Hansen (First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, 2005, etc.) returns with the complicated story of the celebrated golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. (1906-2000).
The author has clearly inhaled the extensive Jones archive at Cornell (which he attended and where he designed nine holes of the university course) and delivers a narrative rich in detail (sometimes over-rich) about a transformational figure in the history of golf. There are really several stories here. Hansen relates the biography of Jones (no relation to golfing legend Bobby Jones, though the two were friends and sometimes worked together), the cultural and social histories of golf in the United States and beyond, the processes of designing and building a golf course and, sadly, the internecine warfare that erupted between his two sons, Bobby and Rees, both of whom entered the business, as well. Young Jones’ interest in golf began in mercenary fashion (he was caddying for cash); then he discovered he could play well but not well enough to prosper. He got interested in design, went to Cornell for some courses in landscape architecture and then embarked on a career in golf course design and construction. He made and lost fortunes but by the 1960s was generally acknowledged as the best in the world. Players weren’t always happy, however, since his courses were/are demanding. Hansen tells us about the construction of some of his great courses—and redesigns—including Baltusrol, Oak Hill, Firestone and myriads of others. (The author appends a list of them all.) Golf aficionados will appreciate the detail about the courses and about some of the key matches he recounts. Those interested in the business aspects of Jones’ enterprises will sigh about his questionable judgment at key points in his career, and those interested in family dynamics will find much to ponder—e.g., a bitter filial rivalry and an embittered mother whose will caused problems for everyone.
Hansen ably shows us a life filled with unrivaled success and deep end-of-life disappointment.