For Donald Ross, the meccas are Dornoch and Pinehurst; for Bobby Jones, it’s Augusta National; for Jack Nicklaus, Muirfield Village. And for Robert Trent Jones Sr., “Trent,” as he was known, it’s his namesake club in the rolling hills of northern Virginia.
Glenn Smickley was course superintendent during construction and grow-in back in 1989 and 1990. He remembers frequent visits from Jones, the octogenarian nearly always decked out in coat and tie. What his body lacked in dexterity at that point, his mind made up for. Jones talked to Smickley about greens that looked like potato chips, with curled edges and irregular pitches and rolls; about “lace-edged” bunkers with ragged seams looking like they’d occurred naturally over time; of trying to build at least three small greens within every green complex.
Humbling, for starters. Trent Jones designed or redesigned some 450 golf courses in 45 states and 29 countries over a career that spanned seven decades. Deciding as a teenager to become a golf course designer and then handcrafting a program of study at Cornell to suitably prepare himself, he was ultimately credited with giving birth to course design as a formal occupation.
Many innovations in golf course design are his: elongated tees that stretch courses up to 7,000 yards from front to tip; heroic carries over water; the “signature” course as a marketing ploy; and greens-within-greens with well-defined, multiple hole locations.
You’ll find all of the above at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, situated 35 miles from the White House. The course is routed in an out-and-back links style, with the clubhouse on the southwest corner of the property, the front nine running north and the back side U-turning south with the par-3 9th. The back nine runs along the shores of the lake on nine through 13, and the 15th green and holes 16 through 18 again kiss the banks of the lake. A visual indulgence here is to stand on the ninth green and look south along the shoreline to the 13th green a mile away. Two inland ponds, one on the par-3 4th, the other on the par-5 14th, provide more peril to a layout that already has nine holes along Lake Manassas.
The 11th is the most photogenic frame on a reel of high drama at RTJ, with its peninsula green separated from the water by five trees back-left. The tee shot over the lake is consummate Trent Jones “do-or-die.”
Accuracy off the tee isn’t as essential here as on many Trent designs that pinch the fairways with bunkers on either side. The fairway bunkers are generally placed inside the dogleg or on the side that affords the best approach into the green—but not on both sides.
The greens average 7,200 square feet but play much smaller when you aim for the sub-section containing that day’s hole location.“The greens certainly are what make the golf course,” said Corey Pavin during the 1994 Presidents Cup. “There are a lot of humps and ridges. Guys who hit good iron shots are going to perform well this week.”
To the right of the entryway of the clubhouse is the Robert Trent Jones Room, a reception area with photos of Trent across the timeline of his life. It’s impressive stuff, for sure—especially now that Robert Trent Jones looks down on Lake Manassas from the clear blue skies above.