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.
Too 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:
- Impact on agronomy
- Aesthetics of view sheds across the site and outside of the site
- Strategic flexibility and availability of optional lines of play
- Safety considerations
- 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.
BEFORE: Beverly C.C.'s 1st hole prior to tree removal.
AFTER: 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.
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.
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:
The 6th hole in 2017 after tree management: