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‘A Difficult Par’ is outstanding bio of golf course architect Robert Trent Jones

‘A Difficult Par’ is a detailed look at the life of one of the giants in the field of twentieth-century golf course design, Robert Trent Jones Sr.
‘A Difficult Par’ is a detailed look at the life of one of the giants in the field of twentieth-century golf course design, Robert Trent Jones Sr.
cover image courtesy Gotham Books

‘A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Jones Sr. and the Making of Modern Golf’, by James R. Hansen

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What do you get if you take an accomplished amateur golfer who is an internationally known expert on golf course architecture – not to mention a New York Times-bestselling author and professor of history at Auburn University – and turn him loose on the story of one of the most widely renowned golf course architects of the 20th Century? You get James Hansen, and his outstanding new book, A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Jones Sr. and the Making of Modern Golf.

The name Robert Trent Jones is probably familiar to all but the most casual of golf fans. The “other Bob Jones” of American golf is known as the architect of hundreds of golf course in the United States and abroad, and as the founder of a golf-design dynasty, embodied in his two sons, Robert Trent Jones Jr and Rees Jones. What even quite ardent golf history and course architecture enthusiasts might not be aware of are the seminal achievements in the field of golf course design that can be credited to this son of working-class English immigrants.

Jones (who used the given name “Trent” starting in the 1930s, to avoid confusion with Robert Tyre Jones Jr, the golfer, who was a contemporary) was the first to widely employ the concept of the strategic golf hole – an approach that allowed a course to be enjoyed by high-handicappers and better golfers alike; his belief that every golf hole should be “…a difficult par but an easy bogey” is the source of the title of the book.

Jones embraced, and studied, the new technology that affected the game of golf, on both sides – in equipment design on the player’s side, and in turfgrass science, irrigation technology, and construction techniques from the course builder’s side. In keeping with his interest in advances in golf equipment, he was the first course architect to gather information on the driving distances achieved by professional golfers as advances were made in the design of the ball and clubs – the better to design new courses, and redesign existing courses, to challenge the best in the game.

A fine amateur player in his own right as a young man, Robert Trent Jones latched onto the idea of becoming a golf course architect in his late teens, and with the help of a wealthy patron, talked his way into a self-designed course of study at prestigious Cornell University to prepare himself for that career. Poorly educated prior to attending Cornell (he didn’t finish high school), he entered as a non-degree “special student”. To obtain the education (but not a diploma) to prepare him for his chosen career he studied subjects such as landscape architecture, hydraulics, surveying, economics, chemistry, and business law.

With incredible drive and perseverance, Jones started his career in 1930, just at the onset of the Great Depression. Coupling hard work with tremendous ambition, he made a success of it, coming out the other side of the world financial crisis with an established reputation as a golf course designer. That reputation, and the work it attracted, carried him through the war years, and set him up for the postwar boom during which he became one of the foremost practitioners of his craft in the world.

Though an admirable person in many respects, Jones had his shortcomings, too. Painfully aware of his lower-class roots, he had an almost sycophantic attraction to the wealthy and powerful people of the upper reaches of society, and appeared to have curried favor with them to a greater extent than was strictly required from the standpoint of doing business. He was also prone to quite remarkable levels of self-aggrandizement, and often took credit for the work of his associate designers (and later his sons) himself.

His business practices were sometimes suspect, and in the waning years of his professional life greed for the next “big deal” and carelessness with money had him on the brink of financial ruin, despite decades of success in his field. His favoritism toward his eldest son, Robert Trent Jones Jr., which was matched by a similar preference toward the younger son, Rees, on the part of the boys’ mother, Ione, led to much professional and personal discord when the younger Joneses embarked on their own careers in their father’s field.

All in all, the story of the man whose name is most associated with modern golf course design is a fascinating one for those with more than a passing interest in the subject, and author James R. Hansen brings a considerable amount of experience and enthusiasm to the task of chronicling the RTJ story.

A professor of history at Auburn University in Alabama, Hansen is an acknowledged expert on the history of golf course architecture, with an international reputation. He has played and studied more than six hundred golf courses around the world, and has been ranking golf courses for Golfweek for seventeen years.

While Hansen’s previous books have all been concerned with aviation and the space effort – from biographies of astronauts John W. Young and Neil Armstrong to a book on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, he has brought the discipline and exactitude of his work on that more technical subject matter to a subject which is obviously quite close to his heart. A Difficult Par displays painstaking research into the professional and personal life of its subject, which is recounted in great detail.

A Difficult Par takes a more scholarly approach than books in the field of golf history typically do; indeed, there is quite often more information – such as the extensive references to, and quotes from, Jones’s love letters to his future wife in the chapters dealing with the early period of his career – than many readers might find strictly necessary. The extensive footnotes detailing finer points of the text are sometimes intrusive, and one gets the feeling that Mr Hansen might have produced a work of at least two volumes had he been given the opportunity.

In the final analysis, though, A Difficult Par is 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.