October 2021 By: Gil Hanse — No architect wants to remove them from a golf course, but it’s often the best solution
I am frequently asked what is the most difficult part of restoring Golden Age golf courses. My answer is always the same: trees. People look at trees wistfully, even romantically, and their opinions are always subjective. But when we are preparing a master plan, we have to look at them objectively and clinically, so we’ve developed five criteria for evaluating trees on a golf course. In no particular order of importance, they are:
We determine if the original design of the course was tree-lined, or if trees were an integral part of that design. And while we’re not naïve enough to think we’ll be able to return these courses to their original treeless origins, we find a significant amount of guidance in early aerial photographs of them. We applaud clubs like Oakmont and National Golf Links, which led the charge in tree removal for historic purposes. And we thank clubs where we’ve worked, like Kittansett and St. George’s on Long Island, that early on trusted our vision of removing trees for historic reasons.
When these Golden Age courses were designed, far fewer people were playing golf, so the intimacy of the holes and routing was not a safety concern. However, as more people came to play the game, many clubs planted trees to provide a “safety buffer” between holes. But this buffer is not perfect (the axiom “trees are 90 percent air” is proof of that), and, in some instances, trees can actually make a course less safe by limiting visibility.
Most people think stately, specimen trees are the ideal on a golf course. We do our best to highlight these trees, which often means removing the clutter around them. Trees usually were planted by well-intentioned committee members seeking to beautify their courses. To achieve that beauty quickly, said trees were often planted too close to one another and too close to play. As a result, many trees were growing into others so not able to reach their full potential. Through addition by subtraction, some trees must be removed to promote the healthy growth of others. Removing trees—particularly dying, diseased, or damaged ones—can also improve aesthetics, opening up views of the rest of the property or distant vistas and restoring the sense of place and scale that reveal the unique character of the site.
Probably the most important criterion for the course architect is how trees impact the play of the course. Have they altered the design intentions of the original architect? Early courses were wide due to the desire for angles of play along with the limitations of maintenance equipment. When courses began implementing single-row irrigation, these wide corridors became narrower strips of green grass: So these green swaths wouldn’t look out of scale, the spaces between them were filled with trees. As the trees grew, the corridors narrowed even more, removing much of the character and strategy of the courses.
Trees also were frequently used to add difficulty, “tightening up the course.” But trees are an arbitrary hazard, exacting uneven penalties from golfers. Unlike traditional hazards, they frequently don’t allow golfers to exhibit their skills of recovery, especially if a sideways chip-out is the only option.
Finally, trees are temporary parts of a landscape: One good ice or wind storm, or a disease, can quickly take them out. Relying on a tree, or trees, for a hole’s strategy might not be a good long-term solution.
While I said these criteria are in no particular order, this is definitely the most important. Simply stated, trees provide no agronomic benefits to turf grass. Instead, trees take everything that turf needs—air, light, and water—and they do it better. Compare the root structure of a tree with the root structure of grass and you’ll realize it’s not a fair fight. We frequently need to remove trees to provide the proper growing environment for the intensely maintained turf that golfers want. While it might not be a popular stance, in the battle between the survival of turf and the retention of a tree, the tree must lose. Keep that in mind the next time a golf course superintendent (the unsung hero of our industry) suggests removing a tree for agronomic reasons.
Tree removal is a serious matter and we expect our brethren in the industry to approach it with the same gravitas that we do. Well thought-out and well planned tree management is beneficial to a golf course on many levels. I rest easily at night knowing that we’ve done our homework. And although we’ve been subject to a lot of vitriol from members, I can honestly say that we have never finished a project having been accused of taking down too many trees. That is a record of which we are very proud.