Tree removal has been at the heart of golf-course architecture for the past few decades. Has the game finally arrived at its natural balance?
In the early 1990s, Oakmont Country Club, revered as one of the nation’s greatest courses and host of 14 men’s and women’s majors, was covered in trees. Each hole was shrouded in a cloak of timber and leaf, the views of other holes almost non-existent. The member s- at least most of them - loved it that way. They and their predecessors had spent decades enhancing the course through beautification programs, planting trees by the hundreds. Although originally built in the early 1900s to resemble a links on barren, broken farmland, Oakmont had gradually matured into a prototype of parkland golf.
Not everyone believed the forestation of the course was a good thing. Shortly after Larry Nelson won the US Open there in 1983, former longtime head professional Bob Ford took the Oakmont green committee out to the first hole to demonstrate how overgrown and invasive the trees had become. He climbed into a fairway bunker and asked them to stand behind to see what kind of shot a player in that position faced. “I had to hit out of the bunker and over a tree to get to the green,” he says, “and the tree was 50 feet tall by then. I looked at the grounds chairman to get his reaction, and he said, ‘You know, Bob’s right-we need to take that bunker out.’ “
Ford cringed. As A.W. Tillinghast, creator of Oakmont’s peers such as Winged Foot, Baltusrol and San Francisco Golf Club once proclaimed, “The necessity of lofting over a barrier of trees cannot be countenanced.”
Clearing away a group of non-deciduous trees about five years ago revealed the full majesty of the sugar maple poised on the right side of the fairway, its shapely canopy spanning nearly 100 feet from tip to tip. The fairway slopes toward it, so drives need to be nudged up the left to avoid interference-otherwise second shots will have little chance of reaching the elevated green framed against the clubhouse.
Such is the affection that people, and not just golfers, develop with trees. Despite the negative impact on playability and turf conditions, nothing happened to that or any other tree at Oakmont for nearly a decade. Even by 1993, with a president and green committee in place who were vested in returning the course to its pre-sylvan roots, the sentiment of the membership had yet to step out of the shade. Under the cover of darkness, with the support of Ford and a small team of club leaders, superintendent Mark Kuhns and crews began to stealthily take down select trees.
“We had a team that would go out at 4:30 in the morning, cut ‘em down and take ‘em out, and by 6:30 there wasn’t a leaf out of place, only sod where the roots used to be,” Ford says. The gradual clearing started small, but over time became more determined.
“Then we got caught,” Ford says. “The caddies ratted us out.”
DIABLO COUNTRY CLUB
There were few rules in the early days of American golf design, evidenced by Diablo’s par-5 18th. When Jack Neville (later of Pebble Beach fame) built the hole in 1915, he left five oaks directly between tee and green. They have matured into majestic specimens (one shown above) that can pinball golf shots if avenues between them are not correctly mapped. Architects since have occasionally positioned singular trees in fairways, but the five at Diablo’s 18th seem from another time.
Those caddies, who knew the course as well as anyone, noticed the new sod regularly being laid down in the rough. They began searching for new patches during their loops, and eventually the word trickled into the membership. Oakmont’s covert tree removal program, now exposed, escalated into a pitched battle between those who wanted the course restored and those who wanted to preserve the wooded character. Eventually, as the peeled vistas began to reveal startling benefits, the restorationists persevered. Between 1993 and 2015, with superintendent John Zimmers continuing the program, every tree that might impede a golf shot or a view across the property had been taken down, totaling more than 12,000, save one solitary American elm next to the third tee. The culling improved the agronomics and allowed playing strategies that had long been constricted to breathe again. More importantly, it uncovered the property’s dazzling array of ditches, beautiful slopes and tiers that most didn’t realize, or didn’t remember, existed yet are such vital elements of its architecture.
The denuding of Oakmont had ramifications that reverberated beyond the banks of the Allegheny River. It initiated a conversation among clubs, superintendents, architects and historians about the purpose of trees on golf courses. If a landmark of Oakmont’s stature, long known for its trees, found such treasure in stripping them away, what was to stop other courses from doing the same? Chainsaws have been buzzing ever since.
The first move almost any architect prescribes today when consulting with older clubs is to begin paring back trees. This is always done in the name of healthier fairways and greens-trees compete with grass by blocking sunlight, impeding airflow and drinking up soil nutrients. Heavy canopies can also interfere with intended hole strategies.
In practical terms, the deforestation of Oakmont was the beginning of a new movement of tree removal that has infiltrated almost every level of renovation. Dozens of layouts on America’s 100 Greatest and Second 100 Greatest Courses rankings followed, with leafy glades yielding to breezy panoramas. During the 2020 remodel of Congressional’s Blue Course, site of the 1964, 1997 and 2011 U.S. Opens, holes once bordered by hardwood groves now flow through undulations of short fescue grasses punctuated by only occasional copses of remaining wood. Members can stand on the second green at one end of the course and see nearly a mile across to the 16th green. Oak Hill’s East Course, site of the 2023 PGA Championship, Essex County Club, a Donald Ross design from 1917 in Manchester, Mass., and Philadelphia Cricket Club’s Wissahickon Course have all enacted tree harvests that have altered their character in breathtaking but beneficial ways. At other places, like Southern Hills in Tulsa and Cherry Hills in Denver, the deletion has been more surgical but no less transformative.
Cottonwoods typically thrive on the banks of rivers and streams, but here they rise from the dry sand hills of central Kansas. Two imposing clusters flanked 70 yards short of the green at this short par 4 serve as gates crashing shut. If drives aren’t positioned precisely to allow for shots to pass cleanly through, approaches will have to be punched low under their branches.
However appropriate the taking down of trees might be, it doesn’t quell a deep emotional opposition to it. For most golfers there is nothing comforting-at first-about seeing the sacking of familiar friends. Large trees possess a satisfying primordial presence, on golf courses or elsewhere. Strolls over beaches and meadows can be pleasant, but for more soul-searching hikes we seek the solitude of forests and the partnership of trees. The woods take us in and pass us through, covering us in blinking glimpses of scenery, their air filled with the swish of wind and the scent of new buds, sap and pine. What is golf, at its best, but a wondrous hike with nature.
There can even be sport in it when a tree appears to have stymied our shot. “Most of the best inland courses owe their popularity to the grouping of trees,” wrote Alister MacKenzie. “Groups of trees, planted irregularly, create most fascinating golf, and give players many opportunities of showing their skill and judgment in slicing, pulling round or attempting to loft over them.”
In this view the act of chopping them can seem purely destructive, like the wrecking of a beneficial if not sacred ecosystem. Trees and woods are critical to the sustainability of our environment. They capture carbon, help cool urban areas and provide shelter and habitats for wildlife.
Golf courses account for the largest green spaces in many cities. More trees are needed at this moment, not fewer. – Golf Digest