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Design master Jones had great impact on Cabell Robinson

By Colm Gill,
Contributor

ValderramaCabell Robinson spent the 1963 academic year at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, before completing his degree in landscape architecture from the University of California in 1967.

Robinson's time at Harvard coincided with that of Rees Jones, son of the leading exponent of golf course architecture, Robert Trent Jones Sr.

A close friendship developed between the two and led to summertime employment at the Trent Jones office in Montclair, N.J.

Upon returning to studies that fall, Rees casually remarked: "My dad liked you. He'd like you to work with him when you finish."

And subsequently, Robinson began full-time employment with Robert Trent Jones Sr. in October 1967.

"I was so naive. I didn't realize I had fallen into a job that millions would have died for," Robinson said through his distinctive walrus moustache.

The three years spent in the New Jersey office offered a steep learning curve for the graduate, but it was one he climbed with gusto - and not a little trepidation.

"Just after starting, Mr.Jones asked me to draw up some schematic representations in order to make a first draft presentable - I thought he was asking me to carry out brain surgery.

"It did teach me the major lesson of my professional career: that golf course architecture is more an art form than a science."

As his experience grew, so did Robinson's involvement in Trent Jones' commissions at the time: the 36-hole Cerromar, at Dorado Beach Resort, Puerto Rico; the north course at Oakland Hills in Michigan; and the Crag Burn Club in Buffalo, N.Y.

By 1970, Trent Jones' European work was sufficient to warrant the opening of a permanent office and Cabell Robinson arrived in Spain to head it up.

SotograndeThe success of Sotogrande (1964) and Las Brisas (1968), ensured negotiations were on-going for a number of ambitious projects. Mijas, Los Naranjos and El Bosque (Valencia), became courses that are now must-play fixtures on any travelling golfer's itinerary.

Cabell Robinson wasintimately involved in the design and construction of each Trent Jones course in Europe - a total of 25 - during the succeeding 17 years.

Subsequent projects, such as remodelling seven holes at Vilamoura, drawing up and building Troia, Royal Golf d'Agadir, Quinta da Marinha, La Duquesa and Marbella Golf, offer proof of the design quality produced by TJ's team. Should any further proof be needed, one could throw in Valderrama for good measure.

"I remember our first visit to what was to become Valderrama. When told the amount of land available, Mr Jones had drawn up a provisional plan for 36 holes, but, upon walking them out, it became obvious his plan was overly ambitious," recalls Robinson.

"However, there was more than sufficient land for a great 18 holes. Joe McMicking - the original developer of the Sotogrande estate - said ‘Take the land you need - we'll worry about the houses later.'"

"It helped that Joe was a strong military type with clear ideas on what he wanted. It's good to have parameters within which to work."

Having lived in Spain for three decades, Robinson has watched as, first, Ballesteros, then Olazabal, cut their architectural teeth.

The big two were followed by Piñero and Cañizares. Even Miguel Angel Jimenez has recently enjoyed his first attempt at design - in the Czech Republic.

As the only card-carrying member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects resident in Europe, Robinson is in a unique position to observe the growing tendency for Tour pros to extend their careers by dabbling in his profession.

"I understand that having a big-name golfer design a course can be an invaluable marketing aid. Ballesteros is a big name and, at the planning stage, Seve once won a commission over me here in Spain when I sincerely believe I would have produced a better golf course.

"While it's true a few of the big names have done some fine courses it's a question of talent and training. Professional golfers tend to approach the task from a different perspective.

"They see landing zones, but not the adjoining hazards that handicap golfers see. Given the number of courses a Tour golfer plays, certain holes, or a series of holes, stick with them.

"I think there is a tendency for golfers-turned-architects to transplant those memorable holes when, perhaps, the topography or maintenance considerations make them inappropriate.

"Jack Nicklaus was wise enough to surround himself with knowledgeable people when he first started designing. He learned the craft over the years and is now a respected, worthy member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects.

"In fact, he would have got his membership sooner, only one of the conditions of membership is course design must be the source of at least 50 percent of one's income. As Jack kept on winning, it was a long while before he met the criteria!

"Arnold Palmer is something else. He makes his role as a figurehead clear right from the start. If anybody wants to pay for his name to market a course, they can. He will hit the first drive on inauguration day but will have very little involvement in planning the design."

Some golfing tourists would argue that Seve was badly advised when he agreed to put his name to one or two of his courses as they are built on totally unsuitable terrain. Typically, Robinson holds strong views on what constitutes a good site.

"I believe there are sites where God himself would find it impossible to build a decent course. I'd say I've turned down 25 to 30 percent of the sites I've inspected," he stated.

"It is no coincidence that golf has its origins in Scotland and Holland where there is grass, sandy soil and rain in abundance. The best courses are those that have been draped onto a natural landscape: Turnberry, Ballybunion, the old course at Sotogrande - they were all built on great pieces of land.

"Fifty or 70 years ago, ideal land could be sought out. Economically, and practically, there wasn't the need for huge amounts of earth movement. Now, routings have to be manufactured.

"I think it is significant that we Americans love to leave our manicured courses behind and play the windswept links courses of Scotland and Ireland. We even love the cramped locker rooms.

"Most architects get the chance to work on a sandy site perhaps once in their careers. I've worked on eight or nine, but the one that stands out is Praia del Rey, north of Lisbon. It is a gorgeous site which only an incompetent fool could have made a mess of - but I've seen that happen before.

"My first solo assignment was La Cala Resort. The land I was given in the Mijas hills was, in places, on the edge of the limits where a course should be built.

"Overall, I'm pleased with what I achieved there. The two courses are well-maintained, popular and still maturing.

"I learned then to tackle the difficult holes first, which served me well when I began at another challenging site at Palheiro in Madeira. The owner's insistence on the site of the clubhouse pretty much determined my routings.

"It is a cart course but a good test of golf and very pretty. Updating Mijas Golf was also gratifying - especially as, back in 1973, the whole budget was 50m pesetas, which is less than the cost of the irrigation system we installed during the refurbishment."

SantanaRecent assignments at Santana and La Reserva de Sotogrande have been on sites which enabled Robinson to launch an architectural fightback against the biggest challenge faced by course designers today: advances in club and ball technology.

"To combat the new technology, architects can either make the courses longer or trickier. I don't agree with courses built only with John Daly or Tiger Woods in mind. Money is no object to some people, but certainly, in Europe, land is. If you stretch a course you end up with long shots over barren land, or you grass it, leading to increased maintenance costs.

"Also, greens can be made master, but on the design side, they must be virtually flat. It would be impossible to introduce old-style contours on putting surfaces mown three times a day, as some now are.

"I believe we should make more of tee positions. At Praia del Rey, I was able to put 11 or 12 tees on a couple of holes to give different angles of attack. Clubs spend fortunes on building large teeing areas, which are not used.

"Men have this macho thing about not playing from forward tees, but there is no reason why they shouldn't. It would give them another perspective on the course. "

And it works very well against golfers armed with technologically-advanced equipment while maintaining integrity and shot values. It is a strategy of which Cabell Robinson's own mentor, Trent Jones himself, would have been proud.

 
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