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Is Rees Jones the Politician of Golf Architects?
[Editor's Note: Cybergolf's Jay Flemma is reporting from Atlanta Athletic Club during this week's PGA Championship. This is Jay's take on the host course.]
"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 Rees Jones in a June interview with golf writer John Garrity.
Now Jones, the self-described "Open Doctor," is in full spin mode to explain why the 2011 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. "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 politician-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? He 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."
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.
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 requested anonymity) had pointed words about the course design after carding a round that didn't begin with a "7."
"It's absolutely ridiculous," he said. "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."
The result is that everyone is treading water within 10 shots of one another, with no exceptional play shining through because you give back what so much of what you worked so hard to gain. 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. That is exactly why Rees won't be restoring U.S. Open courses again for a log time. The U.S. Open got tired of dreary slogs.
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 three shots when Augusta National destroys that myth every April.
Take for a second example, the perfect 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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, Jason Dufner and Keegan Boone 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 . . . stop me anytime.
"Open Doctor"? "PGA Physician"? Glad I'm not sick.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.