Rees Jones's controversial run as "Open Doctor" may end at Congressional

Rees Jones’s controversial run as “Open Doctor” may end at Congressional

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Rees Jones has redesigned seven courses for U.S. Open play, including Congressional Country Club where this year's Open will be played.
Schecter Lee

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.