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Robert Trent Jones II interview

Richard Simmons caught up with golf course architect Robert Trent Jones II

Costa Navarino is one of your latest European projects – I understand there's an impressive family connection with Greece?
My grandfather, Howard Lee Davis competed in the 1896 Olympic Games staged at the Panathenaic stadium in Athens. He was a sprinter – 200 & 400. In those days you paid your own way, and he shovelled coal on a steamship to get there. So yes, there’s a little family connection going on. And I have enjoyed finding out about the history – in October 1827 the allied armada of Britain, France and Russia defeated the Ottoman fleet in the Bay, a decisive turning point in the Greek Revolution that led to Greece’s independence nearly 200 years ago. My view is that great golf happens when great land meets a great body of water, which is certainly true of this site. It’s a prime site in the Mediterranean. Another of my designs, at Chambers Bay, in Washington State, bears that out, too. That's a links on steroids, and this summer hosts the US Amateur.

Environmental issues seem at the forefront of Costa Navarino – is this something that features strongly in your design ethos?
Most certainly. At Navarino the Bay Course is very much integrated into the landscape – we work with what we have. For example, the bunker design here is intended to give the impression they are more like natural dunes – when you look at them you'll get the feeling the sand just blew into them, rather than us organising them. There’s a wide variation in elevation and holes woven in among olive trees, and then back down to the sea and the bay itself. The course will feature three distinct playing areas – Seaside, Canyon and Grove – which will make for a wonderful playing experience.

What are the stand-out features of this property for you?
I am a great fan of Harry Colt and I like to create golf courses for shot makers. So it’s not long in today’s sense. I call this a player’s course; anyone with a handicap all the way down from 18 to 3 will find this place exciting and never get bored by it. The over-riding architectural ethos behind the development of the entire property I just love – the clubhouse is situated on a little hill overlooking the course and the bay, and from what I understand there's even talk of a grass roof – anyone for high tee?

How has technology helped your professional – presumably you can take a video tour any time?
That’s a very good question, and the answer is we are a small team of people who work worldwide and are very grateful for the advent of Skype calls, video streaming and so on. We are constantly sending images back and forth and critiquing them. I believe I have my father’s gift of being able to visualise things vividly on a property and in a three-dimensional view that enables me to conceptualise a golf hole or vista on a golf course. So I can be there without being there, if you know what I mean. At Navarino I have one of my top guys living on site, Doug Ingram, who gets on the bulldozer and shapes fairways and greens. Interestingly enough, right now we are working hard on the latest 3D technology which will be a massive help to both clients and the end-user – the golfers who visit. My son, Trent Jones III, just finished working on Avatar and is a genius at 3-D modelling and video technology, and you can experience some of this potential on our website.

You describe a golf course as “18 little puzzles and you get to enjoy a little dance with each one”
In the case of most golf courses you don’t want holes that are repetitive of each other. To create a shot-making challenge, one hole may reward a draw shape, the next may ask you to hit a nice fade. I see fairways wide in some places, pinched-in on others. Even within the fairway itself, being in the wrong side of the fairway can be like being in a hazard. That way you never get bored. You have to work with and adapt to the climate, too, the prevailing wind the air and so on. If the wind on a hole is predominantly from right to left, you don’t want a bunker pattern that goes left to right.

At Navarino you used a strain of grass that requires 30% less water. Clearly that’s an environmental advantage?
Water management is not only a cost issue but a big discussion worldwide, for obvious reasons. Fortunately there is a huge reservoir in the hills around Navarino which captures all of the water we need. Water recycles itself: it falls, then goes back up into the air, forms a cloud and falls again. And turf grass is a beautiful filter, consuming only what it needs. Research has proved that a golf course is great for the environment. It’s more of a Co2 retainer, absorbs more than a hectare of trees. So golf courses are good for the environment!

Of all the courses you have designed, give me the five that stand out in your mind as exceptional?
Well, that’s tough: I will say that I’ma sportsman first, I ama golfer first and an architect second. Do I play golf? Does a chef eat? If you’re a player, you remember moments. As a designer I remember the experience, or the challenge of building certain golf courses. Sometimes they are aesthetic, sometimes they are political – like the Soviet Golf Club (the first in Russia). Sometimes they are difficult, like children. Having said all that, Moscow County Club would be right up there, Seddiner Country Club, Berlin; Brohof Slog – which will host the Scandinavian Masters this July; the Mines in Malaysia; Princeville – I am very proud of the 45 holes there in Hawaii; Spanish Bay at Pebble Beach (with Tom Watson collaborating), and of course The Wisley in the UK. We are currently updating that one and it’s taking shape beautifully. I’m also very proud of my association with Celtic Manor. My father was a great friend of Sir Terry Matthews and I was involved in the original plans for what is now the 2010 Ryder Cup course. I’m heading there for the Wales Open and looking forward to seeing how it is shaping up.

Explain the concept of the 'Ribbon' tees at Chambers Bay, the site of this year’s US Amateur?
In 2002 I wrote a piece of editorial on ‘containing the tee’ – the wooden tee. And the point of the thesis was to simply question the teeing area – instead of having perfect tees, why not think about the design a little.When golf started they walked three or four paces from the hole, and that was the next tee. So I thought, why not make an uneven tee, one that’s more like an approach shot? At Chambers Bay, the 14th is a dogleg where you have to contend with huge wasteland – to do that you might wan to hit a right-to-left slingshot. And you now can set the ball slightly above your feet to do that, if you choose. So it’s simply a way to make the game more interesting. I call it a ‘ribbon’ tee because it’s crumpled, like a ribbon is when you untie a parcel and drop it on the ground. The USGA were fascinated by it and think it’s one of the most creative elements they have seen for a long time. Nick Faldo will probably find fault with it – he can’t help himself.

Where in the world would you like to build a golf course that you haven't yet?
I’d like to do more work in Latin America, and I’d like to take the Olympic theme from Navarino, take that to Latin America which would be in keeping with the youth Olympics, where young children can aspire to play golf on a nice little course and have a hit. The obvious place being Rio. I am delighted that golf is in the Olympics, as that has presented an enormous opportunity for the game to grow. The world needs more golf courses that are cheaper to maintain and offer access to youngsters. I’d like to see more golf clubs provide two or three short holes on site that are open for youngsters to play any time they can for free. Kids need to be off their computers and outdoors. If you were to advise a typical golf club on three easy ways to improve their golf course – without spending a lot of money – what would they be? Number one, try not to make the turf grass perfect. Golf gets into what I call the ‘Augusta Mindset’ a little too much. You don’t need perfect grass. Use indigenous trees and grasses, less fertiliser, and place your emphasis on shaping fairways. Be careful that you don’t lose the edges of the greens by over-mowing and gradually reducing surface area. Above all you need a long-term plan and you need to adhere to basics. Anything done by committee will probably not work. What are the three most dangerous words in golf? ‘Chairman of Greens’! A golf course needs a long-range masterplan, one that may not be changed without the permission of the architect or consultant.

How about your own golf – where do you play when you’re at home and what do you shoot?
My game is getting better, chiefly because I have a new hip! I play to about a 10 right now. The lowest I ever achieved was one. Not a long hitter but still a fox around the greens. I try to get out once a week at San Francisco Golf Club. I’m an honorary member at Pine Valley, where I grew up. I’m also a member at Dornoch and of the R&A.

To anyone travelling to the west coast for the US Open at Pebble Beach, give us the local’s tip on where to play.
I would recommend Cordevalle, 45 minutes from Pebble Beach, which we designed, and will host a PGA event this autumn. There’s no housing on it, pure golf, a beautiful clubhouse and Spa. It’s quasi-private, but open to the public. In and around Pebble, Fort Ord has recently been renovated, and Poppy Hills is another one of ours well worth a look.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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