Tag Archives: course architecture

Arbor Daze

Want to start a lively discussion/potential fistfight among your golfing brood? Bring up the topic of trees. Or more specifically, tree removal.

Aside from the USGA tripping all over its collective self in an attempt to extricate itself from the Dustin Johnson ruling [Executive Director Mike Davis is now saying that while the penalty was the proper decision, it should have been applied immediately. On behalf of all golfers, Mr Davis: Bite me], a major topic of discussion among many folks has been the removal of some 15,000 trees at Oakmont. This apparently has given a number of folks a case of the vapors.

One needs to understand that Oakmont, like many older courses in the United States, was originally designed as a Scottish-style links course, with broad vistas and nary a tree to be seen. At some point – I believe it was after the 1962 US Open – Herbert Warren Wind referred to Oakmont as “an ugly brute of a course.” The membership at Oakmont took great offence at this, and an aggressive tree-planting initiative was enacted.

The character of the course eventually changed, with each hole framed by what eventually became large trees. While this gave the course a wooded, parkland-like feel, it also created a ton of course maintenance issues, particularly around the greens. Heavily wooded courses result in air-circulation issues, which result in turf-killing mold and fungus. Tree roots create additional risks for players, and let’s not even get into leaf removal. Moreover, the excessive planting of trees altered the original strategic intent of the course.

This is not to say that trees do not have a place on a golf course. A strategically placed tree can make or break a golf hole. Pinehurst #2 would not be Pinehurst #2 without its native pines (duh). The giant Douglas Firs and red cedar that line the fairways of Sahalee Country Club are native to the Pacific Northwest and are a major design consideration. Harbor Town’s native, moss-draped live oaks play into shot making on almost every hole.

But in the case of Oakmont, the overgrowth of these trees became enough of a concern that the tree removal effort began; at first clandestinely and barely noticeable (after all, 15,000 trees do not disappear overnight). Eventually, word got out to the greater membership what was happening, and the sparks began to fly (The Golf Channel ran an excellent feature about this evolution during US Open week).

This same scenario has played out at other classic courses like Winged Foot and Shinnecock Hills (the latter of which should really benefit; it’s as close to a true links course as can be found in the USA). Other courses are following suit and reaping the benefits of improved turf conditions and expanded vistas.

We had a similar situation at my old club in Virginia, which was the centerpiece of a housing development built across the James River from Richmond during the mid 1990’s. The community and course were carved out of a dense forest of oak, hickory, beech and pine trees; even after construction there remained tens of thousands of trees, many of which framed the course.

Within several years, roots from the larger trees had cracked the cart paths, and the air circulation around most greens was so poor that it was an annual battle to keep them alive during the hot, humid Virginia summers. There were other areas where turf was never able to be established because it simply did not have the means to grow.

Our greens superintendent went to the club owner and requested that 500 trees be cut down, which, given the density of forest land on the property, seemed like a pretty small number. Based on the reaction of some members and community property owners when this new was announced, one would have sworn that the Amazon rain forest was being wiped out.

“Why, some of these trees are over a hundred years old!” cried one resident, to which some wiseacre (maybe it was me) responded, “Did you think about that when they were clearing the lot for your house?”

Maybe that wasn’t the most mature response. But the initiative went forward. All I know is that I returned to play there last year, and it was hard for me to tell where any trees had been taken down. And the course was in the best shape that I had ever seen it.

Too many times, well-meaning members want to “beautify” a golf course without taking into account the long term ramifications of what they are doing.  The best golf courses work in harmony with their natural surroundings, and the best architects and designers figure out the best routing for that course and allow nature to work its magic. I think Oakmont has it right.