Open Doctors don't retire. That's the word from Rees Jones, whose muscular redesign of Congressional's Blue Course belies his 69 years. "Golf course architects generally go until they drop," he said recently, showing no signs of jet lag the day after a Tokyo-to-Newark journey.
"My dad worked until he was ninety-something."
Rees's dad was legendary course designer Robert Trent Jones, the first pasture-plower to obtain the honorific of "Open Doctor" for his brutal reinvention of classic courses, bookended by redos of Oakland Hills Country Club ('51 U.S. Open) and, 34 years later, the very same course ('85 U.S Open). The designation "Open Doctor" then passed on to the younger of RT J's golf-architect sons (the one not inheriting his full name), who since 1988 has remodeled seven U.S. Open venues, six PGA Championship courses, and the layouts for four Ryder Cups, two Walker Cups and a Presidents Cup.
But now Rees, crowding 70, hears the town criers of decline and desuetude. They point out that other designers have been hired to prepare seven of the next eight U.S. Open sites. (The USGA has assigned its Open venues through 2019, with the exception of 2018, which means it's quite likely that the earliest Jones's services could be called upon again would be in 2020, when he'll be 78.)
"So I may be the PGA Doctor," Jones says with an optimistic lilt, alluding to his redesign of the Atlanta Athletic Club's Highlands course for this year's PGA Championship and to his completed renovation of New Jersey's Baltusrol Golf Club for the 2016 tourney. "Or as one article called me, the 'PGA Physician.' " In certain countries, he adds, he'll still be the Open Doctor because he's toughening up national championship venues in China, Japan and Canada.
But there's no denying the domestic hiatus, which some attribute to complaints from Tour players that Jones's tournament venues are too difficult. "Some courses, I think the goal has just been to make them harder," says Stewart Cink, the former British Open champ. "But there's a line you cross where hard is no longer good, where it kind of marginalizes the skill." Phil Mickelson voiced similar misgivings at last year's BMW Championship, played outside Chicago on a Jonesed-up Cog Hill Dubsdread track, saying, "I just don't think I'm good enough to play this golf course."
Jones dismisses such critiques with the air of a man brushing lint off his slacks. "My courses are only controversial," he says, "for the players who play poorly."
It's Jonesian shtick, of course, a practiced disdain perfected by Jones Sr., who minted the phrase, "Golfers complain a lot." Reminded that some pros disliked his total remake of New York's Bethpage Black for the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens, Rees practically beams. "I was inside the ropes," he recalls, "and every 10 feet it was, 'Rees, you beat 'em!,' 'Rees, the course is killin' 'em!' Cheering me as much as the players."
Anyway, the USGA doesn't cut you loose for making a tournament course extremely difficult. Furthermore, with the notable exception of publicly-owned Bethpage, which the USGA asked Jones to rebuild, the choice of an Open Doctor is traditionally left to the patient - i.e., the host club. "Contrary to what so many people think, we try our hardest to be neutral in terms of architects," says USGA Executive Director Mike Davis. "We don't own these golf courses. We don't tell them, 'You ought to use Rees Jones or Tom Fazio.'"
That said, Davis allows that Jones's design philosophy complements the USGA's penchant for punitive tournament conditions. "Some architects are really focused on aesthetics, making sure players don't lose balls, making a hole look natural," he says. "Rees's focus is more on strategy, and he's got a very good sense of how the world's best players play the game."
Jones, while agreeing that he's a strategic designer, asks why a tournament venue would hire an architect who wasn't. "Today's middle-aged architects are really into aesthetics," he says, taking a shot at the naturalist trend in course design. "They love their wilderness bunkers, which tend to be expensive to build, hard to maintain and difficult to play out of." An Open Doctor, on the other hand, must maintain playability and enjoyment for the club members while toughening up the course for the pros. That usually means new tees, repositioned bunkers, fairway adjustments and even, as with Congressional, totally rebuilt greens. Jones says the budget for Bethpage '02, which he reworked pro bono, was $3 million. Torrey Pines South '08 came in at $3.2 million.
Not one dollar of which, if Jones is to be believed, was spent maliciously. "We're just trying to make it so the proper champion is crowned," he says. "When Tiger Woods wins at Bethpage, or Phil Mickelson wins at Baltusrol, that's the result we're trying to achieve. The best player should rise to the top."
Sometimes a player rises simply to be heard. "Jones did an amazing job at Bethpage," says Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champ and a fledgling course designer, "but I don't understand why average golfers want to play there. There's rough or bunkers short of every green, and that's really difficult when a course is that long." Cink, meanwhile, says that while he's unmoved by much of the architect's work, he loved Jones's redo of Torrey Pines for the '08 Open. "I feel like Rees did a wonderful job of using the views, pushing the fairways and greens right up to the edge of that canyon. You've got a lot of risk-reward shots, and the setting is just spectacular."
Be that as it may, when the last putt falls at Congressional, the curtain will close on the Jones era of Open doctoring.
Or, as Rees is quick to point out, it won't. "I'm 180 pounds. I exercise every day. I don't eat steak. I don't smoke. I've got longevity in my genes, and I love what I do. So I think I've got a lot of years left."
Speculation be damned. The Doctor insists that he is most definitely in.