Massive tree removal
proposals on classic golf courses are still hotly debated and, in some cases,
vehemently resisted. Indeed, removing a single, prominent tree can be just as
hotly debated. There’s often no middle ground for measured consideration.
Only 10 years ago,
membership committees at courses like Oakmont CC
near Pittsburgh and Philadelphia CC were thought to be bold pioneers in this realm when they embarked on
their ambitious tree removal campaigns. But dramatic results and roundly
positive reactions helped spread the new gospel of "Fewer is Better."
Several clubs in the area have
undertaken major tree removal projects in the past decade or so, among them
such notables as Philadelphia Cricket Club (Wissahickon Course), White Manor
CC, Huntingdon Valley CC and 2013
U.S. Open host Merion GC.
Two recently completed
projects, one in the national spotlight and one locally out of the spotlight,
illustrate both a new nuanced appreciation of agronomics and a new conciliatory
attitude of club members.
For anyone with memories of
how the Olympic Club played in past U.S. Opens, this year’s Open was a
revelation—and a revolution. The nine-year tree management program at Olympic opened up the course tremendously, offering a number
of benefits that seem obvious in retrospect. It’s ironic that, for the second
half of the 20th century, the iconic Lake Course at Olympic offered no views of
its namesake lake, Lake Merced.
Granted, a good part of the
tree removal initiative was given a nudge by the pitch canker disease that
affected over 200 pine trees on the course. Nevertheless, why it took so long
for Olympic’s Board to see the light and concede to a well-planned tree
management program is a question many Northeastern U.S. clubs should be asking
themselves and applying reflexively to their own overgrown golf courses.
Locally, the most recent tree removal success story
is Manufacturers’ Golf & Country Club in the
Philadelphia suburb of Oreland. Over the last 10 years, estimates put
the number at nearly 2,000 trees that have been removed from the
property—500 over the last two winters. The once claustrophobic
experience of driving as straight as possible down a corridor of overreaching
trees has become a strategic exercise in positioning one’s ball for the optimum
angle on the next shot.
Very big weeds
Golf course designer Ron
Forse of Forse Design Inc.
in Hopwood, PA, consulted on the Manufacturers’ project. "It's amazing; it’s a
huge difference," says Forse. "Of course, you still need the good trees, you
need hardwood specimen trees, and you need vistas." And Forse concedes that old
courses often need tall trees to prevent golfers from taking shortcuts over
dogleg corners, and for safety from stray drives off tees.
Superintendent Larry Corr
remembers Manufacturers’ condition before the tree removal process began. In
2001, there was little or no grass where rough should have been. And a golfer
could literally be on the fringe of more than one green and reach out and grab
a pine tree branch. Aside from overall turf health, excessive tree growth can
make course maintenance more difficult and costly. One wake-up call to action occurs when a
golf club loses a green or two to disease or simple neglect. The tight mowing
of greens today makes sunlight and air movement even more imperative to healthy
greens—what might seem obvious in retrospect.
Golf course designer Dr.
Michael Hurdzan, of Hurdzan Fry Environmental Golf Course Design in Columbus,
OH, has to remind clients often that trees can be weeds. "A tree out of place
is nothing more than a weed," Hurdzan says. Strategically placed, though, they
can be sand traps in the sky.
Trees can be weeds in number
of ways. For one, they can suck up the resources that the grass
needs—sun, soil nutrients, water, fertilizer, pesticides, etc. Secondly,
they can make nearby trees much less healthy. And finally, of course, they can
just be a plain nuisance to golfers.
Trees can be weeds in number of ways. For one, they
can suck up the resources that the grass needs—sun, soil nutrients,
water, fertilizer, pesticides, etc. Secondly, they can make nearby trees much
less healthy. And finally, of course, they can just be a plain nuisance to
One argument for tree
removal that often goes unused is that having fewer trees increases the
strategic aspects of a golf course. It’s not that fun or interesting when every
time you miss a fairway, the only option is to chip out sideways to get back
into play. And large stands of trees take away the opportunity for golfers to
attempt a heroic recovery shot out of a difficult situation that might require
weighing risks and rewards.
The counter argument is
often that the holes will be poorly defined when the trees start coming down.
However, even though Olympic has taken out hundreds of trees, the remaining
trees still define the holes more than adequately and are still
"confining" during play. The fact that the Lake Course at Olympic has
only ONE fairway bunker is a clear indication of how well trees can still
confine a hole and force strategic play, even when drastically thinned out.
Corr says Olympic and Manufacturers’ situations were similar also in that the
crowded holes prevented golfers from playing draws and fades to use the slopes
of the fairway for more roll out or less, depending on the situation.
Hurdzan does admit that
there is a human emotional reason for tree-lined fairways. Contained views make
us feel good, like a frame around a picture, Hurdzan explains. On the other
hand, open vistas can encourage golfers to anticipate the challenge of the
upcoming holes and plan future strategy from angles they would not get from the
tee of that future hole.
Changes in attitudes
It’s important to note that
golfer attitudes can be as fickle as Paris runway fashion. Look at aerial
photos of classic courses in their early days, such as Oakmont and Augusta
National, and you’ll notice that many are nearly completely bare of trees on
the interior of the course. Costs of planting unnecessary trees was most
certainly a factor, but the course designers were often trying to emulate the
treeless courses of the home of golf, Scotland.
As the Scots say, "Nae wind,
nae golf." If a course is lined with dense stands of 70-foot-high trees, wind
is also less of an impact on the playing of the game. Though it’s possible that
many U.S. players might prefer light wind on their casual rounds, this was not
how the game was played during its development in the U.K. and in the U.S.
Another attitude change that
is often only evident after a massive tree removal project is how the views of
the golf course and surrounding landscape are more pleasurable during a round
of golf. It’s impossible to explain to club members resisting the project how
much they’ll enjoy the new vistas.
From Manufacturers’ elevated
clubhouse, members can now survey the entire course and see the farthest reaches
of the property. And likewise, the historic clubhouse is now in view from just
about every part of the course.
Golf course designer Kelly
Blake Moran, based in Fleetwood, PA, says its crucial to find a "champion" on
the club’s board who sees the many virtues of proper tree management—and
knows that a fight is likely. "It's really something that's not debatable,"
Moran says. "But a lot of times you just could compromise, or just not do it at
all." A commitment to the cause requires a thick layer of skin and a lack of
desire to try to please everyone.
Moran is known for his
emphasis on strategic course design, which gives the golfer many options as
well as many hazards. The most strategic golf course in the world is still St.
Andrews, which has virtually no trees.
Moran emphasizes that
overgrown or poorly placed trees can totally negate any strategic interest in
the hole. "That, to me, is offensive," says Moran. "But that's a
little bit harder to sell to the members."
The root causes
Tree management is a balancing
act between all the factors mentioned above, as well as the sentimental value
that each member feels toward his or her favorite holes, views or trees.
Members may have planted some of the trees themselves or monitored their
progress over decades. Some may even be the equivalent of protected historical
landmarks or rare specimen trees.
Viewed in its most positive
light, tree removal often thins out trees that are struggling and improves the
health of the trees that remain. "You've got to think holistically," says
Forse. "Often, the golf course just feels cleaner."
There are some reasons for
the rampant tree planting in mid-20th Century America. There was the fear of a
second Dust Bowl, there was government-sponsored row planting of trees and
there was a broadly expanding environmental consciousness after World War II.
Tree planting seemed like all upside and no downside.
However, trees were planted
with a substantial lack of foresight, often at the direction of well-meaning
but misguided golf chairmen. The planters didn’t didn't know—or think
about—how big each tree might get or how much it might lean onto the
course or infringe on the space of other trees. Often, there was no respect for
the distance between trees that naturally occurs in forests. Pine trees
generally don’t grow into each other as they do on many courses in the Northeast,
and the natural canopy of deciduous trees obscures the sun and usually prevents
large trees from growing closer than 20 to 25 feet apart.
However, trees were planted with a substantial lack
of foresight, often at the direction of well-meaning but misguided golf
chairmen. The planters didn’t didn't know—or think about—how big
each tree might get or how much it might lean onto the course or infringe on
the space of other trees.
Deception and perception
When Oakmont began its tree
removal program, it operated under cloak of darkness. The grounds crew would
take down trees during the night, fill in the hole and cover up their tracks
before break of dawn. Perplexed members would scratch their heads when an
errant shot they were sure would be "in jail" was instead playable.
And the dramatic changes
weren’t just down the sides of the fairways. Oakmont removed trees behind
greens to remove depth perception cues and aiming targets. The 16th hole at
Oakmont is a great example of an elevated "horizon" green, with no backdrop,
where players are forced to use their wiles and trust their caddies for the
right club and line of attack.
Manufacturers’ Corr admits
that members don’t always listen to recommendations from superintendents. Maybe
they think that superintendents have ulterior motives, personal biases, axes to
grind or an overzealous dedication to plant life.
But Corr understands the
complex relationships between playability, strategy, aesthetics and economics.
One can argue that courses will, in the long-term, save money on maintenance
with a tree management program, but it also helps to have a proven course
designer back up the plans you propose.
Hurdzan reassures that the
goal with tree removal is always to improve the golf course and enhance the
strategic elements of each hole. "We try to keep the timeless heritage of
the golf course, but modernize it," he says.