Is Rees Jones the Barack Obama of Golf Course Architects?


JOHNS CREEK, GA – “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.” So spoke the stentorian tones of Rees Jones in a June interview with golf writer John Garrity.

Now Rees Jones, the self-described “Open Doctor,” is in full spin mode to why explain the 2001 PGA Championship leaderboard has more strange things in it than a pot of haggis. At the halfway point at the “Rees-stored” Atlanta Athletic Club, Jason Dufner and Keegan Boone lead, so it begs the question:

If the result you were trying to achieve was to get as the winner Tiger or Phil – or even just “the best player” right now – what does it say about the job you did “Rees-storing” the golf course when you get a leaderboard full of guys we couldn’t pick out of a line-up of the Pittsburgh Steelers?

The furor started when Phil Mickelson, normally the friendliest quote in the field, panned Rees’s work at the Highlands Course.

“If you look at the four par-3s here, it’s a perfect example of how modern architecture is killing the game, because those holes are unplayable for the members. You have water in front of you and a bunker behind and the player has no avenue to run a shot up,” he noted laconically. “It’s a good reason why the number of rounds on this golf course are [sic] down among the members and it’s a great example of how modern architecture is killing the participation of the sport because the average guy just can’t play it.”

Phil is known for always trying to say the right thing, the sound byte he knows the PGA or USGA would like to get out in the press. He’s almost never critical, snarky, or vitriolic. There’s never a snap, snipe, or sour note. In fact, he’s pretty sharp about golf course design, usually playing the best design in the area the day before majors. He’s hit Peachtree, National, Garden City, Forsgate, Bayonne, and Cypress Point to name a few.

How did Rees react? With a Barack Obama-like dismissive wave of his hand, a snort, and a scornful, pedantic look down his nose.

“He’s still mad because I took his home advantage away at Torrey Pines….Phil’s just trying to round up some course design work for himself,” Jones scoffed.

Oh no, Phil wasn’t. How do we know? Because in the same breath, Phil also mentioned a long laundry list of more strategic, interesting, and vibrantly creative designers while talking to the press. First describing the Highlands Course he said, “There’s no options to play the holes different ways. It’s pretty obvious you are going to play it this way, so it doesn’t take experience to know that. You just have to execute.” Then he mentioned minimalist, yet strategic architects such as Gil Hanse, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw as creating praiseworthy, endearing, interesting designs.

How did Rees Jones describe those same designers? With the same disingenuousness as Barack Obama deriding what he called the “Tea Party Downgrade,” Jones told Garrity, “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.”

That comment is as misleading and reckless as a liberal politician telling us Obamacare will save us all money and not raise our health care costs. The entire point behind the minimalist golf movement is that it costs less money to build and maintain a golf course, and the strategies inherent in the design make it challenging for great players, but playable for average players. Without the bowling alley fairways, ubiquitous water, machismo-esque length, and forced carries that make Atlanta Athletic Club the red-headed stepchild it has been branded this week, a course is more interesting, more playable, and cheaper to maintain. Rees knows that, and he was using Golf Magazine as a platform to spread misinformation and do what he accused Phil of doing – suppress work for the competition, get work for himself, and pass along his talking points.

Just like Barack Obama.

But it wasn’t just Phil who was disdainful – the hiss of the World has come to the Highlands Course. Take one club pro (who also requested anonymity) had pointed words about the course design after carding a round that didn’t begin with a “7.”

“It’s absolutely ridiculous. 15 is minimum 260 yards, all carry over water. You have no chance to hold the green unless you’re a Tour pro with a really high ball flight, it’s just stupid, just put a double on your card,” he fumed. “And 18 is what? A par 4.9? Thanks for a miserable day. This tournament will come down to who makes the fewest bogeys on those holes, and that’s not golf,” he finished acidly, before storming off.

Then the normally affable Shaun Micheel joined the pile-on. “18? There’s no place to drive it. That hole should be a par-5, if anybody is listening. There’s no place to hit the ball there. I’m just going to start hitting it in the crowd and just take my chances on hurting somebody. It’s a terrible hole.”


Still, like Obama, when he gets a legal ruling he doesn’t like, Rees, for all intents and purposes, puts his hands over his ears and sings “La-la-la-la-la-la-la I’m not listening…”

The result is like a Obamanomics – shared mediocrity – everyone is treading water within ten shots of one another, with no exceptionalism shining through because you give back what so much of what you worked so hard to gain. All 75 players left in the field are within ten shots of each other. Yes, there was a 63, a 64, and some 65s, but the same guys turn around and shoot 73 the next day, and you have a NASCAR-like restrictor plate road race where the winner will avoid the 32-car crash in turn 2 that takes out the favorites and the winner is the last man standing, not the man who puts the pedal to the metal and sets the pace going away. “Eat your peas,” indeed. That is exactly why Rees won’t be restoring U.S. Open courses again for a long time. The U.S. Open got tired of dreary slogs and mixed-breed mutts for winners.

Take, for example, 18. It should be a par-5 or it should be 40 yards shorter, one or the other, but all Rees knows is length. He’s also the man who steadfastly clings to the belief that a par-5 must be 3 shots when Augusta national destroys that myth every April.

Take for a second example, the long trend of Rees’s original designs debuting high on top 100 lists, but then disappearing off the list like a rabbit in a conjuring trick. He has hundreds of original designs to his resume, but how many truly great ones? Old Kinderhook and Atlantic…and that’s it.

Just like Obama – all this time in office, and what does he have to show for it: controversy and an angry constituency.

On the restoration side, Bethpage is the grand slam home run. But the controversy surrounding Torrey Pines and Medinah leaves them squarely in the underwhelming file. In fact, Medinah has been twice voted, by two separate magazines as the most overrated course in America. As for Congressional and Atlanta Athletic Club, we will not likely see either on for at least two decades more. As one pundit wrote, “this is the worst year for American major courses in a long time.”

“That Championship Summer,” as Rees boasted in a press release? Maybe in Northern Jersey, but that’s it.

The resulting chaos has everyone looking daggers directly at Rees: players, architecture experts, broadcasters, and writers. It’s one thing when a fistful of players complain, but when a wide spectrum of the golf world is sending you a message to you, perhaps it’s time to listen to a little constructive criticism.

Just like the Atlanta’s 11th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Obamacare in a court decision yesterday, so to did Atlanta prove a frightful defeat for Rees Jones and his design philosophy. Now we see the limitations in penal architecture clearly. Well Americans vote with their pocketbooks…and so do the PGA of America and the U.S.G.A. and if Rees’s restoration work starts to dwindle, maybe we’ll see some more imagination. Like Obama, if Rees doesn’t start listening to constructive criticism of his constituents, he’ll be out of office.

Is Rees the Barack Obama of golf course architects? He is full of braggadocio – his press releases strut like a bantam rooster, he’s constantly campaigning, and he takes full credit as the designer even when he merely spit-shines a course, even if it has a storied pedigree in its past. He believes his own press clippings. He has trouble embracing constructive criticism.

Architecturally, his ideas frequently dilute the courses he “Rees-stores.” “Open Doctor”? “PGA Physician?” The first rule of medicine is “Do no harm,” yet he takes out interesting green contours, fairway undulations, and blind shots in search of fairness. When he homogenizes great courses, the resulting designs, and thus his leaderboards, are frequently mediocre at best. Thank goodness Rory McIlroy ran away and hid from the pack at Congressional, because Y.E. Yang is three scoops of unflavored yogurt as a winner.

But don’t tell Rees that, in his own mind, his ideas are as unassailable as Obama’s policies. As Obama fiddles while America burns, Rees repeatedly underlines the design mistakes of the ‘80s, while the other architects show us how far we reach when we put aside our preconditions and embrace change and adventure. Rees gets restoration work for his major championship venues. His brother Bobby, on the other hand, gets his original designs chosen for major championship venues.

In defense of Rees, when he decides to get adventurous, he can be quite excellent. Bethpage rightfully put him in the Pantheon of sports heroes of both New York City and golf design. They should give him the key to the city and have him ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Word is his work at Baltusrol will erase past design mistakes of other designers that took character away from the course. People say we will celebrate the new work at Baltusrol as much as we do Bethpage. Watch for Baltusrol and Bethpage to get two Ryder Cups and PGA Championships in the next decade and a half.

In that respect, maybe he’s not quite as stubborn, inflexible, and scornful as Obama. And I know this – Rees feels badly about his criticism and does care about doing what’s right for golf, not just himself as Obama does. When he branches out, his work can be sublime. But a little more humility and flexibility would make his work that much better.

Meanwhile, Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley will either be playing the role of John Schlee and Jerry heard at Oakmont in ’73, or they’ll be a proper rejoinder to Lucas Glover at Bethpage, Y.E.Yang at Hazeltine, Rich Beem at Hazeltine. Of the top 25 players on the leaderboard, two have won majors before, Furyk and Love III. And you know what? The Scots may have teamed up with the Dutch to invent golf…but few people like haggis, either for dinner or for major championships.

Posted: August 13th, 2011 under Golf Course Architecture, PGA Championship, PGA Tour, Private Courses.
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