Since 1988, Rees Jones has remodeled seven U.S. Open courses, seven PGA Championships venues, layouts for four Ryder Cups, two Walker Cups and a Presidents Cup. The 69-year-old designer, one of the two sons of the legendary golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, is the most decorated makeover artist in the game.
Yet perhaps no one in his profession has been more reviled by the players for his changes to several prominent PGA Tour sites.
His redo of the Dubsdread course at the Cog Hill Golf and Country Club in Lemont, Ill., home to this week's BMW Championship, has been under fire by the players since it rejoined the tour in 2009 after a $5 million renovation. Tricked up and a minus-3 on a scale of 1 to 10 have been some of the more colorful descriptions of the course, a Dick Wilson and Joe Lee design that was first opened in 1964.
"The course is length on top of length," Stewart Cink said last year at the BMW, where he finished in a tie for 21st. "It's too hard for the average player. And anybody good enough to play it knows what a wreck it is."
Last month at the PGA Championship, Phil Mickelson, one of Jones' most vocal critics, didn't mince words on the designer's work with the Atlantic Athletic Club venue.
"This is a great example again of how modern architecture is killing the participation of the sport because the average guy just can't play it," Mickelson said.
Not shy of his celebrity or overly sensitive toward his critics, Jones has said that his "courses are only controversial for the players who play poorly."
In 2007, Jones was hired by Frank Jemsek, the owner of 72-hole Cog Hill, to make its No. 4 course hard enough for U.S. Open consideration. It had always been a dream of Jemsek's father, Joe, to bring the Open to Cog Hill, one of the best upscale public course facilities in the country.
The Dubsdread course was built with a major championship in mind. It had a hundred bunkers that mostly crowded the greens and mounds that gave spectators good views of the action. After getting the U.S. Amateur in 1997, it was passed over for the '03 Open that went to nearby Olympia Fields and has since then only gotten a passing nod from the USGA.
Jones reconstructed all the green and tee complexes, reshaped all the bunkers and made Dubsdread play almost 7,600 yards from the tips. Last year, the players panned the new greens, which were bumpy and slow due to a combination of rain and hot temperatures.
After bringing in a new golf course superintendent following last year's event, the course should get a more favorable rating from players.
Luke Donald, who has been playing the course since 1998 when he was a freshman at Northwestern, tweeted after playing the course earlier this week that "players will enjoy much better conditions."
Jemsek defended his architect this week in Crain's Chicago Business, which covers local business around the Chicago area.
"What Rees is trying to do is keep up with the best players in the world," Jemsek said. "He's trying to figure out a way to get a step ahead. When somebody gets a step ahead of me, I know I don't like it."
While the BMW Championship will move next year to Crooked Stick Golf Club in Indianapolis and then Denver's Cherry Hills in 2014, scrutiny of Jones' makeovers will probably continue as long as designers try to keep pace with the ever-changing ball and club technology.
Presently, Jones is toughening up future national championship courses in Canada, China and Japan.
A case can be made that updating courses for the modern players will keep traditional layouts such as Cog Hill, Congressional and Torrey Pines as viable venues for major championships and PGA Tour events. A new driver and ball is introduced every year that promises to be straighter and longer. More challenging golf courses are fine for the pros and elite amateurs, many pundits say, but the vast majority of golfers should be using their great club technology on shorter courses.
Barney Adams, the 72-year-old founder of Adams Golf, has been one of the leading advocates of the effort to get golfers to play courses from a shorter distance. His logic, shared by the leadership in the PGA of America and the USGA, goes that if golfers had an 8-iron in their hands versus a hybrid from the fairway, they might score better. The result would be a more enjoyable experience and thus golfers would stick around for a long time to buy all the new goodies out of the pro shop every year.
Jack Nicklaus, who when he came on tour in the early 1960s could overpower most of the golf courses, hosted a 12-hole tournament over Labor Day weekend at his Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. The hole size was increased to 8 inches in diameter from the traditional 4 ½ inches and players were required to complete their rounds in 2 ½ hours. Citing National Golf Foundation figures that say the game has lost four to five million players in the past five years, the 18-time major championship winner, now 71 year olds, wants to make the game easier for the average player.
Joe Jemsek, who died in 2002 at the age of 89, was the godfather of the movement to give the public golfer the country club experience. His Dubsdread course was the crown jewel of his family-run empire. The elder Jemsek had loved Medinah, Olympia Fields and South Shore and wanted to give the everyman an opportunity to play a course of that caliber.
When the Western Open came to Cog Hill in '91 after 17 years at the Butler National Golf Club in Oak Brook, Ill., it represented a seismic shift in the game. Butler National had given up the tournament rather than revoke its discriminatory membership policies against minorities and women. Augusta National and the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, among several tour venues, would for the first time invite black members to join their ranks.
Cog Hill fell easily into its place on the schedule and with the Western Open being the second oldest tour event, it could always count on having one of the strongest fields outside of the majors. Tiger Woods has won there five times, including the '09 BMW Championship, his last win on the PGA Tour. His course-record 62 in that third round matched his career-low in a competitive round on tour. But last year he would join the chorus of players critical of the Dubsdread greens.
"They've kind of lost a few of these greens," said Woods, who finished in a tie for 15th. "They're slow and a bit bumpy, but we all have to putt them."
This year could be Cog Hill's last hoorah as an important venue for the best players in the world. It's unlikely that the USGA will ever bring the U.S. Open to the course and there are a lot of good clubs in the area, including Olympia Fields, Kemper Lakes and Conway Farms. All are equally deserving of an opportunity to host a FedEx Cup playoff event.
That's unfortunate for Cog Hill because the third leg of the playoffs is probably the most important of the four tournaments. It's like the crucial games to get into the Super Bowl or the World Series. To begin with, only the top 30 in the FedEx Cup playoff standings will advance from the 70-man, no-cut field into the Tour Championship next week in Atlanta.
Only the top 20 in the standings this week are mathematically ensured of a spot at East Lake. At 68th in the rankings, Ernie Els likely needs a fifth-place finish or better to advance. But with a victory, anybody in the field could still mathematically win the playoffs.
There are also Presidents Cup implications for a number of players. On Sunday night, the captains will know their top-10 players from the final standings. Vijay Singh, who has played in every Presidents Cup, is not on the International team yet and stands in 13th position, but captain Greg Norman will surely take him as one of his two captain's picks.
The more interesting storylines come out of the U.S contingent, where there is a long list of players still with a realistic chance to make the team on points, including Brandt Snedeker (11th), Bill Haas (12th), Bo Van Pelt (13th), Rickie Fowler (14th) and Zach Johnson (15th). Anyone of these players could unseat Jim Furyk (9th) or David Toms (10th).
"I have to earn one of the spots," said Van Pelt, who comes into the playoff standings in 22nd place after a seventh at the Deutsche Bank Championship. "I don't see myself getting picked.
"I know I have an outside shot. But I'm just going to try to play good golf and the rest will fall in line."
The 36-year-old former Oklahoma State star is very familiar with Cog Hill. He played there in the '97 U.S. Amateur and several times since turning pro in 1998. He was to play the Dubsdread course for the first time this week on Tuesday afternoon, and said that the locker room was already buzzing with news that the course is in a lot better shape than in 2010.
"The greens were really thin last year," said Van Pelt, who finished 54th in the BMW a year ago to narrowly escape with the 30th and final spot in the Tour Championship. "They had some bad luck with the weather, but I'm sure now with another year under their belt, the greens have matured and the course will be fine."
Coming off a career-best $3.3 million in earnings last season, Van Pelt has a different outlook on this year's playoffs.
"Last year I was always inside the top 30," he said. "So I've been battling more in the playoffs this year to better my position. It's certainly a different mindset."
Van Pelt, who grew up in Richmond, Ind., was at the Crooked Stick Golf Club in '91 when John Daly won the PGA Championship. He is excited about possibly returning there next year to play in the FedEx Cup playoffs. It would be his first time competing on the PGA Tour in his home state.
"There are a lot of good venues in the Midwest," he said. "I think the same kind of rotation of courses that they are using in New York is good for this tournament."
The Jemsek family and Rees Jones might agree with that sentiment, but they would still like to have their U.S. Open.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.