The Rees Jones Era: Part 1 ~ The Lower

by Rick Jenkins

We all know the story. Robert Trent Jones aced the Famous Fourth in 1952, and practically called the shot. After re-modeling the fourth hole of the Lower Course ahead of the 1954 U.S. Open, Baltusrol’s membership moaned that he had made the hole too difficult. He had lengthened it, of course, from its original Tillinghast yardage of 125 yards to 165 yards, and added a back tee at 186 yards. But he had also enlarged the green, making it more receptive to long-iron shots and thus compensating for the extra length. He had made the two-tiered structure of the putting surface more pronounced. And, he had re-shaped the bunkers around the green and flashed up the sand on their rear faces. Harder? Most definitely. Too difficult? Of course not. He proved that point with one swing of a 4-iron.

Piqued by the criticism, RTJ proposed a trip down to the tee one afternoon following lunch in the Clubhouse. Joining him were Club President Hobart Ramsey, 1954 U.S. Open Chairman C.P. Burgess, and Head Pro Johnny Farrell. 

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After these three gentlemen all played successful shots to the green from about 165 yards, RTJ played last. Addressing his critics after the most dramatic hole-in-one ever at Baltusrol, RTJ pronounced the fourth hole “eminently fair.”

Rees Jones, RTJ’s son and Baltusrol’s present day architect, remembers that time in his father’s career. His earliest memories of Baltusrol are strolling the fairways with his Mother during the 1954 Open while Dad was attending meetings in the Clubhouse. “I had a job at that Open, too” he said, “charting drives, on the 15th hole I believe it was.” He was a lad of 13. “Dad wanted to know where the pros were hitting it for upcoming bunker renovation projects at Olympic and Oak Hill,” Rees added. Some bunkers at Baltusrol had been moved by RTJ in the years leading up to the ’54 Open, re-positioning them for the modernizing game. 

Thus began Rees’ long association with Baltusrol, leading to a working relationship where he would follow in his father’s footsteps. His first major assignment came in the early 1990s as the Club prepared for the 1993 U.S. Open. There had been very little architectural work done on the courses between the 1954 and 1993 Opens. Rees prepared a Master Plan in 1991 working with Green Chairman George Heddy; some of the proposed work was undertaken prior to the ’93 Open and the rest was deferred until the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

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The work focused primarily on adding length to the course, adding and tweaking bunkers, and rebuilding tees. Examples of some of the more prominent updates to the Lower during this period include adding the back tee on No.3 to increase the hole’s length to 460 yards (1991), and again in 2003 to increase it to 503 yards; adding a second back tee on No. 4 to increase its length to 199 yards (1998); adding the third fairway bunker on the right side landing zone of No. 7 (1991); adding fair way bunkers on No. 8 to tighten the landing zone (1991 & 1998); adding the right tee on No. 9 to create another angle to the green (1991); adding the two farthest fairway bunkers on No. 11 (2001); enlarging and elevating the tee on No. 12 (1991); adding four fairway bunkers on the left side of No. 13 for a total of five, and scaling them back to three bunkers years later, and angling the stream closer to the fairway (2003); adding the ultra-long back tee on No. 17 to take the hole to 647 yards (2002); and adding the fairway bunker complex on the right side of No. 18 (2003).

When asked what he likes most about Baltusrol, Rees is effusive. He loves the design of the Dual Courses and how distinctly different they are. “The land helped accomplish that for Tillinghast,” he said. “The holes on the Upper are more pitched because of the mountain, and Tillinghast took advantage of the differences in the terrain to create two different courses,” he added. In fact, when Tillinghast made his design proposal to Baltusrol’s Board of Governors in 1918, he recommended tearing up the Old Course and building two new courses that would be equal in stature but different in style; they would be “equally sought after as a matter of preference” in the architect’s words.

Rees is a big fan of Tillinghast’s, perhaps his favorite architect from the Golden Age era of course design. “Tillinghast was one of the first guiding lights in golf course architecture because he did not follow a fixed design concept,” Rees says. Macdonald and Raynor, pioneers that they were in American course design, followed patterns and replicated holes all the time, he points out. He notes that Tillinghast was one of the first architects to create his own shot values by laying out courses that offer multiple options for playing a hole. Some of these features are subtle, especially on the Lower, but that is what makes it a great course. And Tillinghast designed Baltusrol for member play as well as championship play, building enough elasticity into the layouts that the courses could be adjusted over time as skills and equipment improved. Case in point, the Lower has been lengthened by some 650 yards since inception.  

Rees points to the approach ramps at Baltusrol as a distinct Tillinghast feature. The architect invested much care and planning in their design. They benefit the less skilled player who can run the ball onto the green and the scratch player trying to get home on the par five holes. Most of the four and five pars at Baltusrol employ approach ramps, while most of the three pars are heavily guarded by bunkers in front of and around the greens. “Augusta National makes good use of approach ramps, too, so players can manufacture shots from the rough and the trees,” notes Rees.

Trees are an important feature for a golf course as well, according to Rees, except for links-style courses. “You can’t design a dogleg without trees,” he says. “I like them thinned out, spaced apart, because they can necessitate different types of recovery shots, but we also have to keep an eye on tree lines and canopies so they don’t affect the health of the turf,” he adds. “Courses like Augusta National and Pine Valley make very strategic use of trees,” he notes. 

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 The second Master Plan with Rees Jones was executed between 2007 and 2010 under Green Chairman Vinny Dolan. This work focused on the bunkers: deepening them; re-positioning many of them, both for the drive zone and closer to greens; adding several new ones; and restoring the Tillinghast style to several that had lost it over the years, such as the “doughnut” bunkers on Nos. 5 and 13. But the work on the Lower also produced several updates that have enhanced the strategic value of the course, such as the shifting of the creek closer to the fairway on No. 10 and the widening of the creek/pond on the left side of No. 18.

Rees’ work at Baltusrol has respected the Tillinghast legacy. No hole routings have been changed, no holes have been re-designed. Only minor adjustments have been made to several greens, such as the back right expansions on Nos. 5 and 15 recently (outside of the changes made to the fourth and seventh greens by RTJ in the early 1950s, Baltusrol’s Tillinghast greens are intact). Changes such as lengthening holes from the tee and re-positioning or adding bunkers are consistent with the elasticity concept which Tillinghast professed and designed into Baltusrol. As the architect said, “We must endeavor to make modern courses as elastic as possible, and when we are forced to lengthen out it is far more economical to build new teeing grounds and hazards than to construct new putting greens.” The Tillinghast shot values that come from the different ways holes can be played have been preserved as the game has advanced. 

Rees also admires Baltusrol’s conditioning. “Mark Kuhns’ efficient irrigation system can keep the fairways firm and the rough lush,” he says. “Baltusrol has a lot of flexibility with its rough, and varying the height, which is another great feature for championships,” he adds. “And it was astounding what Mark was able to accomplish with the conditioning in 2005 in all that heat.” 

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Speaking of the PGA Championship, what does Rees see ahead for 2016? “In terms of course work, we’ll have to see what the PGA wants, but probably not much more than we’ve already done. Maybe a new back tee or two, and rough renovation to make it more uniform,” he says. “The players love the Lower for its classic demands.”