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Golf Life: Renovating Robert Trent Jones - Diverse approaches to work of a postwar master

Some months back, a friend told me about a conversation he’d recently had with David Normoyle, golf historian and now my fellow Golfweek’s Best course-rating panelist. The pair were discussing the architecture of the postwar period. They hypothesized that for many courses, obtaining the honorific “classic” often means passing through a period where those courses are not at the height of fashion.

To be sure, there are plenty of counterexamples of instant classics (Cypress Point jumps to mind), but it is an interesting hypothesis in considering towering mid-century figures such as Dick Wilson and Robert Trent Jones Sr., whose works are going through this process right now.

As works of art subject to natural forces, all golf courses must be revitalized from time to time – their bunkers and greens rebuilt, their hazards analyzed in light of modern play. Jones Sr. was famous for producing (and making a market for) championship courses. As his designs pass the half-century and three-quarter-century mark, their current consulting architects play a substantial role in determining the relative cachet they will maintain within the Jones Sr. canon in the decades to come – whether they draw nearer to consensus classics such as Peachtree in Atlanta and Spyglass Hill in Pebble Beach, Calif., or drift toward the middle of the pack.

In a couple of places, the architect departed from the script in hopes of ramping up European Tour excitement. Dar es Salam lacked a half-par “swing hole”; in Duncan’s renovation, the brutal, long par-3 17th has gained a new tee and become a short par 4, adding setup flexibility.

“Part of what golf course architects do is have a sense of when to break the rules,” Duncan said. “Jones may not have done that, but it felt like the right thing to do, both for club play and for the tournament.”

Four championship-pedigree golf courses, four distinct approaches. It’s possible all will succeed on their own terms. As with all renovations of courses built by great architects, history will be the judge.

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