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Famed golf designer returns to his baby

A sage woman saw it in the child's eyes.

"My grandmother said to me when I was growing up," recalls the man who was that boy, "'Bobby, you've got that restless spirit in your eyes.'"

She borrowed Horace Greeley's line and told him to go. So Robert Trent Jones Jr. went west, then a little farther west, then so far west he was east. Then north. And south. It would be easier to find a corner of a jigsaw puzzle than to find a corner of the earth the golf vagabond hasn't visited.

"The Joneses don't sit still," says one of the icons of golf course design. "Where the game is, we're gonna go there."

Eagle Point is a corner of the globe. In that regard, perhaps it isn't surprising it attracted Jones nearly 20 years ago and enticed him to create a splendid work on a pastoral easel in the heart of the Rogue Valley.

Eagle Point Golf Club opened in 1996. It was extremely well-built, has been meticulously maintained, has been honored several times over by national media and has hosted major state tournaments.

It's one of 275 course projects the 74-year-old Jones has been involved with over four-plus decades, and few are as special to him because it's the only course he owned from its inception.

He returned this week as new owner Bob Hyer's guest during a day of homage to his lifetime in the game, and Jones, understandably, was nostalgic.

"There were a lot of blood, sweat and tears here," he says.

Hyer acquired Eagle Point on July 30. A longtime admirer of Jones, he had the opportunity to play that same day with the architect in Washington at Chambers Bay, Jones' grandest work, and got the idea to bring him back to the Rogue Valley. On Wednesday, a tournament was held, followed by a dinner at which Jones spoke.

Proceeds went to Habitat for Humanity, and it was announced that an annual tournament in Jones' name would raise money for the local high school golf program and keep his legacy constant.

Jones and Hyer visited with groups during play and hit a few shots. Jones signed autographs and had his picture taken often. It had been seven years since he was here, to transfer ownership of a lot on the property, and he seemed to enjoy himself.

Why the long absence?

"It's just that I'm a golf architect," he says. "Golf architects are a peripatetic people who run around the world trying to find farms that need to be golf courses."

Southern Oregon might consider itself lucky he found this one when he did.

A snapshot of his life tells very much a big-picture existence.

Jones grew up in New Jersey and attended Yale. His father was a world-famous course designer, so it's little wonder Bobby became a top-notch player. He competed for Yale in the NCAA Championships in 1959 in, of all places, Oregon, at Eugene Country Club.

The field included "a guy named Jack Nicklaus," says Jones, and winner Dick Crawford, and the Southern California boys and, oh, Houston, the team champion.

"They were the best," chuckles Jones, "because they didn't have to study."

Jones came west to complete his graduate studies at Stanford, then helped his father establish his business on the West Coast. In 1974, Jones started his own company, and he's been a major player since.

Asked to name his top three projects, Jones politely declines. He doesn't want to make 270 others angry.

But certainly there are memorable ones.

He built the first course in Russia, the Moscow Country Club, and it only took 20 years.

"It was extraordinarily difficult," says Jones of the course that opened in 1994 and has hosted a European PGA event. "While the Soviet Union collapsed, we were in the middle of it all building a golf course."

The hardship makes it stand out.

"I remember the struggle more than I do the result," says Jones. "The result, you're the judge. You're my litmus test to see if I turn blue or red."

He did identify one benefit of the Moscow work. For his 50th reunion at Yale, he was asked to write about something that happened in school that, unbeknownst at the time, became useful later in life.

"I said I learned a couple of Russian drinking songs," laughs Jones. "It was helpful. We bonded."

He also built the third course on mainland China, which now has about 500, he says. And another in China close to the North Korean border.

"You don't want to go too far off course," he says.

There's Princeville in Hawaii on Kauai that is significant because it was early in his career, and the beauty might be unmatched. He maintains a beach house there.

On a smaller scale, there's the putting green at the White House he installed. His father put one in for President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, and when it came time to upgrade and relocate, President Bill Clinton asked Jones Jr. to do the honors.

He crafted a 1,500-square-foot green just 30 paces from the Oval Office. In an article a couple years ago, Jones wrote that Clinton wanted a greenside bunker, too, but he declined at the behest of a Secret Service agent. The agent was fearful of skulled shots that would hit the White House, set off alarms and result in a Code Red.

When Eagle Point opened, a letter of congratulations from Clinton was read.

Jones' work is all about, and several courses will be showcased in upcoming major tournaments. Two Japan courses will host the World Amateur Team Championships next year, Chambers Bay will have the U.S. Open in 2015 and CordeValle in California will have the U.S. Women's Open in 2016.

Chambers Bay is at the top of Jones' list when it comes to acclaim.

It's the first new course to land the U.S. Open since one of Jones' father's works, Hazeltine in Minnesota, did so in 1970. Chambers Bay opened in 2007 and was awarded the Open less than a year later.

"If you have the honor of the United States Golf Association choosing you to host its men's open championship, there is no higher honor," says Jones.

If Eagle Point and Chambers Bay have something in common, it's that they're core golf courses, or those that don't wend through housing developments. Certainly, homes have sprouted around Eagle Point, but much of the back nine remains uncluttered.

"For me as a player," says Jones, "I always want to play a golf course that feels like a golf course, so that's what I try to design. I fight for the integrity of the shot-making. If you miss a shot, you might be in another fairway."

It's unlikely he would do today what he did here in the early 1990s. Business was slow during a recession, and Jones' Palo Alto, Calif.-based company "was looking around," he says.

He was in his 50s and had an inkling to finally build and own his own course.

"That's real pioneering," he says.

Because of the family name, nothing could be compromised. An example is the all-weathering of the course to allow winter play.

"That was a million-dollar decision," says Jones, referring to loads of sand used as a base. "If you really think about the market at the time here, the price of rounds didn't keep up with the investment."

He was the majority owner for several years before selling his stake and concentrating fully on design.

The experience of "paying attention to every penny and nickel and dime," he says, and of handling the overall operation of a facility was "an extremely important learning experience, which I think has helped many of my clients."

After touring the course this week, he doesn't see the need to make changes beyond general maintenance. The cattails on No. 18, for instance, could be cut down to reveal the stream. He believes in "seeing your hazards."

"We spent a lot of time here getting it right," he says. "I think we did a good job."

Even if it did cost a bit of blood, sweat and tears.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com

Robert Trent Jones Jr. visits the Eagle Point Golf Club Wednesday.