Nobody likes the sight of a cut down a tree. But doing so leads to many environmental and enjoyment benefits.  (Getty Images) When trees are too close to a green, they can hinder conditions.  (Bradley S. Klein/Golf Advisor) A before pic in 2016 of Beverly Country Club's first hole, prior to tree removal.  (Bradley S. Klein/Golf Advisor) After pic of Beverly C.C.'s first hole, now with an "infinity" effect on the approach.  (Bradley S. Klein/Golf Advisor) A before picture of the 6th hole at Beverly C.C.  (Bradley S. Klein/Golf Advisor) An after shot of the 6th hole at Beverly C.C. following tree management.  (Brad Klein/Golf Advisor)

Tree rules: Principles for sound management on golf courses

The next few weeks of tournament golf present powerful evidence about how differently trees are handled on American golf courses.

When the U.S. Open shows up at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y. June 14-17, it’ll be the fourth straight year the national championship will have been held on a treeless landscape. Chambers Bay had one tree on the entire site in 2015 and it was out of play. In 2016, Oakmont was famously denuded of hardwoods and conifers. The handful dotting Erin Hills in 2017 were completely out of play as well.

Compare that to the tree-cluttered scene at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, home of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide, May 31-June 3. Okay, it’s a parkland course and has always been one. Co-designer Jack Nicklaus (with the late Desmond Muirhead) remains curiously committed to letting tall hardwoods define strategy. They limit options and force one-dimensional play throughout, most conspicuously on the par-5 fifth and 15th holes, the par-3 eighth and the par-4 13th. It’s a view of trees that is losing ground across the golf landscape.

To be sure, no topic in U.S. golf course design and management is more controversial than trees.

The strange emotional affinity that certain members have for favored trees is a topic worthy of a psychiatric conference. Strange how people whose politics might normally be described as to the right of Attila the Hun suddenly became eco-friendly, tree-hugging lefties when there’s a proposal to remove some dead, hollowed out swamp maple. Perhaps it has to do with the lingering emotional valence of some youthful indiscretion under one of its limbs. Any architect can tell you that when it comes to renovation work, more time and more meetings are spent on the issue of trees than on any other topic.

Herewith, eleven sensible rules for dealing with the scourge of over-treed golf courses:

The term is "tree management"

It’s understandable but regrettable if the vast, deforested look of Oakmont these day has become associated with "tree removal." That’s why I think it more prudent to talk about "tree management.” It’s frightening for many folks at parkland courses to contemplate their layout being denuded. Such an approach is too wholesale and absolves course managers of focusing on what can and should be done specifically and to reclaim the historic identity of their property. "Tree management" is a long-term strategy that’s part of any stewardship program to restore the health, diversity and vitality of a golf course.

Shady greenToo much shade on greens can cause major headaches.

Never get in a debate about one tree

It’s hopeless to discuss the merits of this or that tree without a thorough understanding of the proper role of trees on a golf course and criteria for evaluating them. Otherwise, you’re just trading in mindless “opinion” with someone and there’s no right or wrong to that.

In terms of evaluative standards, you could not do better than the five-point checklist architect Gil Hanse relies upon when evaluating the status of golf course tree:

  1. Impact on agronomy
  2. Aesthetics of view sheds across the site and outside of the site
  3. Strategic flexibility and availability of optional lines of play
  4. Safety considerations
  5. Historic traditions of the site

Don’t announce it

Sunshine laws and participatory democracy are great for community politics, but it doesn’t work at a golf club, least of all when it comes to trees given the controversy and sensitivities that abound. Plan carefully and undertake the work off-season when golfers aren’t around. By all means, do not announce it in advance and never, ever, mark a tree for elimination by tying a ribbon around its trunk in advance. Rookie superintendents, eager to bid out a tree project to a contractor, will make this mistake and pay for it dearly because it invariably creates member uproar. I’ve seen clubs lose a whole year or three due to the outrage sparked by revealing plans this way.

If by stealth

The ideal time to get tree work done is off-season, when no players are around. Of course, another time when golfers aren't around is 4 a.m., which is when the initial tree work was done back in the 1990s at Oakmont. Superintendent Mark Kuhns and his "sod squad" would set up shop under artificial lighting, take a few trees down, remove the offending evidence of roots and sod it over in time for the first tee time to get around without noticing anything amiss. You'd be amazed how many trees you can remove this way before anyone catches on.

Do it right once

It’s best, however, and more efficient from a cost and labor standpoint, to get the bulk of the tree work done at once. It also reduces the uproar. Get it over and done, without comprising, under the adage that "you only get one chance to get it done right."

I saw this fifteen years ago at Brookside Country Club in Canton, Ohio, when Brian Silva was doing a major restoration of the Donald Ross-designed course and had marked a few hundred trees for removal, though he initially wanted to mark off twice that many but held back for fear of overdoing it. At the last second, he doubled the list, and the positive effect on the landscape was mesmerizing. Without that additional tree management, the restoration of greens, bunkers and tees would not have been as successful.

Two chain saws

For smaller, everyday jobs it’s vital that the superintendent keep two chainsaws on hand. A 20-inch bar will serve for light work, and maybe a 24-inch bar for heavier work. Anything bigger ought to be farmed out to a full-time crew because felling and disposing of a massive tree presents issues of danger and scale beyond the capacity of course staff. It also helps if the chainsaws have names - ideally, "Thunder" and "Lightning.” That way, when a member asks what happened to a favorite tree that’s suddenly gone, the superintendent can answer truthfully in accounting for its fate.

Go for infinity edges

Besides opening views across the golf course and beyond it into the surrounding land, a very effective way to use tree management to enhance aesthetics is to promote an “infinity edge look” to a green. It all depends upon the natural topography supporting a green complex and what stands behind it; but when you can pull back the clutter and expose the table-top look of a putting surface, it intensifies the verticality of the hole and make it look all the more dramatic.

BeverlyBEFORE: Beverly C.C.'s 1st hole prior to tree removal.

BeverlyAFTER: Beverly's 1st hole in 2017 following tree removal.

Unveiling the golf course

What in the 1960s and 70s used to a be a common tree planting strategy of cocooning every hole in its own tightly wrapped little world is now being undone everywhere – with no greater effect than in the case of that exposed, revealed infinity edge that Beverly Country Club in Chicago achieved on its first hole.

Proper plantings

There are reasonable places for trees on the golf course – on the perimeter; on north-facing areas that don’t cast shadows on vital turf areas; in habitat-friendly copses that provide secure space for birds and other wildlife. You can always discern when it’s amateur hour at a golf course, thanks to plantings of one species in perfect rows, evenly spaced. Or you’ll see a dense stand of a fast-growing conifer in an effort to hide some objectionable feature like an irrigation box, pump station or tower. Such linear plantings only draw attention to the fact that you’re trying to hide something. And when planting trees, it’s best to plant them on high spots so you accentuate the vertical upsweep of the land. Planting densely in low areas just vitiates the elevation changes and makes the land look one-dimensional.

Species diversity

A lot of Midwest and Northeast courses never recovered from the blight of the great American Elm that virtually wiped out that popular species of trees in the era after World War II. Most of these clubs panicked and replaced the lost elms with cheap, fast-growing species like white pines, swamp maples and willows. Today, the results of that thoughtless planting are evident as many of these and other species have overgrown or simply overwhelmed golf courses. Or, in the case of ash trees and white oaks, they have become susceptible to disease. The answer, beyond proper tree management, is planting diverse species appropriate to the soil conditions and climate.

No, this isn’t the latest fad

I hear from a few architects and some very reluctant green chairman that tree management is only the latest fad and that "it, too, will pass."

Sorry, but this is nonsense. The 1960s and 70s saw random, unmanaged tree planting overtake the American golf landscape, without regard for species appropriateness, consequence for agronomy, or consideration of strategic impact. All of that is now heading towards a reckoning. This isn’t the latest fad, but a realization born from agronomic science, arboriculture, budgeting and business as well as playability that golf courses have been overplanted and need to be pared back. The extent and pacing will vary from club to club. But there’s no going back on this key insight: the golf courses that breathe and have air and sunlight and that enable golfers to see them will thrive better than those that are shut in and cloistered.

The 6th hole at Beverly Country Club in 2004, prior to tree management:

Shady green

The 6th hole in 2017 after tree management:

Shady green

May 19, 2018

Join the conversation

Post a comment 

joseph's avatar
joseph wrote at 2018-05-22 08:23:27+00:00:

A request for an affiliation with SUNCITYCLUB&RESORT-VADODARA(GUJARAT)-INDIA

Ross Jesswein's avatar
Ross Jesswein wrote at 2018-05-21 19:34:46+00:00:

Too many trees is bad. No trees is ugly and reprehensible. Trees should be placed strategically. No trees eliminates strategy.

Al's avatar
Al wrote at 2018-05-22 19:03:47+00:00:

I think those who have played the Old Course at Saint Andrews, Ballybunion or any of the other great links courses would disagree that no trees eliminates strategy.

Terry's avatar
Terry wrote at 2018-05-21 13:34:04+00:00:

Infinity edges are best left to swimming pools where the emphasis is the extended view in the distance. My feeling on Beverly CC is they took a nicely defined golf hole, trees appear to be far enough from the green to not cause too much shading, and turned it into the look of target greens on a driving range. The beauty of being outside in a pleasant surrounding is gone. At our CC, we are suffering from problems on our greens that has gone on for over five months, not because of shade or trees off in the distance, but because the superintendent has been unable to do his basic job of growing grass.

Mark D's avatar
Mark D wrote at 2018-05-21 04:18:34+00:00:

Q pull not agree more.

I would add Proper Tree Maintence to the list

Too often tree are let go:

Not properly trimmed

Not thinned

Left too overgrow

Results in thee lets get rid of it attitude

Harold 's avatar
Harold wrote at 2018-05-21 01:33:31+00:00:

What’s so great about the Revision of the 6th hole? Makes it look like a hum drum par 3.

 Bob 's avatar
Bob wrote at 2018-05-21 00:33:16+00:00:

Down here in Hilton Head SC pine trees are everywhere and we had many too close to greens resulting in inadequate sun light . That’s another reason to remove trees.

Sandra's avatar
Sandra wrote at 2018-05-21 00:18:00+00:00:

Excellent article, right on! Our course in Southern CA is experiencing this exact problem. It seems the older members are the most opposed to change. They don’t grasp we’re not cutting down all the trees just opening up beautiful view corridors. No need for double rows of huge trees on a golf course, especially in CA when we already have water issues. Keep writing!

robert march's avatar
robert march wrote at 2018-05-20 23:30:21+00:00:

Some trees are indeed necessary to add beautification to the hole. However, I've played several courses in NC, MD, PA where there are tree branches hanging over the fairway and some even over parts of the greens, just remove the branches of the tree that is interfering with the approach shot.

Zig's avatar
Zig wrote at 2018-05-20 22:15:16+00:00:

Obviously the writer can't hit a straight ball. His arguments and justification for tree removal is truly worthy of a politician's N. S.

Dave Carrera's avatar
Dave Carrera wrote at 2018-05-20 22:04:46+00:00:

Most problems with trees and their related turf and grass problems is a result of incompetent course superintendents.You dont see problems at Muirfield, Augusta and Pine Valley because their supers are hard working and competent and willing to put in the hours. I knew Mark Kuhns before he worked at Oakmont and am familiar with those involved with the changes at Oakmont. The course at which he worked before Oakmont was heavily treed as was Oakmont. Those courses were always in great condition because of the super. The old course he was at is still in great condition, it is still heavily treed because the new super understands what it takes. One of the reasons for the regression of golf today is the wide open ,featureless course design. If something is not done soon about the distance the ball is hit there wont be enough land to build courses and country club golfers will not relate to the game.

Sean's avatar
Sean wrote at 2018-05-21 14:11:03+00:00:

most hotels I stay at are poorly managed. The rooms are dated, the beds are buggy, the food is awful. It all comes down to the Hotel manager being incompetent!

If only they could be like the Four Seasons hotel that I stay at once a year then it would be so much better.

Not every course can manage to their golfers expectations. The ones you reference can and do meet the expectations as they come from the PGA, The Masters, and the membership at PV.

Money, labor and resources are all that is needed to manage trees—chainsaws too! Not all courses have that or manage the course with that priority in mind. Some struggle just to have decent greens.

Before you throw Superintendents under your bus—consider that not all courses have the ability to manage all areas on the golf course and prioritize what they can get done for the enjoyment of their golfers.

You can blame the Superintendents all you want, but where does their course, management company, members have at stake and what are they asking of their Superintendent? Are they properly funding budgets to account for their expectations?

Fairways are nice, rough not so much. This idea of perfection doesn’t help the game and only helps to increase the cost of managing courses. Some courses can handle the added expense, but not all can.

We are already to far down the rabbit hole regarding length. New courses are too long— more turf to manage and even more trees if one goes that route. What do you want to pay for and what are your expectations?

Country club golfers have not been able to relate since the early 2000’s. 7400 to 7800 yards needed for PGA etc events. Silly stuff.

Dave's avatar
Dave wrote at 2018-05-21 15:06:33+00:00:

Agree with everything u say. But, a treeless golf course is not pretty even if some people would try to tell u otherwise. It is the supers job to tell the committee of the budget he needs to cover the expected result that the committee wants. If they do not provide then they should not expect.

JohnKMoore1's avatar
JohnKMoore1 wrote at 2018-05-23 01:08:40+00:00:

Oh, you're so right...I mean, Old Macdonald, The Old Course, Turnberry, Newport Country Club, Royal St. George, Quogue Field Club, Sand Hills, Ballyneal, Carnoustie, Muirfield, and Royal Troon are all so bad.

Jim Kavanagh's avatar
Jim Kavanagh wrote at 2018-05-20 17:17:27+00:00:

Treeless expanses on golf courses are generally boring to watch but fun to play. From an agronomy aspect, experts should be making the call as trees can severely disrupt the supply of water and sunshine to critical areas. Trees in the middle of fairways are just affectations of architects who are in the wrong profesdion.

Dr James Beagle's avatar
Dr James Beagle wrote at 2018-05-20 16:28:35+00:00:

If I am an equity member of a club and am not informed of changes to my club that is criminal.

Doc's avatar
Doc wrote at 2018-05-20 22:40:13+00:00:

Do you think the management of your club should have all the equity members vote on a tree removal or other changes? If your doctorate is in agronomy, perhaps they should check with you about the mower height on the greens as well.

Joe's avatar
Joe wrote at 2018-05-20 16:23:01+00:00:

Too too many trees on long island.I'm loseing my sunrise and sunsets.people are planting 20foters hedges,evergreens that will grow 80feet high and30feet wide.

RayLo's avatar
RayLo wrote at 2018-05-20 15:32:44+00:00:

For this TV fan, treeless golf courses are a big disappointment. There's nothing to frame or define the hole in a 2-dimensional picture, especially with the wide angle lenses the TV networks use that make 150 yards look like 200!

The new course they played for the Byron Nelson tourney was a perfect example. The green is barely

distinguishable from the rest of the course.

I turned off the TV and did something else because it was so frustrating.

Also, treeless courses favor the big hitters who bomb it out there. There's no penalty for being errant. Isn't that the fundamental appeal of tournament golf - rewarding players who aren't spraying the ball?

Being behind a tree makes par valuable. Not simply a ho-hum drive and a wedge like so much of PGA golf is today.

Finally, imagine Augusta with no trees.

It wouldn't be The Masters!

Matt's avatar
Matt wrote at 2018-05-20 16:56:37+00:00:

Well said and good perspective on the subject. I see both arguments and when it comes to trees I think the key word is...balance. Too many trees can prove excessive and detrimantal to the drying of greens (and new growth) but in terms of these completely deforested courses your point is spot on.

Jay's avatar
Jay wrote at 2018-05-20 21:11:34+00:00:

TOTALLY agree with this. What's worse is when a plain, treeless course then decides to add fescue (for challenge and to save money). Now, instead of having some shade in the middle of summer, you get to do tick checks. I mean, who doesn't love that! :-(

Jack McDaniel's avatar
Jack McDaniel wrote at 2018-05-20 15:28:02+00:00:

Brad, great price. You are a POW (Prince of Words). Thank you for signing my book and thank You for the work you have done it was to country club with Gil.

Jim Balfanz's avatar
Jim Balfanz wrote at 2018-05-20 14:26:46+00:00:

A good quote to remember was made by a famous golf course designer - "If you are considering trimming a tree, cut it down. If necessary in the dark of night." As he went on to say, there is a reason for open spaces on a golf course. It is because it is a golf course.

Gerry Stratford's avatar
Gerry Stratford wrote at 2018-05-19 21:46:25+00:00:

Removals at Beverley were aided by the institution of a “Memorial Stump” program whereby the Green Chair spray painted member names on stumps after trees were cut down. These Memorial remnants lasted for a while before removal and resodding

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Bradley S. Klein

Senior Writer

Veteran golf travel, history and architecture journalist, Bradley S. Klein has written more than 1,500 feature articles on course architecture, resort travel, golf course development, golf history and the media for such other publications as Golfweek, Golf Digest, Financial Times, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He has published seven books on golf architecture and history, including Discovering Donald Ross, winner of the USGA 2001 International Book Award. In 2015, Klein won the Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement from the American Society of Golf Course Architects.