William F. Boswell, of Evans, Georgia, designed Blackthorn Golf Course in South Bend, Indiana; Lassing Pointe Golf Course in Boone County, Kentucky; Valley Brook Golf Club in River Vale, New Jersey, and, in Europe, Marbella Golf & County Club in Marbella, Spain and Campo de Golfe da Maderia in Portugal.
I was one of the last architects to work as an assistant for the legendary Robert Trent Jones Sr. I worked in his office in Fuengirola, Spain, from 1985 until 1992, when the Gulf War, combined with Jones’s age and poor health condition, forced us to close down.
About a year after I joined the European office, Robert Trent Jones was still very active, even though he was in his early eighties. The first time I personally drove him around, I had picked him up at the Nice airport and was driving him to our Grand Motte Project near Montpellier, France.
“Mr. Jones,” I said at some point in the four-hour drive, “we are close to finishing construction of the twenty-seven-hole project you will see today. Practically everything is shaped out. The irrigation is almost complete, and we are getting ready to start grassing the holes.’
Jones said nothing, but I could see he was familiarizing himself with the plan. Then, after a careful study, Jones started scrutinizing some of the holes on the plan. He was clearly unhappy.
“The plan has too much water. The course will prove to be too difficult for the novice French golfers to play,” Jones stated.
As we got closer to the site, Mr. Jones got more upset – almost irate – about the plan.
“This par-five, with water on the right and out-of-bounds on the left, is impossible,” he proclaimed, before attacking the other eight holes of the side.
Now, it was normal for Jones to make changes in the field – he might change some shaping, add bunkers, or move some tees. That was to be expected. But this criticism was something much more monumental. Jones was critical of an entire nine-hole routing! We were getting paid to shape the golf course, too, so Jones himself was financially responsible for some of the construction.
After we’d arrived at the site, during our lunch meeting with our contractor, Jones concluded that it would be best if we converted the erroneous nine into a par-three course.
“But Mr. Jones, we already have a six-hole practice course,” I informed him.
“We got to fix this or I’m sending you back to the States,” he exclaimed.
He was mad, and blaming me! I was getting worried.
I expressed concern about admitting to the clients that we screwed up our design and now, when construction was almost finished, we wanted to change it.
“Let me handle it – don’t say a word,” Jones advised me.
We met with the clients and Robert Trent Jones Sr. worked his magic. Not only did Jones convince the clients to convert the proposed nine holes to an eighteen-hole par three, he managed to charge them for the changes in design, and charge them for shaping nine new greens and tees. I couldn’t believe it! The clients were actually happy because, as far as they were concerned, they were getting nine more holes!
Jones was proud of the new deal he made. Before he left, he lectured me on making sure new designs are not too punishing.
“And always get paid for your work,” Jones added with a wink. “That’s the most important part.”
When I worked with Jones, our operation was almost entirely in continental Europe. It was said that two things didn’t cross the English Channel: golf to continental Europe and good food to England. So, not surprisingly, our clients often didn’t know much about golf courses or, for that matter, golf and the socially proper way to play. Many of our clients just knew a golf course would make them money.
Our typical meeting would be with a group of owners or investors that wanted us to design a golf course. Their advisors for the project would be present.
After reviewing one particularly good site, we returned to our office and found that the land would easily support twenty-seven holes. We included that plan along with the standard eighteen-hole course routing. After presenting the twenty-seven-hole option to the client, we sensed one member of his entourage was a bit upset. We weren’t fluent in the language, so all we could do was catch the odd word or so. This angry fellow dominated the discussion between the investors to the point we were worried that we were losing the deal.
We jumped in and explained to the client that he could adapt the third nine even if he decided not to build it until later. But the objector remained adamant that it couldn’t work.
It was clear the client was confused. He didn’t know whether to side with Robert Trent Jones – the world’s most famous golf course architect – or to trust the objections of his animated advisor.
After a tense bit of silence, with everyone standing around the plans laid out on the table, the client finally, in broken English, blurted out, “It is too much golf – everyone would be too tired.” He then gave gestures imitating and indicating an exhausted person.
We quickly realized that we had to educate our new clients about the basics of golf.
We had many laborers working on the job in Madeira. Most laborers were poor and were from the nearby town of Santo do Serra. Some of the laborers walked over a mile to the site each day. They were hardworking people who did not know anything about building golf courses. Only a few had ever been off the island.
During construction of the fourth hole – the signature, long, par-three over the deepest cliff edge – I carried my golf clubs out to give it a try. I was a three handicap. The workers who stopped to watch me swing the club seemed impressed with my shots.
I offered to let some of the workers grab a club and give it a try. One of the laborers reluctantly took the fairway wood and gripped the club cross-handed. I corrected his grip and he promptly dribbled the ball barely off the tee. Everyone laughed.
Another worker looked curiously into my bag and pulled out a three-iron for the 220-yard shot, and like the first man who grabbed a club, he gripped the club cross-handed, but would not let me correct his grip. He motioned for me to keep away. His swing, taken off loose dirt in tennis shoes, was as full and flowing as that of the great Spanish golfer Severiano Ballersteros. The ball soared up in the air, hung for a second or two, and fell squarely on the green! I was shocked beyond belief. The workers grinned and laughed, knowing he had showed me up!
Several others took turns and most played cross-handed. I was flabbergasted. I had to find out where these islanders learned to play, since I was building was the only golf course on the island!
My curiosity revealed that part of our site was a defunct nine-hole golf course built in the 1930s. It wasn’t even noticeable even to me, but during the time that the course had been active, the boys from Santo da Serra were hired as caddies and naturally took up the game. The town’s best player used to play cross-handed, so all the kids learned from him. Even after the course became inactive, the grassy plain allowed the development of generations of cross-handed players just waiting for a golf course.
Once I’d finished the course, I loved to take the workers out and watch them play. They never commented on the fairness, shot values, or other fluff used to describe courses. They simply enjoyed the challenge.