The Family Feud

Randell Mell, in doing a three part series on the controversial renovation of Coral Ridge Country Club, reveals the worst kept secret in golf: that brothers Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Rees Jones can't stand each other.

Like Acrisius and Proteus of Greek mythology, had Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Rees Jones been born twins, it's possible their quarrel would have started in the womb. It goes back nearly that far.

"There's a story that Robert once pushed Rees out of a tree when they were boys," said a former associate of Robert Trent Jones Sr. "The truth is a lot more complicated than that."

This much is certain, golf's quintessential sibling rivalry, a bitter but mostly private affair between renowned architects in their own right, is growing more public.

The brothers are at odds over plans to redesign the course their father built in Fort Lauderdale.

"Coral Ridge Country Club was the place my father was happiest," Rees, 64, said at his father's funeral.

Robert Trent Jones Jr., 66, called the club "hallowed ground to the Jones family."

There isn't much else about Coral Ridge the brothers agree upon.

Though the senior Jones left the club to both sons, their irreconcilable differences led to an impossible partnership.

Eighteen months ago, four years after taking over the club, with their rift leading to member complaints about deterioration of the "hallowed ground," the brothers agreed to sell to auto dealer Phil Smith and his partners. The new ownership is proposing to build a major housing development in the middle of the course to help fund major club renovations.

And in case you didn't know it, no one in golf channels the views of dead architects better than Rees:

"For the most part, Dad was always ahead of the curve, and he would be making changes today if he were still alive," Rees said. "This is my father's statement to golf, his baby, and I guarantee he would be very much in favor of the changes we are making."
While Robert Jr. sees himself defending his father's masterpiece, Rees sees something else. He sees his brother's opposition based solely on the fact that Rees is doing the redesign while his brother is left out.

"I stayed in [the club's ownership], and he didn't," Rees said. "I stayed in to maintain my father's legacy, to maintain it for the next 100 years."

Well, shockingly, that last part isn't quite accurate.

The brothers were so at odds, according to a source familiar with Coral Ridge Country Club's sale, that Smith had to negotiate with them separately, finally getting each to sell their half for a total that industry experts estimate being between $17 million and $20 million. It was actually more like two separate deals, one with Robert Jr. walking away with a larger share.

"Rees wouldn't negotiate until Bob agreed to sell his entire share and get out of the deal," the source said. "Once Robert was out, Rees negotiated to keep 5 percent ownership."
That means Rees not only gets to redesign his father's work, he gets to share in the millions of dollars that will be made off any housing development that's ultimately approved.

Nor is Bobby a victim in this either...

"The truth is Bob wanted to redesign the course for us," Smith said. "He lobbied me to do it. I hate to be drawn into this, but it's sour grapes on his part. To give him a podium now to go after his brother, I don't really think it's fair to the future of this club."

Rees and Robert Jr. declined comment when asked to speak about their rift.

They rarely speak directly to each other.

"They tend to communicate through lawyers," said Bradley Klein, who has closely tracked the brothers' careers as author of three golf course architecture books and Golfweek's architectural editor.

The sibling rivalry had a palpable effect on Coral Ridge's operation. With the course and clubhouse deteriorating and staff morale low, memberships plummeted.

"The brothers wouldn't agree on anything," said John Foster, the general manager who served under them. "An issue would come up in a board meeting, and they'd argue about it. You couldn't get them to agree to put any money into the club, and you couldn't get anything accomplished."

Foster remembers the brothers glaring at each other in one board meeting in New York. The contentiousness there led Foster to fire off a memo advising fellow board members that in future meetings he no longer intended to invite the owners. The Jones brothers nixed the idea.

Oh joy! Hey, think we could get them to agree on selling movie rights to their story?

Jones Sr., who didn't like his sons' defections from the family business, found himself competing hard against his boys for clients in the '70s and '80s. The father had a reputation among his rivals as a hard-nosed businessman who enjoyed stirring up controversy and who was not averse to bad mouthing his rivals.

Linn remembers going to the annual Jones family gathering at Coral Ridge between Christmas and New Year's Eve when the three Jones' staffs were all competing.

"There were such awkward moments when we found ourselves all together," Linn said. "Senior's staff would keep its distance, guys in Rees' staff would keep their distance, and we would, too. You could feel the tension in the room, and you'd just sit back and shake your head.

"Ione was always the peacemaker, and she negotiated among the three. When she died [in 1987], they all had to deal with each other. It changed the dynamics."

Though the father eventually repaired his relationship with both sons, the boys never did.

"It was their father's sincerest wish late in his life that his sons would resolve their differences," a former associate of Jones Sr. said.

There's a better chance that the USGA and R&A will agree to do something about the ball.

Robert Jr. and Rees each co-designed courses with their father, but the brothers have never collaborated on a design. The closest they've come is the construction of neighboring properties in Sandestin. Rees' 18th hole at Burnt Pine actually touches the 11th hole that Robert Jr. built on The Raven.

"Appropriately, the holes run in opposite directions," Klein said.