story by Dave Choo
photos by Dana Edmunds
Golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr. is standing along the fairway of the tenth hole at Makena’s South Course. He’s describing the 502-yard, par-5 hole in such precise detail that it seems as if he designed it just yesterday, instead of almost thirty years ago. The island-like bunkers, he explains, were laid out to mimic the silhouette of nearby Haleakala. The two ponds, which sit along either side of the fairway, were designed to resemble two irregularly shaped steppingstones and to lead the player’s eye to the green and then to the Pacific Ocean beyond.
However, on a late afternoon in March, what impresses Jones most about his South Maui golf hole is something that he didn’t plan or plant. It’s a large kiawe tree, with spindly branches full of snowy white egrets. The birds have come to roost as the sun begins to fade into the horizon, and from a distance they look like large, feathery flowers.
“Do you see that?” asks Jones, pointing to the tree, which sits along the banks of a large water hazard on the other side of the fairway. “That’s an aviary, nature’s aviary. A lot of people want drama in their golf course. I call it ‘Las Vegas Drama’ or ‘Trumpism’, but to me, that tree is more beautiful than anything that man can create.”
An afternoon round of golf with Jones is filled with moments like this one. Brief asides—references to art, music, philosophy, history, passing seabirds, politics and literature—are effortlessly woven into discussions about the placement of a tee box, the movement of a fairway, the slope and shape of a green. Jones is a man of many interests and talents, and he seems to pour his experiences, both professional and personal, into his golf courses.
The 68-year-old Jones is a skilled player himself, once a junior champion from Montclair, NJ, who was mentored by the great Scottish champion Tommy Armour. Jones is also a graduate of Yale University, where he studied English and American studies, and he attended Stanford Law School for one year. (“I realized that the law was telling me all the things I couldn’t do,” he explains of his decision to drop out, “but I had grown up in a family that told me I could achieve anything if I worked hard enough.”) Later, he apprenticed with a man often called the “father of modern golf design”: his father, Robert Trent Jones, Sr. “My father dropped a rattle into my crib and showed me the golf grip,” laughs Jones the Younger. “I must have been only a couple of months old.”
At last count, Jones has designed 244 golf courses around the world, from Maui to Moscow and every place in between. He’s been hired by royalty, billionaires and even communists. “When I saw the Reds putting on one of my greens in Moscow,” he reflects, “I knew that the Cold War was over.” He has played golf with every US president since Nixon and designed and built a White House putting green for frequent playing partner Bill Clinton. Dedicated to social and environmental causes, he has represented the United States at international conferences on human rights and been involved with efforts to raise environmental awareness.
Jones was also a good friend of exiled Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino, whom, thanks to a tip from Amnesty International, Jones had warned about an attempt on his life two weeks before Aquino was assassinated at Manila International Airport in 1983. Later, Jones helped raise money for Aquino’s widow, Corazon, and her People Power revolution. He even shuttled messages from American government officials—people he was playing golf with—to People Power leaders in Manila, where he was designing a golf course. That activity may have marked him, he says, for assassination by the Marcos regime. “I’m the type of person who does something like that only if I believe in it very strongly,” says Jones, “and I do it very rarely.”