Interview: Robert Trent Jones

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A legendary golf course architect sits down with Maui Golf Review’s John Byrne and talks story about Maui, and his work on our island’s South shores at Wailea and Makena.

Mahalo to famed Maui artist, Jan Kasprzycki, who made it possible for the Maui Golf Review to join Mr. & Mrs. Jones for an interesting and insightful interview over breakfast at the Makena Beach & Golf Resort.

Maui Golf Review: Are there plans in the works to make changes to the two Makena courses?

Robert Trent Jones, Jr.: Yes, there are, but I think Makena is one of my favorite courses because it is really two courses (North and South)—really three courses because the North and South are split and we added nine holes to a continuous 18 on the north and a new nine on the south, and they were done 15 years apart. So, the original Makena was done on lava flow. We had to follow the land and couldn’t move anything, which is what I call the natural school of routing, but I am a natural architect in the sense that I was taught by my dad how to route the course—tee, 250 yards turn dogleg, green and so on. It is expensive to build this way, but the water drains naturally. Now, the modern architects, many of them, come out of the golf architecture school or golf pro school—they ignore the land and spend millions of dollars more than they need to and then use catch basins to fix the screwed-up drainage that they altered by too many bulldozers. It’s not to say that bulldozers are not important—because in certain locations—we are architects and we build things—we don’t just leave things as we find them, but in some sites you should leave things alone. Linksland are left alone, courses in Japan are left alone and in Korea and the northwest. In Hawaii, and particularly at Makena, we just followed the land as it was—it was solid lava (pahoehoe) and aa. So the routing follows the land and the tossing and tumbling, and we veneered it with cinder. And the cinder was very gritty. At first the grass didn’t take very well, but it finally got through the cinder and took hold, but still today the grass is not as tight a turf as we would like on the older holes, particularly the opening and finishing holes of the North course because we revised the South course already. So, it’s going to be re-grassed again, probably with a Paspalum grass that is tighter and denser and salt tolerant. As the water becomes more precious everywhere in the world and here in the islands, the use of reclaimed water or water with salts in it is becoming a more important environmental ethic as well as a mandate in some places. So, we are going to use grasses that are salt tolerant. And we are going to extend the South course a little first—we might re-craft some of the bunkers because the two bunker patterns are slightly different—the original had more of a four-leaf clover look. What is now the front nine of the South course has more rounded bunkers that are deeper. So, we are going to reintegrate that so it feels like one golf course. We might extend some tees on the right side of 12, for example, or the left side of seven. I personally think the course flows very well as it is. I might like to redo No. 2. My model there was No. 10 at Winged Foot, a very famous par-3 where the Open was played recently, and I played it as a kid; I love that par-3. It’s a gentle wingfoot. We might make it a little stronger green shot. We are going to clean out some of the trees to get better views. So, it is really more of a refreshment—new grasses, so they drain well, and tight turf. The greens right now, as Mark Rolfing says, are the truest greens in the state. I really have some trepidation about changing the green style because it is already good. These are tourist courses. Makena is a natural golf course. It fits into nature. Nature is the beauty of the experience. You are walking like a hiker through nature, and we want to retain that; we do not want to make waterfalls or anything artificial. It should be natural.

MGR: What is your handicap?

RTJJr: My handicap is a bad right leg, which I need to get fixed. My handicap now is 9 to 10. The best that I ever played competitively was one.

MGR: What is your best score on both Makena courses and from which tees?

RTJJr: I get to play the course in the dirt, so I get to make any score that I want. There are no flags when I play.

MGR: What was your thinking behind the design the two Makena courses?

RTJJr: My father was defending old man par in general. In the bar, raising the jar to old man par. My father was also interested in making par a valuable score at the Open championship level, so that means for the rest of us it is overwhelming. The point is that with the exception of the prince course, I was not thinking championship golf in the sense of today’s highest levels the way my father was at Kaanapali. Mauna Kea was not really entirely aimed at championship golf. It was the first lava course ever done. So, that was a big risk going into the lava fields—at the time a revolutionary idea, but it was just a resort course. In the better private clubs, the courses are respected that are not so long but require a person with a single-digit handicap to really think as well as play on any given day. What is interesting to me is most of the club pros, on their day off, when they have their betting game, they will choose a course that makes them both think and make shots, and Makena is always where they come to have their game. What is important to me are the shot values in it and that they are within reach. To be really honest, I am not really thinking about the benign, tourist golfer. They have other opportunities on Maui that they can go.

MGR: What are some of the differences and similarities in the approach to course architecture between you and your father?

RTJJr: First, I was born into a golf family. It was WWII, so nobody was playing golf. My father was designing grass air strips for the Army Air Corps Civil Defense along the east coast—that is where the long tees came from. He mimicked those strips. You will see those at Kaanapali. It is a sprawling golf course—he was a big thinker. He saw the opportunities in the Hawaiian Islands. He had great vision. He thought BIG. The farther west you go, the more expansive the courses from the east coast. In that sense, I am the same kind of thinker: I think BIG. I follow the sun—I go west. In golf architecture, you have to play the game reasonably well; you don’t have to be a great player. It may be a disadvantage to be a pro because they are the attacking general—the Napoleon. Over time, my designs evolved differently from my father’s. He tended to build things on top of the ground and up for drainage. I follow that philosophy of routing. Routing is a hard art, an almost lost art. Everybody is a product of their teaching. You have to learn to play the scales before you play jazz. Princeville was a break in that I was out here in the islands and he couldn’t see what I was doing. I lowered the greens. If you think of Princeville, most of the greens are even with the fairways. When my dad came by, he loved the course but said, “Why did you do that?” That is where I slightly broke with my father architecturally. Then I went and did 25 courses in Japan and learned their ideas of harmony and balance. Take the images in the far ground and mimic them in the near ground. Because Hawaii is a fusion of cultures, I may use it again. So that was an influence from my father to play towards the features. I began to build courses that were more out of the ground, so the site would give me a specific theme to pick up. The real change came at Spanish Bay with Tom Watson and Sandy Tatum and there I had been playing a lot in Scotland, and I was beginning to really understand the rigid pattern of Scottish links. The really big break is Chambers Bay. It is revolutionary. It’s an industrial feeling place. It’s earthy. It’s big. The tees are greens—they are ribbons. It’s as old as the ancient game and as modern as the 21st century.

MGR: What holes on the Gold and Emerald do you feel most proud of in terms of design?

RTJJr: We do not do signature holes; we do signature courses. Signature means photogenic or memorable. On the Gold course, I like No. 18 because it turns down, canted right to left, so you can work the wind. My dad always said draw your course illustrations with a pencil that has an eraser. Other holes on the Gold course, par 5s, sort of working through the bunker patterns. The bunkers are extremely highly crafted, very bold, shaped, very in your face. They are white. They look at you. They are intimidating, and they are intentionally that way. Emerald has much less strictness with your approach shots.

MGR: Tell us about Arthur Jack Snyder, whose Wailea Orange course you replaced with Wailea’s Gold and Emerald Courses.

RTJJr: He was a very kind man. He was a superintendent. He looked at golf architecture from a maintenance point-of-view. He wanted his bunkers to be simple shapes. The greens were accessible by mowing machines. The long tees were easier to cut. He was very respectful of my father for his creativity. He was a praiseworthy man. He respected other people’s work. We re-routed the Emerald to get the orientation towards the sea. Emerald is the beauty course. I call it the feminine course. The Gold is the masculine course.

MGR: If you were talking to a typical tourist on Maui, which of the four courses you have designed would you recommend they play?

RTJJr: I would tell them to extend their vacation and play them all.

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