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Robert Trent Jones Golf Club

Of the 500 courses designed by one of the biggest names in course architecture, only one offers a golf experience that is special enough to be worthy of carrying his name

By: Hunki Yun

Appeared in 2010 LINKS Premier Clubs

Stonewall Jackson and John Pope would have liked Paul Tesori’s fighting spirit. At the 2000 Presidents Cup, 138 years after Jackson led Confederate forces against Pope’s Union unit at the Civil War’s Battle of Second Manassas, Tesori, Vijay Singh’s caddie, showed up on the 1st tee at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club for his boss’ match against Tiger Woods wearing a cap with “Tiger who?” embroidered on the back.

Unfortunately for Tesori, Singh lost to Woods 2 & 1, while the American team defeated the International side by a much bigger margin: 211⁄2–101⁄2. Despite the outcome, the esprit de corps demonstrated by Tesori and Singh is fitting at RTJ, as members refer to the club. 

Located in the suburbs west of Washington, D.C., the club is eight miles from Manassas National Battlefield Park, which commemorates the area’s two battles during the Civil War. (The Union called the site Bull Run.) RTJ has hosted epic contests waged with golf clubs as a four-time site of the Presidents Cup, including the inaugural staging in 1994.

In fact, the stories of the club and the biennial competition are intertwined, and for many of the members, hosting the best players in the world has produced as many memories as teeing it up themselves on the 7,425-yard layout.

“Each Presidents Cup was special,” says Club Vice President Pat Higbie. “It’s a way for the members who love being part of RTJ to put it on display. In 2000, that was the first time Tiger played RTJ, so that was huge.

“The best competition was in 2005. I was right there when Chris DiMarco clinched the Cup. My son was the standard bearer for Phil Mickelson’s match that year, and my older son did the same thing in 2000.”

Members are justifiably proud of RTJ’s role in launching one of golf’s biggest international events, but their real passion is the everyday experience of visiting the only club among the 500 or so courses designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. to bear his name.

The course is unique for another reason. While clients brought Trent Jones the sites for nearly all of his other courses, he discovered this one himself. In the early 1970s, he was in a helicopter on the way to visit another site when the pilot flew over the 800-acre Lake Manassas, which had been created in 1969 to provide the area’s water supply.

Trent Jones spied a portion of the coastline, which he thought would be perfect for a course. It took him years to acquire the property, and after doing so, he enlisted Clay Hamner, Bobby Russell, former President of Baltusrol Golf Club and Ernie Ransome, the longtime President of Pine Valley Golf Club, as founding trustees.

The course that Trent Jones designed is muscular, with big, bold holes that test every club in the bag—from the driver on the tees of the long par 4s and par 5s to the wedges on the well-guarded greens. But it is also an aesthetic marvel, especially the run of holes that dance along the lake, starting with the 200-yard 9th, which has a green that sits on a natural peninsula.

Eight of the next nine holes play along the lake, and their proximity to the water is the only constant along this stretch, on which Trent Jones built a wonderful variety of holes. The range of holes include a pair of long par 4s in the 465-yard 13th and 475-yard 15th, a par 3 over an inlet at the 215-yard 11th, the reachable 525-yard 12th,  and a short par 4, the 380-yard 10th, where a forward tee can encourage big hitters to have a go at the green.

The 580-yard 14th is the only hole on the back nine that Trent Jones steered away from the lake, but he added risk-reward options. A pond guards the left half of the green, so only a truly heroic second shot will leave an eagle putt. But there are safe areas from which players can try to make birdie with a pitch or blast, and putt.

These holes build to a crescendo on the 470-yard 18th, which sweeps left along the shoreline to a green that sits just yards from the water. In the 2005 Presidents Cup, it played as the 16th (players started their rounds on the 3rd hole), so more matches would have a chance to reach this hole that sums up the entirety of Trent Jones’ intent in designing the layout: scenic and challenging, offering what RTJ President Andy Zausner calls a “hard par, rational bogey.”

Those well-executed shots extend to the greens, which Chief Operating Officer Glenn Smickley likens to the surface of a potato chip for their waves, swales and dips. Smickley was the course superintendent during construction, and he was impressed by the attention to detail that Trent Jones brought to every green, ensuring that even the smallest of slopes had just the right amount of borrow.

Members love putting on the greens, which are always in immaculate condition. In fact, for everyday speed, RTJ’s greens rival the surfaces at Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania. “They’re kept in tournament condition year round, at about 11.5 on the Stimpmeter,” says Zausner. “I’ve seen them at above 15. I’ve never putted on greens so fast—and I’ve played Oakmont.”

The difference is that RTJ members don’t take such sadistic pleasure in watching guests suffer so many three-putts. This attitude is in keeping with the club’s welcoming atmosphere, staff and facilities. 

“The most important thing about the RTJ experience is the way you get treated,” says Higbie. “With no pools, no tennis courts, you have the ability to spend time with friends, family or business associates without distractions, so you can just play golf and enjoy the company.”

The hub of this hospitality is the Georgian-style clubhouse, which features 12 guest suites, which means overnight members and visitors simply can walk downstairs to get to the dining room, locker rooms, meeting spaces—or the 1st tee.

National and international members flying into Dulles Airport, 20 minutes away, or the Manassas Regional Airport, which is even closer, always look forward to spending a couple of nights at RTJ. For any serious golfer who does business in the nation’s capital, the club is an ideal mix of work and play.

The clubhouse is so comfortable that local members have been known to stay overnight to take advantage of the club’s amenities. “The experience is superb,” says Zausner. “The food is not country club food; it’s gourmet restaurant quality. Our food and beverage staff strive for five star, Five Diamond, Michelin quality in both the dining and accommodations.”

Groups can stay in one of four cottages, the largest of which has space for 16 golfers. These cottages served as the team rooms during the Presidents Cups, and were the scenes of spirited Ping-Pong and billiards matches among teammates in the evenings.

One of the cottages doubles as the indoor practice facility. Above the four hitting bays, teaching tee and lounge are four bedrooms, so players can wake up and be on the driving range in minutes. No doubt, this is where Ben Hogan would have chosen to stay.

As with everything else at RTJ, the practice area is on a large scale. The tee is 160 yards wide and 65 yards deep, while the range measures 375 yards from end to end, so even big hitters like Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els could let it rip during warm-up sessions.

In the years to come, the club wants to add a par-3 course that starts near the 18th green. And given the success of previous stagings, the Presidents Cup may return. 

No doubt, future generations of worldwide golf stars would appreciate a chance to enjoy both the club’s unique atmosphere and the timeless layout that showcases the genius of one of golf’s most influential architects.

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