Rees Jones was born into the game of golf. He learned to play the game as a youngster and competed as a junior, in college and while he was in the army. He grew up traveling with his family, which included his brother Robert Trent Jones Jr., to golf courses all over the world. And he worked in the summers for his father, renowned golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr.
After college at Yale and graduate studies at Harvard, Rees Jones went to work in 1965 as a principal in Robert Trent Jones, Inc. In 1974, he founded his own design firm, Rees Jones, Inc., headquartered in his hometown of Montclair, N.J.
Since then, Jones has designed or redesigned more than 170 golf courses. Of those, seven have hosted the U.S. Open and eight have been the site of the PGA Championship as well as two Ryder Cups.
Among his notable original designs are Nantucket Golf Club in Siasconset, Mass., Atlantic Golf Club in Bridgehampton, N.Y., The Golf Club at Briar's Creek in Johns Island, S.C., RedStick Golf Club in Vero Beach, Fla., Ocean Forest Golf Club in Sea Island, Ga., Haig Point Club in Daufuskie Island, S.C., Waldorf Astoria Golf Club in Orlando, Fla., and Cascata near Las Vegas.
Golf Advisor caught up with Jones during the PGA Tour Championship, which was conducted at another course he renovated -- historic East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, the home of the late, great Bobby Jones (no relation).
Golf Advisor: Jason Day won the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits at 20-under par this year. What's your feeling on major venues? Should they be more difficult than that?
Rees Jones: I think the days are over that even par is going to win major championships, partly because recently the USGA has wider fairways on their links-style courses, and when they don't have a links-style course, they have the graduated rough. I think the PGA really has more the old style rough setup, but they like to have a first cut, too. I think that has something to do with the lower scores. But I think these guys just hit it so far and can drop it on the spot. In the old days the Tom Watsons and Vinny Giles used to release the ball to the hole. Now they just fly it to the hole and know it's going to stop. And as long as they hit it, they're going to make a lot of birdies.
Golf Advisor: What can be done to make the courses more difficult for the top players?
Rees Jones: I think you have to make it a little narrower. If you want to make it harder, you have to go to the former Open setup that didn't have the graduated rough. At Baltusrol next year, (director of grounds) Mark Kuhns is going to water the rough and not water the fairways, and some of those fairways have a little tilt to them. I believe there will be more balls in the rough, and that will protect par as a standard.
Golf Advisor: Besides high-profile U.S. Open courses, what are some of your favorite designs?
Rees Jones: You know it's funny as a designer you keep changing ideas. I feel like I'm kind of like Tillinghast in that I don't really have one style. I go back to some of my older golf courses like Lookaway Golf Club (in Buckingham, Pa.), which I did almost 20 years ago, and I'm pretty impressed with all the detail I have in there. I didn't take too many jobs, so I didn't crank them out, and there's a lot of detail in a lot of my courses. Like the stuff I did at Hilton Head (Country Club of Hilton Head, Bear Creek Golf Club, Oyster Reef Golf Club, Haig Point, Ocean Forest, RedStick). As far as public courses are concerned, I guess Torrey Pines South is pretty rewarding because we got two Opens out of that one.
Video: Rees Jones on the future of golf course design
Golf Advisor: How has your design philosophy evolved over the years?
Rees Jones: Sometimes architects get into trends, like with Pete Dye, you started seeing architects building golf courses with pot bunkers. Then we got away from that. Then they got back to the Tillinghast and the MacKenzie bunkers, which I'm probably most known for -- the sculptured bunker. But like at East Lake (Atlanta), I used a Donald Ross bunker style. At Lake Merced (San Francisco) I used a MacKenzie bunker style. So that's why I don't think I'm really known for one style.
But I think as you progress you start thinking of all players. One thing you do when you design a U.S. Open course is you design for the best players in the game, but at the same time you've got to make sure that the members or the public like what you did after they (the pros) leave. So you have to make sure it has open entrances, it doesn't have pitches that are too severe.
On the U.S. Open
Golf Advisor: Because of all your work on U.S. Open courses, you earned the moniker "The Open Doctor." How does that make you feel?
Rees Jones: I grew up with my father (Robert Trent Jones Sr.) being The Open Doctor, and we'd go to all the Opens. So when I got the first one in The Country Club at Brookline, it was like I had died and gone to heaven. And then I started getting more of them. It's a high-profile business, and you have to have a thick skin because not all the pros are going to like what you do. But I think with all of them we achieved our goal, and that was to crown a proper champion.
Golf Advisor: Which U.S. Open course makes you most proud?
Rees Jones: I don't think there's one I'm most proud of, but the one that probably sticks out the most is Bethpage Black. Because that was David Fay bringing it to a public venue and it occurred (2002) after 9-11, and the whole atmosphere was probably unique as far as a U.S. Open was concerned. Plus it was the "People's Open" because it was the first time that it was at a public golf course that was really owned by the people.
Golf Advisor: The USGA has been going to a lot of different types of courses in recent years with the U.S. Open. What do you think of that trend?
Rees Jones: When Jim Awtrey was the CEO of the PGA of America (1993-2005), he went after a lot of the normal USGA venues like Hazeltine, Baltusrol, Oak Hill, etc. So it really opened the door for the USGA to go to some new venues. I think that's what happened, so they weren't able to go back to some of the regular venues. I think it is exciting to have some new venues like Torrey Pines and Bethpage. It's easier for the USGA when they go back to the older venues because they've already been played there.
Golf Advisor: What were your impressions of the 2015 U.S. Open held at Chambers Bay (designed by Jones' brother Robert Trent Jones Jr.)?
Rees Jones: It was a pretty strong test of golf. They were very happy with the result obviously (Jordan Spieth's dramatic win over Dustin Johnson). The ones who play well in these championships and the ones who don't probably have different opinions.
But I think Chambers Bay really brought golf to the Northwest. I mean, we've been redoing Sahalee (in Seattle) for all these years. They're going to have the (KPMG) Women's PGA Championship there next year. So I think it's fabulous they took it to the Northwest, and I think that's the reason they chose Chambers Bay.
Golf Advisor: Any perceived or real animosity aside, what do you think is the biggest difference between your courses and the courses of your brother, Robert Trent Jones Jr.?
Rees Jones: I really haven't seen that many of his courses. And I think this Chambers Bay style was different from anything else I've ever seen that he did. He probably protects his greens with bunkers more than I do. But we were both schooled by my father on green contours, and we believe the green contours are a form of a hazard.
Jones on his current design projects
Golf Advisor: Tell us about what you have going on right now, starting with the Chuck Corica Golf Complex near Oakland in Alameda, Calif.
Rees Jones: Chuck Corica (the Jack Clark South Course, one of two 18-hole courses there) is a low-profile design. We're bringing in a lot of fill from off site. You can really access the greens from the ground even more easily than from the air. The bunkers are judiciously placed, so you have to manage your game, but if you miss the green, you're really going to be on turf in most cases. It's going to be a dramatic looking golf course, while it will be fun to play. But I think it will test the best, too.
We're probably not going to grass it until next year. It's going to be an environmentally friendly golf course. Marc Logan is the agronomist, and I think he's like the top in the world. And he's way ahead of the curve in terms of water conservation and integrated pest management. I think it's going to be a golf course that people will look to for the future.
Golf Advisor: What's the rundown on The Falls?
Rees Jones: The Falls is on open land, and the wind is the hidden hazard. It's not overly long. It's got a lot of different length holes, and the wind comes into play a lot. It's really low profile, it only has 46 bunkers, a lot of closely mowed areas around the greens and a lot of chipping areas. And it's really knocking their socks off. It opened in May and they're packed most of the time. It's a real achievement for the Grand Falls Casino Resort.
Golf Advisor: In New Orleans, City Park was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There were four courses, but you're doing what amounts to a brand new course. Tell us about it.
Rees Jones: We are excited about the potential and overall quality of this course and liken it to similar, high-profile municipal/park projects we've completed at Torrey Pines and Bethpage State Park. The new plan includes the renovated North Course (currently open for play) and a second completely new 18-hole layout that encompasses land previously home to portions of the former East and West courses. The new course also features a "low-profile" design style, meandering through many of the Park's majestic live oak trees. Several holes also border existing lagoons. Multiple tees will allow the course to play anywhere between 5,000 and 7,200 yards to accommodate players of all skill levels.
Golf Advisor: What's your favorite golf course among those you didn't design or renovate?
Rees Jones: I don't really have a favorite, but I think the one that's the most important is the Old Course at St. Andrews, because that started it all, and that's where a lot of the ideas came from. And now, going back to the minimalist style of design and low-profile golf courses, I think that style of design with green contours being the hazard more than bunkers and rough is really going to be how architects are going to learn how to design golf courses in the future. I think the Old Course is likely the model.