A History of the Rees Jones Vs. Robert Trent Jones Jr. Feud

June 18, 2015

The sibling architects Rees Jones and Robert Trent Jones Jr. are both in their 70s. But it seems like they’ve been squabbling since the dawn of time.

Over the past five decades, the blood between them has given rise to lawsuits, financial disputes and back-biting so petty and ego-centric you wish they’d just start filming the reality show. If they were twins, it was once written of the brothers, “their quarrel would have started in the womb.”

With the U.S. Open coming to Chambers Bay, the first Robert Trent Jones Jr. course to host our national championship, now’s a good time to take stock of the frought relations between the golf world’s Cain and Abel—minus, of course, the fratricide.


July 24, 1939. A child arrives. And not just any child. The first-born son of a famous golf course architect. The boy is christened Robert Trent Jones Jr., a name that carries cachet but, in time, grows into a source of fraternal tension. “I don’t have dad’s name,” younger brother, Rees, remarks years later, in a comment notable for its passive-aggression. “I think it worked out well for Bobby to have dad’s name because he wanted to travel the world. It’s worked out well for me because I wanted to have my own identity.”


Freud would have had a field day with the family dynamics in the Montclair, New Jersey home where the brothers spend their formative years. Raised primarily by their mother, Ione, Rees and Bobby Jr. grow up vying for the love of their father (above), an imposing but emotionally distant man who is on the road more often than not—an absent presence in his son’s lives. Ione acknowledges the impact. “You know, it’s pretty hard to be the ‘children of,’” she is quoted as saying in 1982. “You look at your historical biographies and most of the male children of famous men either become wastrels or monks.” Or rival architects.


Differences aside, both brothers enroll in the same college (Yale, above). Both also wind up joining their father’s firm. But when the time comes for them to branch out on their own, Bobby Jr. hangs his shingle in California while Rees sets down roots in New Jersey, one man on the East Coast, the other in the West Coast. The long distance between them can be seen as metaphor.


In the early years, the sour brotherly relations remain largely private. But over time, the truth seeps out, thanks to backhanded public swipes like this one from Bobby Jr. (above) in the New York Times. “Whatever I did, he followed. I was in the Boy Scouts, he went to the Boy Scouts. I went to Montclair High School and Yale. He went to Montclair and Yale. I went to California. Rees went to California. It’s a little strange.”


Competitors in business, the brothers also demonstrate contrasting design styles, Bobby Jr. known for camouflage and deception, Rees recognized for more straightforward use of hazards and fairway mounding (Cascata, above, in Las Vegas). Whose work is better? Let’s read between the lines. “When I’m through with a job,” Rees is quoted as saying, “I want my clients to have a limited edition.” Says Bobby Jr. “His philosophy is that you should have a specific line of sight for any shot. And that probably comes from his more conservative view of what a golf shot should be.”


Sure, Bobby Jr. wound up with daddy’s name. But Rees inherited daddy’s moniker, earning the title of “The Open Doctor” through his renovations of national championship sites, including Torrey Pines and Bethpage Black (above). That his younger brother acquired the prestigious handle is said to have rankled Bobby Jr., who worked for decades without seeing an Open staged on one of his layouts. That will change this week at Chambers Bay, at a tournament we’re dubbing Junior’s Revenge.


Like magnets with opposing fields, these two just can’t seem to get together. For all their joint efforts with other architects, including co-designs with their father, Rees and Bobby Jr. have never collaborated with each other on a project. They have, however, worked on neighboring sites. The 18th hole of Rees’ Burnt Pine course in Sandestin, Florida rubs up against the 11th hole of an RTJ Jr. course called The Raven (above). And how’s this for symbolism: the two holes run in contrasting directions.


Don’t look for the Jones brothers to reach across the aisle. Where Rees has been a staunch supporter of Republican candidates and is said to have pegged it with former President George H.W. Bush, leftward-leaning Bobby Jr. is a true blue-stater whose reported preference in presidential playing partners was Bill Clinton.


You know that sibling relations have reached a low point when both brothers decide to lawyer up. In 2006, Rees filed suit against Bobby Jr. over $100,000 in taxes owed on their mom’s estate. The complaint also contended that Bobby Jr. misappropriated his father’s name while sealing a deal to create a Robert Trent Jones clothing line. Rees eventually dropped the suit, reportedly after Bobby Jr. threatened to file a suit of his own claiming rights to the title “The Open Doctor.”


They haven’t merely fought over their father’s legacy. They’ve also squabbled over one of his courses. In 2000, after daddy’s death, the brothers took control of Coral Ridge Country Club in Ft. Lauderdale, but soon found themselves at loggerheads over its future, so much so that members complained that the course was falling into disrepair. Unable to meet each other in the middle, Rees and Bobby Jr. wound up selling Coral Ridge to a local businessman, who reportedly dealt with brothers separately rather than have them in the same room at once.


“It was their father’s sincerest wish late in his life that his sons would resolve their differences, a former associate of Jones Jr. once told the Florida-Sentinel. Well, how’s this for start? The two men found themselves together earlier this year when both were inducted into the 2015 Northern California Golf Association Hall of Fame. At one point in the proceedings, Bobby Jr. raised his hand for his Rees to slap it. And there you had it: the most awkward high-five of all time.

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