Behold Bellerive’s Beauty
Courtesy of Lorne Rubenstein
The Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis will quite properly get much of the attention during this week’s PGA Championship. It also affords an opportunity to think about Robert Trent Jones Sr., who designed the original course in 1959. It hosted the 1965 U.S. Open won by Gary Player and the 1992 PGA Championship that Nick Price won.
Jones’ son Rees directed a comprehensive, $9.5-million (USD) renovation of the course in 2005-06 as well as more work in 2013 to strengthen it for today’s landscape where golfers are mashing the ball absurd distances in the air. Mind you, Bellerive was long even for the 1962 U.S. Open, when it played to 7,191 yards. It was the longest U.S. Open course to that point. Jack Nicklaus said prior to the championship that “I think Bellerive puts too much premium on power.” He shot eight-over 78 in the first round and wasn’t a factor. Bellerive this week is 7,317 yards, not much longer than in 1965.
Trent, as the patriarch of the golf architect family was known (there’s Robert Trent Jones Jr. as well as Rees, and each has been prominent in planet golf for many years), had designed greens at Bellerive whose average size was 8,800 square feet. Rees Jones reduced the average size to 8,200 square feet while preserving and exaggerating the undulations within a green concept that his father had incorporated. The idea was to force the golfer to hit precise approaches to where the holes were cut, because the greens have ridges and plateaus. Jones did something similar with the greens at Royal Montreal’s Blue course when he renovated and reworked it in preparation for the 2007 Presidents Cup.
Bellerive should offer a soft and lush surface this week rather than the preferred hard and fast conditions because there’s been plenty of rain. You’d think that golfers who hit the ball high, far, and pure would have the advantage, but nobody really knows in golf — a most confounding game. Precision should still matter, as it did in 1965 and 1992 for the two majors held at the course. (Bellerive also hosted the 2004 U.S. Senior Open and the 2003 Senior PGA Championship, but I’m focusing here on the “regular” majors).
James R. Hansen, the author of a thorough biography of Jones Sr. called A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Jones Sr. and The Making of Modern Golf (2014), referred to the greens within a green concept in the book. He quoted Jones from a June 1965 article in the USGA’s Golf Journal — I wish the USGA hadn’t abandoned this excellent magazine. Here’s what Jones said, “The areas in which the hole will be cut in the four days of the Open are necessarily quite confining. Because of the putting problems, the remaining areas of the green are just as much a part of the hazards of the hole as are the traps, the rough, and the water.”
As Roger Graves points out here, water hazards figure prominently on 11 holes at Bellerive, while there’s no second cut to stop errant shots to run off into the water. Missed shots are likely to be punished.
It’s clear from my reading that while updating his father’s course, Rees Jones tried to maintain his design principles at Bellerive. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the late Hord Hardin, born in St. Louis and the chairman of the Masters and Augusta National from 1980 to ‘91, was instrumental in Bellerive moving to its current location in 1957 — the club itself was established in 1897 as the St. Louis Field Club. Hardin won Bellerive’s club championship 22 times.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall during conversations about the new course between Hardin and Trent Jones. Hansen notes that Hardin and Clark Gamble, his primary partner at Bellerive for the move from north St. Louis to a suburb 12 miles from downtown St. Louis, ended up being awarded the 1965 U.S. Open “before it was even a year old.”
Maybe this is the place to mention some personal experiences I had with Trent Jones. He had designed the Ballybunion Golf Club’s new Cashen course in 1984, and I was visiting there. Jones was 78, and his new course was rugged, high-hilled and tough going in places. Jones accompanied a group of golf writers as we clambered up one of the dunes toward a green site hunkered down up top. He insisted on coming along, the better to explain his work.
Jones was laboring and he required our assistance, so we formed a human chain and pushed and pulled him up to the green. We became what amounted to a rope tow. Jones made it to the summit and stood there proudly. Invigorated by what he had wrought and was showing us, he described his design.
Then there was a Masters of many years ago. I was having lunch in the dining room on the first floor. Players, officials, members and other writers were coming and going. I sat down with Trent and Dick Taylor, the giant of golf writing who guided Golf World from 1965-89. He died in 1997 at 72.
There we were, comfortably ensconced in our chairs at a table after having given our orders. I thought we were enjoying a lively chat but soon noticed Trent and Dick’s heads were drooping. Dick’s glasses were slipping millimetre by millimetre, inexorably to what I was certain would be their concluding destination — in his plate of food that had arrived. Trent and Dick had fallen asleep. I put my hand out to catch Dick’s glasses and then awakened the fellows. We carried on.
The golf scene returns to a Trent Jones course for the year’s last major, although we must not neglect the significant role that his son Rees had in the course as it will play for the PGA Championship. I hope that the telecast will fill viewers in on Trent. As for Bellerive, I leave it to Herbert Warren Wind to say something about Jones’ influence on green design. He also mentions Alister Mackenzie — the designer at Cypress Point and Augusta National — in discussing this element.
Wind in his magisterial The Story of American Golf (1956) says of Jones and Mackenzie that they were “the first to realize the role that sharply contoured greens with several pin positions could play in making courses stiffer for par golfers while rendering them no more difficult for the average golfer.”
Wind updated his book in 1975, 13 years after Player won the U.S. Open at Bellerive. He wrote that the course featured “the vast, weaving Cecil B. DeMille greens that are one of Jones’ trademarks.” This is likely the only time the famous American filmmaker (The Ten Commandments; The Greatest Show on Earth) was included in an article about golf course design.
Let’s hope Bellerive will provide a stiff test for the last PGA to be held in August. It will move to May starting next year. Long may it find an important place in the crowded world of the professional tournament scene. Courses worth examining closely will always help it find its place there. And there’s much to examine at Bellerive.