Motto in designing Chambers Bay: ‘Let the site be the star’

The poet laureate of golf course architecture was standing on a boat in Puget Sound, experiencing the wind – golf’s “invisible hazard,” as he calls it.

All architects are attuned to the wind as part of their designs. Robert Trent Jones Jr. just articulates it differently. It’s not enough for him to take measurements or map out the prevailing breeze. He likes to feel how a site acts and to make observations in the notebooks that he carries around. Sometimes he’ll sketch out golf holes. Sometimes he’ll write poetry.

Jones first played The Old Course at St. Andrews in 1961, and has been a member of the R&A since in 1981. When he got the chance to design Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash., a decade ago, he began thinking about it as an American version of St. Andrews, though perhaps more complex in its structure and volatility.

It dates to that boat ride in March 2005. Jones was assessing the site – an abandoned sand mine – that Pierce County executive John Ladenburg had selected for his visionary municipal golf course project. As Jones and Ladenburg set out on the boat from Tacoma’s Commencement Bay and swung portside around Point Defiance, they came through the famed Tacoma Narrows, where back in 1940 an ill-designed bridge nicknamed “Galloping Gertie” had proved unstable and collapsed into the strait. It was subsequently rebuilt, and a second, adjoining span was under construction as Jones and Ladenburg passed under it to witness the dynamism of the environment. The wind whipped in from the Olympic Peninsula behind them, swirled through the bowl-shaped land that they would reclaim for golf and swept upward. Near shore, eagles hovered, looking for salmon. And it was here, too, that orcas swam down from Puget Sound to prey on sea lions.

Jones saw what he called a “natural violence” to the area. His golf course would occupy turbulent ground. If it looked too groomed or flat, it would feel contrived. And so he and his design team set out to build a course filled with liveliness. The contours and defense of par would radiate across every square foot of the property – beginning with tees that by intent were ribbony and contoured so that players would have to commit to shots from the very beginning.

And now Chambers Bay is about to hold a U.S. Open – a first for a Robert Trent Jones Jr. Design. That might not qualify him, like his father or his younger brother, as an “Open doctor.” But it is nonetheless the pinnacle of achievement in his profession.

Bobby, born in 1939, and his bother Rees, born two years later, were raised in a Montclair, N.J., household where dad was away much of the time trying to establish his fledgling career. Success and financial security took a long time. Business didn’t take off until after World War II, and even then, budgets would remain sparse and payments intermittent. It didn’t help that Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s ambitions were accompanied by an overly optimistic entrepreneurial enthusiasm that bordered on fiscal recklessness. He constantly was over-reaching, promising clients more than he could deliver and dependent upon the next job to rescue him from the last one.

Bobby always was a free spirit, learning to operate a bulldozer while in his teens so he could earn enough money to take flying lessons. His shaping work didn’t meet his dad’s pace standards; it once took Bobby a month to build a green and bunker on a project in Delaware. Still, he managed to earn his pilot’s license before his driver’s license. After Yale and one year of law school at Stanford, Bobby went to work for his dad, eventually taking over West Coast operations while Rees looked after the East Coast.

Bobby decided to set out on his own officially in 1972. Left unresolved throughout – and long after – were the exact financial terms of the separation and the matter of which Robert Trent Jones was doing what work. The result was to intensify an already profound sibling rivalry, one that spilled over to include professional jealousy, accusations of impropriety and extended legal maneuvering. The gesture of a high-five between Bobby and Rees upon the occasion of their induction (with their father, posthumously) into the Northern California Golf Hall of Fame last month was just that: a gesture.

Well into the early 1970s, golf course architecture required both design on paper and construction in the field as two sides of the same creative process. Bobby was thrown into the fray as his father’s man in the field on such highly regarded mid-1960s projects as Spyglass Hill in Pebble Beach, Calif., Silverado Resort in Napa, Calif., and the renovation (actually it was reversal in place) of Eugene (Ore.) Country Club. He soon took up the Jones mantle in Hawaii and Japan, in the process occasionally leading to uncertainty as to whether he, or his father, was responsible for the work.

Bobby says he learned a lot from his father, not the least of which was the art of reading a topographic map and routing a golf course so that the holes sat comfortably along the terrain rather than fighting it.

“You’d draw a blue line tracing the contour lines,” Jones said, “and see the points where the lines converged – what we called ‘the Vs.’ Then you’d route the holes by working across the Vs.”

Bobby’s own work style became feverish on a global scale. He’d be on the road 250-275 days per year, as much a salesman as a designer. What saved him was his willingness to delegate work to a succession of talented associates, among them Kyle Phillips, Gary Linn, Don Knott and Jay Blasi (all of whom subsequently went out on their own) and Bruce Charlton, who has been with Jones since 1982.

Office matters were anchored by Gudren Noonan, who from 1981 until her retirement in 2012 could find Bobby anywhere – even in the pre-cellphone days – and get him into places that few others dared venture. An appointment with the king of Sweden? No problem. Overnight at the Clinton White House while building the presidential putting green? Leave it to Noonan to make the arrangements, though it entailed Bobby making “a modest contribution” to Clinton’s re-election campaign. When Bobby’s wife, Claiborne, needed to find him, only Noonan had the itinerary. She kept Bobby on track and focused like no one else could. One time, he arrived at a friend’s house in Toronto for a two-day golf vacation and found a six-page, 33-item fax awaiting him from Noonan detailing matters that required his immediate attention.

It helps in his travels that Bobby can go from disheveled to showtime slick faster than anyone in the business. At the opening of Serrano Country Club in El Dorado Hills, Calif., in April 1996, he was running so late with golf that by the time he got back to the clubhouse to change for the black-tie dinner, new members, with champagne flutes in hand, already were touring the men’s locker room and selecting their cubicles. Bobby frantically was trying to fit into his tuxedo. And as one friend held up a huge bath towel over a corner of the room to screen out members, Charlton, Bobby’s design associate and occasional valet, stood behind him to squeeze him into his cummerbund. Bobby was still flailing with his bowtie as he fled the locker room for the banquet hall. He paused before entering, gathered his thoughts, and then hit his stride with musical accompaniment by his longtime fellow Bohemian Grove compadre, jazz pianist Bobby Enriquez. Jones went right to the podium, grabbed the mike and launched into an elegant, articulate welcome. In public, he doesn’t miss a beat.

For all his golf work, Bobby never set aside his political commitments. In an era when the industry was still resisting environmental initiatives, he openly embraced ecologically sound design and incorporated it into his work on such sensitive and closely monitored sites as Poppy Hills and The Links at Spanish Bay. He also spent 4½ years on the California State Park and Recreation Commission, including serving as chairman for a year in 1983-84. Such experience, at the professional and political levels, eventually led him to adopt a more “site-specific” design approach whereby the holes settled in naturally with the features of their terrain. The approach is evident at Patriot Golf Club outside Tulsa, Okla., where the course transitions through and incorporates four distinct landscape zones: limestone canyon, lowlands meadow, uplands prairie and woodlands.

“Nowadays, we let the site be the star,” Jones said. And that’s exactly what Chambers Bay will be over four days in June. In its design detail, the course embodies a total evolution from his earlier days, under his dad’s tutelage, of runway tees and flanking bunkers that paralleled landing areas and were set at formulaic distances that anticipated strictly aerial play. It’s a course where the ground is the defense and the ball is expected to roll out on a fast, fescue surface.

Chambers Bay is not his dad’s golf course. It’s a golf course produced by someone who, after 50 years up in the clouds, has landed firmly on his own feet and can stand up to the wind.