Trees can make or break the beauty of a course-but also cause big headaches, when overgrowth affects all aspects of turf management.
The grass is always greener—when it has a chance to grow.
And, as every golf course superintendent knows, nothing impedes turf quality more than an abundance of shade and a lack of sunlight.
SUMMING IT UP
• Course superintendents traditionally trained in agronomy have also had to become arborists, so they can properly manage a critical aspect of their responsibilities that now threatens (literally) to overshadow everything else.
As a result, many properties have undertaken large-scale tree removal efforts over the past several years, to reverse a decades-old trend that sought to turn their golf courses into parklands by planting excess trees.
“There’s an old saying that grass doesn’t grow in the woods,” observes Paul B. Latshaw, Certified Golf Course Superintendent and Director of Grounds Operations at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. “You’ve got to have a proper balance between trees and healthy turf.”
Because of the key role that a massive tree-removal effort played in helping to prepare its storied course for the 2007 U. S. Open, Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club stands tall as a leader of the industry-wide trend to prune back properties that have become overgrown from the tree-planting frenzy that began half a century ago, after televised tournaments first started to showcase the beauty of parkland courses and touched off a wave of “we want that, too” at clubs throughout the country.
“I think that Oakmont lent a lot of visibility and credibility to tree removal,” says a noted golf course architect. “But I think there already was a lot of movement in that direction.”
Thanks to the undeniable results seen at last year’s Open, perhaps Oakmont’s greatest contribution will now be that other clubs won’t have to start their tree removal projects with covert, pre-dawn operations (as Oakmont did), to try to avoid the inevitable questions and complaints. In all, estimates John Zimmers, the club’s Golf Course Superintendent, 5,000 trees were removed from the golf course between the mid-1990s and 2005. And while removing trees made more room for galleries and grandstands at the tournament, he says, restoring the course to its original design was the primary impetus behind the effort.
Healthier Turf, Better Playability
While Oakmont may be the most prominent and well-documented example of successful tree-removal efforts, there are many others, including at the aptly named Old Elm Club in Highland Park, Ill. An 18-hole private property near Chicago, with a course designed by H.S. Colt and Donald Ross, Old Elm has removed almost 600 trees from the vintage layout that dates back to 1913.
“I think we over-planted a lot and that created problems with turf and playability conditions, once these trees got bigger and matured,” reports Certified Golf Course Superintendent Edward Fischer.
|Paul B. Latshaw, Director of Grounds Operations at Muirfield Village Golf Club, has overseen removal of over 1,000 trees at three properties.|
The removed trees, planted about 25 or 30 years ago, had created too much shade and inhibited air circulation. The lack of sunlight had led to poor growing conditions, Fischer says. Now that they have been removed, he reports, “Our rough is much healthier, and the greens and tees themselves are much improved.”
When the frenzy to add trees to courses began, Latshaw says, the importance of light and photosynthesis to healthy turf was not as well-understood. Without photosynthesis to produce carbohydrates, he explains, a plant and its root system weaken, leaving it unable to withstand wear and tear.
Latshaw has overseen the removal of more than 1,000 trees at three properties—Muirfield Village, Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., and Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. At each course, he says, trees planted in the 1950s and 1960s had become mature and overgrown by the 1990s.
Turf problems generally result when properties plant undesirable species that are out of scale and in the wrong spots, explains the golf course architect. In addition to disrupting the way a course should be played, he notes, improperly planted, fast-growing trees can actually block scenic vistas created by their mature predecessors.
With superintendents under tremendous pressure to maintain fast greens in top condition, the architect notes, too many trees can cause properties to mistakenly believe they need to rebuild greens, instead of addressing the root of the problem.
After Latshaw and other predecessors handled the most controversial tree-removal endeavors at Merion (which will host the 2013 U.S. Open), the process has continued there at a more selective pace, reports the club’s current Director of Golf Course Operations, Matt Shaffer.
“We’re just selectively cut some trees down that changed the flow of the hole,” he explains. “We’re taking them down for shot value. And when you get a lot of trees in an area, you lose the effect of the wind.
“The changes people will see at Merion will be pretty benign compared to some of the other clubs that have hosted [the Open],” Shaffer adds. “It may very well be an Open where you go and you sit, because it’s so incredibly tight.”
|In addition to disrupting the way a course should be played, improperly planted, fast-growing trees can block scenic vistas of more mature hardwood trees, as this before-and-after example from Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club’s 14th hole illustrates.|
Superintendents agree that trees should not be cut down indiscriminately. However, convincing members to take down trees can become an emotional enterprise.
“Any time you remove large trees, to some degree it’s pretty controversial,” acknowledges Zimmers. “Bu
t now, virtually 100 percent [of the members] believe we did the right thing.”
In his projects, Latshaw had to undo the results of a former beautification initiative at Merion, and a memorial tree program at Oak Hill—another vintage Donald Ross course—where plaques are mounted on trees in memory of members.Plaques from removed trees were remounted on others that remained standing, he recalls.
Using a scientific approach to tree removal can take the emotion out of the process, he and others agree. “You have to prioritize which ones you want to remove first,” notes Zimmers. “Generally, [trees] that are affecting the greens [should be removed] first. You have to have a plan, because everybody will have a different opinion.”
Conditions can also speak for themselves. For example, Latshaw says the healthiest green at Muirfield Village is the 18th, while the eighth and 12th greens are generally in the poorest shape. Not coincidentally, there are no trees around the 18th green, while the eighth and 12th are surrounded by trees.
“The root zone is the same. The grass selection is the same,” he explains. “The only variable is the environment.”
At Old Elm, members initially were apprehensive about taking down trees, Fischer says, but the overall reaction afterwards was positive.
|Scott Phelps is halfway through planting 5,000 native trees at Teton Reserve Golf Club; from the start, he’s done it with the right balance of trees and turf in mind.|
Putting Down Roots
Not every tree, however, is an impediment that must be eliminated. “Trees on golf courses are integral parts of the strategy and design,” says Latshaw. Properly placed, he notes, trees can frame holes or add beauty to the course.
Fischer has not planted any new trees in the past few years, but he has moved some trees to out-of-play areas for aesthetic reasons and to improve their ability to survive and prosper.
The golf course architect says trees should be able to withstand weather extremes and have the potential to become highlighted specimens that can even serve as landmarks for “nature walks” on the property. “You want them to become a key characteristic of the course,” he notes.
This approach can even work for new properties such as Teton Reserve Golf Club in Victor, Idaho, which opened nine holes last year and another nine this June. The club is in the midst of a five-year effort to plant native trees such as aspen, maple, cottonwoods and pines, reports Certified Golf Course Superintendent and Director of Grounds. Scott Phelps, because other than about 15 existing trees around the clubhouse, “We didn’t have any trees on the entire property.”
About 2,500 trees were planted in the last two-and-a-half years during construction, Phelps says, and he expects to plant another 2,500 at the links-style course in the next two years.
The trees are being planted “for the long term,” to shape shots and direct play, he notes. For example, trees have been planted on the corners of some fairways, to create doglegs on holes that otherwise would be straight shots.
“We also use them as 150-yard markers coming into the green,” Phelps adds. “That way, it’s more of a natural marker, rather than putting out a post.”
While he’s well aware that the trees will create added maintenance duties such as pruning, scouting for disease and maintaining the drip irrigation system that nourishes them, Phelps does not expect them to damage the turf.
“Twenty years from now when the trees have grown, it will be spectacular,” he says. “We’re trying to keep it as natural as possible.” But the difference now is, Phelps and other superintendents have learned that a better balance is needed for all of the “natural” elements of a golf course.
“The bottom line is, the game of golf is played on grass,” says Latshaw. “And if you have less than desirable conditions, you’re going to have a reduced amount of revenue coming in.”
Fischer agrees. “The healthier the turf,” he adds, “the more the members enjoy their rounds of golf.”