20 Minutes With: Golf Course Architect Robert Trent Jones Jr.
Today’s golf course designers stand on the shoulders of giants like Robert Trent Jones Jr. The creator of more than 270 courses in over 40 countries on every continent except Antarctica, and the architect of bucket list golf destinations such as Chamber’s Bay, University Ridge, The Founders Club, and The Links at Spanish Bay, Jones says he hopes the legacy of his activism stands as long as any 18 holes you can name.
His father, Robert Trent Jones Sr., paved the road—designing golf holes for presidents and aiding golf legend and co-founder of Augusta National Bobby Jones (no relation to Jones Jr.) in reimagining the course that once again hosts this week’s Masters. Now, the son—still active at 81—holds off from traveling the golf world only due to the pandemic. He’s temporarily holed up in Hawaii, where he’s playing golf daily and waiting for the world to be safely moving again.
In the meantime, he wants to help save the planet.
PENTA: How did you end up living in Hawaii during the temporary lockdown?
Robert Trent Jones: It’s not my permanent residence. You’ll usually find me living at 747 Boeing City Unknown.
About 50 years ago, we designed a golf course in Hawaii called Princeville Makai in Kauai. It was the first golf course that really brought attention to my career. The resort was having difficulty selling memberships because it was still remote at that time. They offered me their old ranch manager’s home to settle up on my fee. It’s the best debt I ever had because it brought me to this place—though I’m getting a little cabin fever now.
You’ve used the downtime to promote a new climate change awareness effort. When did that begin?
Growing up outdoors on golf courses with my father and as a player, I considered those courses to be large parks—the lungs of the city or suburbs. If you look down from an airplane at metropolitan areas, most of the large green spaces are usually golf courses. We’re very proud to be a part of that, and we’ve had a long history at our company of enacting environmental principles in our golf design work.
When did you really begin focusing on environmental prevention in your career?
I was appointed to the California State Park and Recreation Commission by then-Governor Jerry Brown in 1983 and was eventually voted chairman. We would have hearings every month, and I would encounter people who disliked golf and thought courses were toxic waste dumps. I took that education and those concerns to the PGA, and we used them to help lay out the environmental practices we use today.
You coined a climate change call to action—“Make Earth Cool Again.” How did that come to be?
I like to write poetry as a hobby. I print a book of poetry every year for my birthday in July. I wrote a poem that speaks to the environment as a cause, “Make Earth Cool Again.” I found it to be a phrase I liked to play off of those hats that are obviously more political. I gave the phrase to Earth X, and it was made into a special signature cap. After the pandemic, we hope to offer the cap for sale at some of the golf courses we designed to benefit the environment.
You are an emeritus member of Refugees International. How did your work in the golf world bring you to them?
When I am asked to participate in a philanthropic effort, I want to participate. I get involved. Refugees International was originally founded to aid refugees coming out of the Vietnam conflict. I was building courses in the Far East during the war, so I became familiar with that part of the world in a time of conflict.
Once I was asked to be on the board of Refugees International, I served there for about 15 years. We help refugees fleeing violence—men and women afraid for their lives. We work to help them get resettled. For example, there are more than a million refugees from Syria in camps inside Turkey. We expect they could die in high numbers with Covid-19 and living in such close quarters. So, we advocate for countries to accept them.
What are your most powerful memories from serving with Refugees International?
I was working on courses in the Philippines during the assassination of (Senator Benigno) Aquino by the forces of (President Ferdinand) Marcos. We formed an allegiance of philosophy and democracy. We made a vow to help overthrow Marcos. In fact, even though I’m not Catholic, I took a Blood Communion Oath to die in the cause that eventually led to the People Power Revolution and the presidency of Corazon Aquino.
Years later, I was working in Eastern Europe during the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia. We got involved there to aid the Bosnians fleeing the Serbs. We wouldn’t merely raise money. We went there to raise awareness and petitioned for help as representatives of the U.S. government, United Nations, and Red Cross.
Your father obviously inspired your professional work. Who was the inspiration for your charity choices?
My mother was a librarian, and she always said we needed to give back to our community. At the time, I was a very competitive kid as a golfer and a student. All I was focused on was winning the next game or getting the next grade. As I grew older and had children and grandchildren of my own, I was able to see beyond the next challenge in front of me and began to get involved with more important work like fighting climate change.
What do you hope to accomplish as you push ahead with your climate change efforts?
I consider the environment to be my last great cause. I want to use my time and my knowledge to help people focus on our planet. I hope that makes the world better for my grandchildren and everyone else’s in the future.