design concepts to the political and financial relationships behind most of the top courses Jones created and renovated, which makes for fascinating reading for golfer and non-golfer alike. His renovation work at Augusta National, the National Golf Links, and Winged Foot, for example, may have been lost with the passage of time, but was important in the history of the game. Many of his post-war original designs are atop every aficionado's "best of" list: Dunes Club in Myrtle Beach, Hazeltine, Spyglass, not to mention the Robert Trent Jones Trail of excellent courses across the state of Alabama.

Golfers in my neck of the world are probably aware of the many contributions Jones made to the quality of the game in the Northeast, particularly in New York, but may not realize how much of that came in the form of public, daily fee courses.  Among them are Montauk Downs, Eisenhower Park's White and Blue courses, Marine Park, Bruce Memorial in Greenwich, and Casperkill in Poughkeepsie (originally built for IBM).

Hansen also explores the failures as well as the fabulous successes in Jones's career, many of which illustrated the man's weaknesses as a businessman instead of his strengths as an architect. He pulls no punches when it comes to the less-than-savory history of Jones's relationships with some partners and collaborators both early and late in his career. The complicated relationship between and among Jones and his two sons, Robert Trent Jones, Jr., and Rees Jones, gets full play, too, although in a perfectly respectful manner. The book doesn't drag anybody through the mud, but the author doesn't hesitate to show you the puddles along the way.

In many ways, A Difficult Par resembles Jones's favorite design concept: a good golf hole is an easy bogey but a difficult par. It moves along as an easy read with plenty of drama and entertainment value. If you want to dig deeper, however, the well-researched history Hansen presents is well worth careful, studious consideration.

Among many other books, Dave Donelson is the author of Weird Golf: 18 tales of fantastic, horrific, scientifically impossible, and morally reprehensible golf

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