Robert Trent Jones and Bellerive

If your primary design philosophy is “a difficult par,” your actual design philosophy is a fantasy. Par, of course, is utter fiction. It’s nonsense: a number assigned to a hole or course that purportedly relates to an acceptable amount of shots. Designing based on protecting par is similar to developing a long-term financial model without accounting for inflation. This, I suggest, is the real problem with the Jones Family legacy. 

For five decades, Robert Trent Jones, Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Rees Jones designed (and redesigned) courses with an emphasis on punishing players that did not execute. Robert Trent Jones built his courses around the central theory of “a difficult par, an easy bogey.” Upon opening, their courses were characterized by long slogs, built with the express, open theory that par should be difficult.

 The Jones family

The Jones family

Bellerive is a manifestation of this philosophy. Bellerive’s design was always intended to be long and brutish. When it opened in 1960, it was dubbed the “Green Monster of Ladue.” The course typifies Jones Family design features: littered with trees, bunkers, and water hazards. It was built with an eye on hosting the U.S. Open, which it achieved in 1965. 

Like most Jones courses, Bellerive is artificial and predictable. Everything is a stunt predicated upon the complete fiction that par actually matters. The problem actually gets worse over time as players and/or technology improve. Soon, the “well-placed” hazard doesn’t trap good players. It only traps the high handicappers. This is the problem that Bellerive faced in the early 2000s. Elite PGA players simply were not going to find the water and bunkers as much as they had in the past. Bellerive’s stature as a “hard” test of golf for the professional game waned. So how do you “restore” a course whose only design feature is difficulty? Apparently you hire Rees Jones. In 2005, Rees lengthened the course, deepened bunkers, and added undulation to the greens. History repeats itself.

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As a final prep to this year’s PGA Championship, the club hired Rees Jones again to make more changes to the golf course in 2013. This move was to once again modernize the course to stand up to today’s professional. 

Today, Bellerive is “less hard” than when it opened in 1960 and when it reopened after Rees Jones’ changes in 2007 and 2013. Each passing day, Bellerive becomes a more distant shell of its identity than it once was, because what’s hard today is slightly easier tomorrow. This will continue until it gets another redesign. If you spend your career focused on building golf courses under the premise of “a difficult par”, inevitably, your life’s work will be obsolete and replaced by new better versions.

What this design philosophy led to

The seeds of today’s endless debate about golf equipment were planted as a response to Jones Family courses. The ball goes farther and straighter than ever before -- a change driven by consumer demand. Equipment manufacturers were responding to changes from the consumer, and those consumers were increasingly force-fed this “difficult = good” course design tripe. With the benefit of some perspective, some of that blame usually heaped upon Titleist, TaylorMade, and Callaway is unfair. A share of the blame should be directed at the architects.

These are lessons that have taken a long time to be learned. The movement is afoot, however, to un-Jones a few historic courses. Oak Hill East, for example, was completely revised by RTJ in the 1950s, again in the 1960s, and later by Tom Fazio. Today, Oak Hill East is ditching the RTJ and Fazio changes to return to its Ross design. 

Donald Ross and the other great Golden Age architects exuded the real art in golf course architecture, timeless design. It involves the use of natural features and encourages a variety of shot types. The designs are fun, interesting, inexpensive to build, and playable in a variety of different ways. These designs are not as difficult as they were the day they opened, but that’s ok because they weren’t designed with that identity. These courses were designed to be strategic, a philosophy that endures the advancement of the game.

This week’s PGA will provide a look at the misguided past of golf course architecture. Bellerive is a test that asks the same question 18 times, can you hit it straight? Mother Nature hasn’t done it any favors, but at its core it’s simple thoughtless target golf. This year’s other major venues (Augusta, Shinnecock, Carnoustie) showed that natural topography, strategic bunkers and interesting green complexes can befuddle the world’s best players. Bellerive’s land could yield a championship test like this, but it lacks the architectural genius that the other three venues exude. Its rolling topography was manipulated and flattened to create even fairway lies. Hole after hole features bunkers and hazards on each side, leaving no doubt as to what the line is off the tee. The benign green complexes and surrounding areas make the penalty for any miss a small one. Scores will be low, creative shotmaking scarce, this is major.