Trent Jones's Efforts to Design the University Golf Course at Ohio State in the 1930s
Originally the plans for the Ohio State University golf course course—actually two courses, to be named “Scarlett” and “Gray” after the school’s colors (though the university would come to refer always to the two eighteens as a single entity, “the golf course)—had been sketched out in the fall of 1929 by none other than Alister MacKenzie. The “good doctor” was on quite a roll at the time, so it was no wonder that Ohio State chose him. His recent creations in California of Cypress Point Club on the Monterey Peninsula (1928), Meadow Club in Fairfax (1927), Valley Club of Montecito in Santa Barbara (1928), and Pasatiempo in Santa Cruz (1929), where MacKenzie lived right off the course, were quickly regarded as among America’s greatest courses, and his subsequent designs of the West Course at Royal Melbourne in Australia (1931), Crystal Downs in northern Michigan (1933), and his collaboration with Bobby Jones on Augusta National (1933) elevated his reputation in the minds of many to the greatest golf architect that had ever lived. When the great man unexpectedly died of a heart attack at age 63 in January 1934, Ohio State University was left with a predicament: Who could replace the great MacKenzie? Unfortunately for Robert Trent Jones, he came late into the picture in Columbus. By the time he began his campaign to win Ohio State’s favor, the process of selecting Mac’s successor was well underway.
The driving force behind Ohio State’s golf course project was athletic director Lynn W. St. John, truly “the architect of Buckeye athletics” for he had been serving as the Buckeye AD since 1912. St. John saw three main options for finishing what MacKenzie started. The first was Donald Ross, designer of Scioto Country Club (1916), Columbus Country Club (1921), and six other highly respected golf courses located in central Ohio. Back in 1928 Ross had been the one who actually selected the site for the OSU golf course, a wonderful 297-acre tract of rolling farmland situated between the watersheds of the Olentangy and Scioto rivers, only a short distance north of the campus. No question but Ross was one of the best men in the business and a logical choice to carry on the design. But St. John and other members of the special “Golf Course Committee” that had been set up to direct the project feared that Donald Ross might ignore MacKenzie’s plans and “substitute his own ideas entirely;” furthermore, St. John’s committee could have chosen Ross as its course designer in the first place but instead opted for MacKenzie.
St. John’s second option was Perry Maxwell, a Scottish-born golf architect based in Oklahoma who had joined forces with MacKenzie in the late 1920s for the designs of Crystal Downs and the University of Michigan Golf Course (1931), and who had been with the doctor when he made his first and only visit to the site for Ohio State’s golf course in October 1929. (Earlier in the 1920s MacKenzie had also briefly formed partnerships with Robert Hunter and H. Chandler Egan.) Maxwell’s disadvantage was that he was still a relative unknown; his finest designs, notably Southern Hills in Oklahoma and Prairie Dunes in Kansas would not be done until 1936-1937. Maxwell had been with MacKenzie for his inspection visit and follow-up trip to the OSU property in August 1929 and he shared in MacKenzie’s planning for the two 18-hole courses. Still, the Golf Course Committee worried that Maxwell might be too inexperienced to carry out the detailed plans that his senior partner had in mind for Ohio State.
The third option was Wendell P. Miller. The unease about Miller was that he was not an architect but only a construction engineer, but he was the construction engineer who had built many of MacKenzie’s most recent courses, not just Augusta National but also Palmetto Country Club in South Carolina (1931), Bayside Links on Long Island (1932), and The Jockey Club In Argentina (1935). Actually, Miller had several plusses. He had grown up in the Ohio town of Sunbury just north of Columbus. In the early 1920s Miller had been an instructor of Agriculture & Irrigation on the OSU campus. While there he became a good friend of Dr. George McClure, an agronomy professor (and later a turf consultant for Augusta National) who was in charge of preparing the tract between the Scioto and the Olentangy for the golf course construction. Also, Miller had an office in Columbus and already made a number of visits to the golf site. St. John did not question Miller’s capabilities; he just was not sure that a construction engineer was the best choice for carrying what amounted to only rough preliminary plans that had been prepared by MacKenzie.
St. John took the bold step and chose Wendell Miller.
Ohio State received its WPA funding, and its WPA labor force was ready to begin working, when the tragic news reached Columbus that the 39-year-old Miller, on August 15, 1935, had succumbed after a heart attack while in Oklahoma constructing Southern Hills for Perry Maxwell. Needing to move the project forward, and with Perry Maxwell busy in Oklahoma, the Golf Course Committee turned to their own Professor McClure to take over the project almost as if were the architect, and it hired a man by the name of John McCoy to serve as the superintendent of construction (and eventually the golf course’s permanent greens superintendent). Although the building of the first 27 holes of the golf course began in October 1935 (the last nine holes were delayed until more money was available), progress was slow—so much so that by the spring of 1936 Lynn St. John was having some serious doubts that McClure, without the right architect, could produce a veritable “MacKenzie course.” Gnawing at the athletic director in particular was the absence of MacKenzie’s formal “green plans,” which Maxwelll could (or would not) not produce—and the suspicion that the greens, sand traps, and bunkers that McClure was beginning to build could ever achieve the same artistic flair that made MacKenzie’s free-flowing creations come so alive.
Into this muddle came Robert Trent Jones. Robert had learned about the troubled Ohio State golf course situation from Herb Graffis at Golfdom, with whom he had become a regular correspondent and friend. Thoroughly convinced as he was that he was the bona fide heir to MacKenzie and his strategic style of design, Jones, on 30 December, 1935, sent a letter to the OSU athletic department. For five weeks, St. John did not reply. When he did, he told Jones: “There is no immediate prospect of our being in the market for services of an architectural nature. This probably accounts for the fact that you have not heard from the chairman of our Golf Course Committee. It is my belief that we are not interested in any architectural services.” Even before he got St. John’s note, an impatient Robert sent a second letter to the athletic director:
On December 30th I wrote you pertaining to the possibility of your proceeding with your golf course at Ohio State. Knowing that the late Doctor Alister MacKenzie made plans for your course, I thought that you might be interested in having someone whom he mentioned in his unfinished manuscript as being one of the five leading architects of the world, to cooperate with you in completing this course. If you are interested, I could come to Columbus and discuss this with you, at your convenience, in more detail.
No letter from anyone at Ohio State asked Robert to come, but as soon as spring weather arrived he traveled to Columbus, nonetheless, to see the golf course under way. He got a short meeting with St. John and a tour from Professor McClure and superintendent McCoy of the work-in-progress.
Robert came from Columbus wanting the Ohio State job so badly he could taste it. He wrote letters to Gene Sarazen; to both Herb and Joe Graffis at Golfdom; to Patrick Slavin, Rochester’s director of parks; and James Evans, director of state parks for the New York Central Region, asking for them to write letters on his behalf to Lynn St. John. He asked the same of Grantland Rice, not only editor of The American Golfer but a distinguished sportswriter and radio broadcaster who in 1924 had succeeded Walter Camp in the selection of College All-America Football Teams, an influential position that was of more than passing interest to the Ohio State athletic department; specifically, he asked Rice to mention that one of Robert’s recent commissions was a remodeling job at the Tuxedo Park Country Club, “where the green committee intended doing the work themselves,” but Rice advised against it and recommended Jones. Also, Robert asked for a letter from M. B. Roach, the vice president of A. G. Spalding. He even asked his father-in-law Howard Davis if he had any business associations or connections from his days back at Yale that might be called upon to support his overture to Ohio State. Most importantly, he asked Bobby Jones to put in a good word for him.
Before writing himself to St. John, Jones wrote a long letter to George McClure, the Ohio State agronomy professor who had been put in charge of the course’s construction and given Robert his tour of the property when he visited Columbus. Apparently McClure had invited Jones to outline in writing what he would do with the course, because that’s exactly what Jones did in his three-page letter. “I left Columbus very impressed with the new golf site you are developing at Ohio State,” Robert began. “It should be the greatest college golf development in the United States. The property is of that gently rolling terrain which adapts itself to great golf courses and offers a varied type of interest in the sequence of holes. The gully, with the lake near the center of the property, gives an opportunity for spectacular golf holes, and is a pleasing contrast to those that are routed around this natural feature.” Jones told McClure that he thought the routing of the course was “well done;” in particular he liked that there was a number of dogleg holes as they “lend themselves best to strategic-type holes with alternate route play for the various classes of golfers, with risks and problems according to the manner in which they are played. At the same time, Jones made it clear that the course needed, “at minimum, a few minor changes.”
Jones knew from his visit to Ohio State that the biggest concern was over whether the golf course would end up with the “MacKenzie greens” that everyone wanted and the worry that Perry Maxwell couldn’t—or wouldn’t—create them; to the point, the rest of Jones’s letter to McClure dealt in detail with what Robert would do to give them exactly those sorts of greens:
In order to make the golf course one of uniform balance in interest and appearance, two types of green molding will be necessary. Where the proposed green site is now uninteresting, a bold display of mounds and dunes should be created— their position and form depending upon the problem that is desired in that particular hole. These mounds play a major part in the design but they also tend to isolate that particular hole from the preceding or adjacent holes. Also, it offers the opportunity of orienting the sod and sand in the traps to create a pleasing picture. This “flashing,” as it is called, also adds a psychological stimulant to the play of the hole because of the pronounced visibility of the trap. In positions where nature has left pockets or plateaus which lend themselves to good golf features, they should be as simple as possible. Only such changes as are necessary for strategy and appearance should be created. When considering the features on any particular site, one should bear in mind the construction difficulties that may be encountered at that particular spot.
Jones cautioned that the terrain for the Ohio State golf course “does not lend itself to flat green and penal-type design,” like that which existed at nearby Scioto Country Club. Penal architecture, as well as being “outmoded,” was “neither picturesque nor thrilling in its play.” The problems facing the golfer were “too obvious” and the punishment inflicted on the average golfer “too great.” A strategic-type course, in contrast, needed “wits as well as playing skill and punishes in proportion to one’s lack of such.” If Ohio State followed the principles of strategic design that Jones was laying out, not only would the result be “a great golf course,” but a layout that would adhere to the best of MacKenzie’s designs. But, for that to happen, “what you really need is creative brains from an architect of proven ability, whose ideas conform with the type of course you would like to have.”
Robert then spelled out the specific work he would carry out and the fees he would charge. What was already close to being completed—the route plan of the course, drainage and water systems, and preparation of seed and development of grasses—Jones could help to complete “with relatively few inspection trips.” What Jones would primarily contribute was the major work still needing to be done: “the strategy and play of the holes, showing the location of tees, fairway bunkers, and green complexes, as well as individual drawings of all the greens and traps.”
Jones flexed his considerable powers of persuasion: “We feel that we are ahead of our competitors in all the most important respects, which alone is a tremendous saving in construction costs because an unfamiliar crew can follow our plans with little or no chance of error.” The “only drawback,” he advised McClure, was that “we cannot always visualize on paper certain touches” that should be added during the course of construction—and it was these that “make all the difference between a good and a great golf course.” “The finishing touches,” Robert emphasized, “must be felt on the ground.”
For all of his work Jones would charge $4,500, including expenses. So badly did he want the job that he told McClure, “If desired, we will defer payments on his fee.”
Two months went by and Jones heard nothing from Ohio State. The Graffis brothers, whose Golfdom magazine was based in Chicago, passed on whatever news they heard, which wasn’t much. “We put in another plug for you,” Joe wrote to him, “but I don’t know what the hell they will eventually do down there.” Jones thanked him, adding it was “a job I would particularly like to get.” “Ohio State is still diddling around with its course project,” came the word from Herb. Finally Robert could not wait any longer and wrote again to McClure: “I heard indirectly that you have not done anything further regarding the design of the greens and strategy of the holes on your course. I would appreciate a line from you telling me just what the situation is at this time.”
Behind the scenes at Ohio State, Lynn St. John was, in fact, giving Jones some serious consideration. One man’s opinion that the athletic director valued highly was that of George Sargent, the former club professional at Scioto and former Buckeye golf coach, who had moved on, at his friend Bobby Jones’s urging, to become the head pro at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, where Tyre Jones had learned to play golf. Sargent, an Englishman who had won the 1909 U.S. Open, talked to Bobby Jones about the OSU situation; Jones gave him the names of two men that he believed were most familiar with Dr. MacKenzie’s ideas: California’s Robert Hunter and “Robert Trent Jones of New York.” According to Sargent, Bobby thought “either of these men would be quite capable of taking a set of MacKenzie plans and properly carrying out the Doctor’s ideas.” Sargent also asked Bobby about Perry Maxwell, “but he was not familiar with any of his work.” So, Sargent passed on the judgment to St. John: “Do not believe it would be well to consider him.”
St. John was also interested in what his close friend George “Red” Trautman could offer in this “job search” for the best MacKenzie-like architect. A former assistant athletic director at OSU who had moved on to become the commissioner of AAA baseball, Trautman in mid-July 1936 paid a visit on the Graffis brothers in their Chicago office, asking their thoughts about golf architects. From Herb Graffis came the reply, which he put in writing for Trautman to take to St. John:
I think the two guys who would come closest to interpreting MacKenzie’s ideas and plans are Robert Trent Jones, New York City, and Perry Maxwell of Ardmore, Oklahoma. I wouldn’t say for sure, but I am inclined to think Jones, who is a younger fellow, although extensively experienced and highly competent, might stay in considerably closer adherence to MacKenzie’s plans than Maxwell, who is an older man, but a grand architect. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and though Maxwell has been considerably influenced by MacKenzie and knew him quite well, there may be some points where Maxwell would consider that the course would be much better off if the MacKenzie plans, under these circumstances, were thrown overboard here and there. I take it what you want is a MacKenzie course and you have paid for the plans. The old man was certainly a hell of a grand architect…. Maxwell has done a number of grand courses. So has Jones, the Banff course among them.
Graffis concluded his recommendation: “You can’t go wrong on either one of these birds because they are excellent, careful constructors, and I think their dough requirements would be very nicely in line.”
One might think that after considering all the recommendations in his favor that St. John would have selected Robert Trent Jones to finish the Ohio State golf course, but he did not. He relied on George McClure and John McCoy to get the job done, which they did, finishing the 27-holes of the golf course and having them ready for play on May 1, 1938. Perhaps St. John was bothered by the fact that Jones was young and the junior partner in the firm of Thompson & Jones. Perhaps he did not want to pay the additional money, or did not have the money, for any architect; perhaps he rationalized that hiring an architect, with the course already under way, was an unnecessary luxury. Perhaps Professor McClure, wanting to be in charge, never shared with St. John the thoughtful three-page presentation that Robert had sent him replete with his ideas for a MacKenzie-like strategic design of fairways bunkers and green complexes. Perhaps St. John was turned off by Jones’s rather aggressive approach to getting the assignment, with so many letters of recommendation on his behalf arriving in the OSU athletic office. Whatever the reason or reasons, Jones was turned away. The Ohio State University Golf Course, with its Scarlett and Gray layouts (the second nine of the Gray was completed in 1940) was to become known as an “Alister MacKenzie” design with some indeterminate contributions from Perry Maxwell. The major role of Professor McClure usually does not get mentioned.
It is interesting to speculate, given what Jones sent to McClure whether the OSU professor ended up shaping the bunkers and green complexes at Ohio State in a certain way because of what Jones had offered. It seems very likely that he did, especially when one considers that McClure, in the spring of 1937, traveled to upstate New York specifically to take a close look at Jones’s courses at Durand-Eastman, Midvale, and Green Lakes.
It is more fanciful, but at least equally interesting, to wonder what the Ohio State golf course would have looked like if Lynn St. John had hired Jones to finish what MacKenzie had started. What turned out to be an outstanding golf course could very well have turned out to be an even greater one.
Postscript: In 2005-2006 the Scarlet Course underwent a major restoration project overseen by former Buckeye legend Jack Nicklaus. According to the golf course’s website, Nicklaus “concentrated on restoring the course to the way Alister Mackenzie originally intended it to play. The bunkers were redesigned to appear more like the classic Mackenzie designs at his numerous other courses.” One cannot help but be struck by the irony of Nicklaus doing exactly what Robert Trent Jones proposed to do from the start. Nicklaus also lengthened to play more than 7,400 yards, with the par changed from 72 to 71. The Gray course has been scheduled for a major remodeling by another Columbus-based architect and OSU graduate, Dr. Michael Hurdzan, in association with his partner, Dana Fry. See “Golf Club History,” accessed on 2 Aug. 2012, at http://www.ohiostategolfclub.com/History-5.html. As the author of A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Jones and the Making of Modern Golf, I admit being partial to the Ohio State Golf Course, as I was a graduate student at Ohio State from 1974 to 1981. In those years I played both the Scarlet and Gray courses many times, making too few “difficult pars” and an abundance of bogeys—and worse.
George Sargent to Lynn W. St. John, undated, in reply to a letter from St. John to Sargent, 12 May 1936, quoted in Thomas MacWood, “Ohio State University Golf Course, OH, USA,” at http://www.golfclubatlas.com/in-my-opinion/ohio-state-golf/, accessed 21 June 2012. MacWood’s essay offers an excellent summary history of the development of the Ohio State University golf courses. Unfortunately, his article does not reference his sources or provide a bibliography.
Thomas MacWood, “Ohio State University Golf Course, OH, USA,” at http://www.golfclubatlas.com/in-my-opinion/ohio-state-golf/, accessed 21 June 2012.
L. W. St. John, Athletics Department, to Mr. Robert Trent Jones, Thompson & Jones, 45 W. 45th St., New York, NY, 31 Jan. 1938, Ohio State Files, Jones Papers, Cornell University Archives. The chairman of Ohio State’s Golf Course Committee was Colonel Grosvenor L. Townsend, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who was then serving as the commandant of the university’s military department. Previously, he had been commandant of Sr. John’s College at Annapolis, Maryland.
RTJ to Prof. L. W. St. John, Director of Athletics, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, 29 Jan. 1936, Ohio State File, JP, CUA.
RTJ to Genen Sarazen, Valley Ridge Farm, Brookfield, CT, 23 Apr. 1936; and Gene Sarazen, Valley Ridge Farm, Brookfield Centre, CT, to RTJ, 27 Apr. 1936, in Gene Sarazen Files, JP, CUA; RTJ to L. St. John, Athletic Director, Ohio State University, 11 May 1936, Ohio State Files, JP, CUA; M. B. Roach, Vice President, A. G. Spalding & Bros., Chicopee, MA, 2 May 1936, Ohio State Files, JP, CUA; Howard L. Davis, Director, Technical Employment and Training, New York Telephone Company, 140 West St., New York City, to RTJ, The Neil House, Columbus, OH, 8 Apr. 1936, in Ohio State Files, JP, CUA.
RTJ to Professor George H. McClure, Townsend Hall, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, 22 Apr. 1936, p. 1, Ohio State Files, JP, CUA.
Ibid. pp. 1-2.
Ibid., p. 2.
Joe Graffis, Business Manager, Golfdom, 14 E. Jackson Blvd., Chicago, IL, to RTJ, Thompson & Jones, 45 W. 45th St., New York City, 22 July 1936; Herb Graffis to RTJ, 10 Oct. 1936; RTJ to Joe Graffis, c/o Golfdom, 14 E. Jackson, Blvd., Chicago, IL, 24 July 1936. The three letters are in the Graffis Files, JP, CUA.
MacWood, “Ohio State University Golf Course, OH, USA,” at http://www.golfclubatlas.com/in-my-opinion/ohio-state-golf/, accessed 21 June 2012.
Herb Graffis letter to Red Trautman, quoted in ibid. It is curious that Herb Graffis would not know that Stanley Thompson had designed the Banff golf course, not Robert Trent Jones. That Graffis didn’t know must be another testimony to how effectively Jones was promoting his achievements even to those who should know better.
Historians of the Ohio State University have not known about Jones’s attempt to be the one who got to finish MacKenzie’s design. In fact, the best history of the OSU golf course, written by Thomas MacWood for Golf Club Atlas, asserts that near the end of his life “Trent Jones was surprised to learn he had been considered by Ohio State; he had never been contacted” (Thomas MacWood, “Ohio State University Golf Course, OH, USA,” at http://www.golfclubatlas.com/in-my-opinion/ohio-state-golf/, accessed 21 June 2012). The truth, as shown above, is far different.
For correspondence related to McClure’s visit to see some of Jones’s courses in upstate New York, see McClure, College of Agriculture, Ohio State University to RTJ, 45 West 45th St., New York City, 7 Apr. 1937; RTJ to McClure, 13 Apr. 1937; RTJ to A. N. Almquist, Supt., Green Lakes State Park, Fayetteville, NY, 19 Apr. 1937; Patrick Slavin, Director of Parks, City of Rochester, NY, to RTJ, 22 Apr. 1937; RTJ to McClure, 23 Apr. 1937; McClure to RTJ, 19 May 1937; and RTJ to Emmett Kelly, Green Lakes State Park Golf Course, 21 May 1937. All of these letters are in the Ohio State Files, JP, CUA.