Brightwater to Beaver Creek, Robert Trent Jones, Jr. has designs on the High Country
Vail CO, Colorado
Robert Trent Jones, Jr. introduces himself as Bobby Jones. If you don’t know his pedigree, he’s just another pleasant conversation at the 19th hole.
He designed that 19th hole and dozens of other great golf holes around the High Country.
He’d been watching the Winter Olympics and downhill skiing was still on his mind as the conversation rolled along. He drew poetic parallels between skiing and golf, jotting down a few stanzas on a leatherbound legal pad. While a DJ company clanked and banged around setting up, Jones focused ” the kind of focus possessed by world class athletes and not regular humans.
Concentration etched his features. Almost chuckling to himself, his pen flashed quickly and with purpose. The muse wasn’t getting away this time.
His golf course design muse has taken Jones on a wonderful ride.
“Not many people would have gone to Moscow in 1974 to try and put the first golf course in the Soviet Union, and fewer people would have gone into Red China in 1983, but I did. And at the same time we are challenged by the vast and beautiful land where I live. There are so many different geological formations, weather patterns and climates, that in itself is a challenge. Yet we have so much land that we’re blessed.”
“So I was able to spread my wings, literally, like an American Eagle and fly all over the place.”
He came to the high country early, skiing Vail in 1963. Vail’s pioneers already had designs on a golf course. The talk ran short, though. The terrain was too tall and the growing seasons too short. “It wasn’t until the ’70s people began taking the risks of using more of the terrain in the design of the golf courses,” Jones said.
Designers became more willing to climb those literal mountains as the Rockies began to develop. Jones and his firm went on to mastermind seven courses in Colorado, including Beaver Creek. Jones designed Beaver Creek to go up and down 400 feet in elevation. Nearby Eagle-Vail uses many of those same mountains in its design and was one of the original golf courses in the Vail Valley. Later courses, like those in Cordillera and Red Sky Ranch near Wolcott, make use of both meadow and mountain terrain in their layouts.
“One of the things we had to remember is that not only is it tough for golfers to go up and down hills, but the ball is subject to gravity and poses some of those same challenges in the design,” Jones said.
They had to conceive ways to keep a golf ball from rolling too far. “On one hand, having the ball fly forever might be a good thing, but having the ball travel too far might be a bad thing,” said Jones.
Mountain courses are just plain more fun to play. A golf ball won’t fly that far across a converted corn field. Still, on a high country course, designers not only have to get the ball up and down the mountainside, but the golfer as well. Jones pointed out that the golf cart hadn’t come into full use when some of the earlier mountain courses were being designed. The use of golf carts encouraged players to try golf in locations like the Rocky Mountains.
The Beaver Creek golf course drops down, doubles back, steps up and then back down. “It’s kind of like a skier climbing a mountain before the ski lift. You have to criss-cross both up and down. And as a skier will tell you, going up is hard,” said Jones.
The trick with Beaver Creek, Jones said, was forming a step-ladder effect in climbing back up on the back nine. Getting down wasn’t the problem, it was making the climb gradual and graceful.
Keystone Ranch in Summit County didn’t present the same elevation challenges. “It was more of a big valley with some elevation change, but kind of reached out and then came back,” said Jones, who recalled “a lovely pond, a meadow and a few areas of trees.”
Before the papers are signed and a shovel of soil is turned, Jones envisions the golf course. “That’s my job … envisioning,” Jones said, smiling. “First off, I walk the land with my team, an excellent team of designers.”
Topographical maps are scoured, their accuracy debated and layouts plotted. Jones keeps in mind who the owners are trying to appeal to. Will the course be surrounded by a housing development or countryside?
“If we have a meeting of the minds, good piece of property, we design many layouts and proceed,” he says.
Which is how things have gone so far with the new Brightwater project just south of Gypsum. For Jones the new Brightwater Club golf course isn’t so much a challenge but a design opportunity.
“The ownership had approval for 27 holes, but they were willing to give up 9 holes to create a challenging and somewhat long golf course in the same area,” Jones said. “The course had room to breathe.”
The Brightwater course is expansive. With seven tee boxes for golfers to choose from the course ranges from extremely long at more than 7,000 to short enough for junior players.
The details of bringing a new golf course to life begin with planning.
Brightwater is a long course, therefore responding to its time. Longer hitters require more space and longer landing pads, particularly in the mountains. With seven tees available, the junior tees are placed very far forward, making the course very flexible and accommodating to various styles and levels of play.
Golf course design has improved, as has golf equipment. “It makes the average golfer have much more fun with the game,” Jones said. “I’m all for new equipment. As I get older, I’ll take any advantage they can give me with a hotter ball.”
Because the ball is going farther, particularly at this elevation and particularly in the summer. “So, we want the challenge not to be only a big-headed driver putting an aerodynamically perfect golf ball into orbit … otherwise I’ve got to get portable bunkers under it before it comes down.”
On designing golf courses for the 21st century, Jones said, “We have made the targets more precise to make the course more challenging and room for error for the better players, less forgiving, deeper bunkers, more rough, and narrower fairways. And the greens have more contour, even though they are faster they will have transition slopes (gentle) on larger greens and steeper on the smaller greens.”
The green target for better players is not the greens, it’s the pins or about five paces around the flagstick. For the one to 3 handicappers, it’s the green. For the average player, it’s anywhere near the green.
Many people in the game, according to Jones, like the ruling bodies are worried about the advances in technology in golf. They worry the ball is going too far.
“I’m not worried,” he said.
Like his golf ball and the muse that drives him, Jones can fly a long way.
“It depends on which day,” he said. “If I birdie it, then it’s my favorite.”
He said he tries to use feedback from players, which more or less explains The President’s Bunker on Beaver Creek’s second hole.
“The second hole,” he mused, “because playing with President Ford. He hit it to the right, toward the creek, and he said, ‘Bob I think we need another bunker there, that ball bounced in the creek.’ We added a bunker and it became known as “the president’s bunker” just short and right of the green.”
“I’m an inclusive person, I listen to other people and if it makes sense in the overall design, I’ll use it,” Jones said. It’s like writing poetry, Jones explained quoting T.S. Elliott: “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.”
Jones is more interested in the rhythm of the course, not so much one hole in particular.
“Some holes may stand out for different reasons,” Jones said. “For the photojournalist the scenic holes may stand out. For others it may be because the hole is particularly challenging for some of the better players, for others it may stand out because of its beauty.”
Jones favors rhythm. Par 3s, 4s and 5s used in cadence, “because each hole has a different challenge.”
A par 3 can be a “charming” hole (like the second hole at Beaver Creek). It’s also a shot a fair golfer shouldn’t miss. A par 5 presents lots of options about where to hit the ball. Par 4’s are usually testing holes, a strict examination of a golfer’s ability to hit the ball straight.
“Those different challenges are like a skier. If your skiing slalom, it’s like quick turns and then a faster downhill and then maybe some slower parts,” he said. “You have to adjust quickly to the whole course, skiers have the whole course and so do golfers.”
At Keystone, the par 4 ninth is good because you can drive it. Keystone’s closing holes, 17 and 18 are also on Jones’ list of favorites.
Jones said there are certain courses his car just sort of “tends toward.”
His car just sort of ends up at Spanish Bay at Pebble Beach. Just like his own child, Jones knows every nuance of each course. “They feel like home.”
Of the older courses, Jones likes Pine Valley in New Jersey. Of course, St. Andrews is also one of his favorites, “It’s a place of great pilgrimage where many strange and wonderful occurrences have happened to me.”
“I’m a golfer first, a golf architect second. So, I want to play.” People ask, “Do you play golf?” to which he answers, “Does a chef eat?”
Jones recalled his college days playing for Yale in the 1960 NCAA championships at Denver’s Cherry Hills. “Arnold Palmer came in second or third to Ben Hogan and then he came down and played with us,” said Jones. “He almost won the Open and then came and played with the college guys.”
“I remember playing for my college at the Broadmoor. His roommate hit one shot in the water, another shot in the water, then threw one club, then his putter then his whole bag in the water.
“He didn’t play very well after that. I think his putter was missing.”
Jones played Beaver Creek course’s opening day with President Ford. “We had an interesting game,” he says.
They played with then-Vail Associates President Harry Bass and professional golfer, Al Geiberger. Jones said Bass shot “about 100,” President Ford carded a round in the ‘high 70’s’ and Geiberger shot par.
For posterity’s sake, Jones suggested the following: “Each of us putt out in order of score, that way each of us will have held the course record for about five minutes.
“When you play with the President and the owner, you get to be the first foursome on the course. I was just tagging along,” Jones said.