Review: 'Difficult Par' keeps up with Joneses

James R. Hansen's "A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Jones Sr. and the Making of Modern Golf," published by Gotham Books in 2014.

Review: "A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Jones Sr. and the Making of Modern Golf," by James R. Hansen; Gotham Books, 2014, 512 pages; $32.50

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Maybe that’s what it takes to reshape earth into golf ground and endure the criticism of owners, golfers and the media. In Jones’ case, that ego enabled him to overcome the longest of imaginable odds and live out a mythic American success story.

James R. Hansen, a distinguished aerospace historian and (full disclosure) a Golfweek’s Best course rater, has produced what amounts to a family biography of Jones Inc. It starts with the emergence of Jones Sr. As the most celebrated golf course architect in the world. The best parts of the book are the struggles of the aspiring Jones in the 1920s and 1930s, and how this high school dropout latched onto a mentor who got him admitted into a self-designed study program at Cornell University.

As Jones moved from his initial struggles to post-war prosperity and eminence, his success as a designer was undone by his grandiose pursuit of fame and fortune. Having established a distinctive modernist flair with long, aerialgame courses such as The Dunes Club (1949) in Myrtle Beach, S.C. , he became enamored with the spotlight accorded him as the U.S. Golf Association’s “Open Doctor.” He hardly seems to have noticed that, in the process, he was trampling over the work of a Donald Ross or a Perry Maxwell. He was too busy to look and too famous to care.

Hansen culls from deep sources: 481 cubic feet of heretofore-unexamined papers at Cornell on Jones’ career and uncovered letters that Jones wrote in the early 1930s to his then-fiancée, Ione Tefft Davis . In his awkward way, Jones conveyed not only his feelings about Davis but his hopes for success and recognition.

What also was evident was the unbridled optimism that, decades later, all but bankrupted Jones. Had it not been for the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama in the 1990s, he probably would have died penniless.

Hansen overlays the account of course design with a look into the finances and family politics of Jones Inc. It’s a sad mess. Jones’ two talented sons, Robert Trent Jones Jr. (b. 1939) and Rees Jones (b. 1941), worked for their dad, then went their separate ways. As Hansen tells it, their rivalry was not just over the affections of a peripatetic and withholding father, but also money and proper attribution for design work.

With a distinct name, Rees was able to separate himself more from his dad’s legacy, while Bobby benefitted, sometimes through deliberate confusion about his name and who designed courses attributed to Robert Trent Jones. Things got so bad that in 1975, Jones wrote to his elder son, “Maybe it is time we settle who is Robert Trent Jones, Inc.”

It took hundreds of thousands of dollars of lawyers’ fees to settle that question – if settle is the correct term. The matter left a bitter family trail that never has been resolved.But its origins are clear, thanks to Hansen’s empathetic account.

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the May 30 issue of Golfweek magazine; click here to subscribe.

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