Superintendents must take a year-round, balanced approach to properly maintaining the trees on their properties while also protecting the health of golf course turf and staying mindful of strong emotions that golfers, memberships and the local community can have.
Stateliness and beauty, frustration and dominance. Trees can bring many different elements—and emotions—to golf course properties.
Regardless of how they personally view the trees on their properties, however, superintendents are tasked with their upkeep as part of their regular maintenance duties—and it’s a duty that must be taken especially seriously, because of the sensibilities and strong feelings that not just golfers, but an entire membership and community, may have about the quantity and location of trees within a club’s boundaries. Despite some of the issues they can cause—such as safety concerns, their effect on the turfgrass, or their ”inconvenience” to golfers who hit errant shots—people can develop strong attachments to trees.
“Trees are a very emotional thing,” says Sam MacKenzie, CGCS, Director of Grounds, Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club. “People look at a tree and think about how long it takes to grow to that size, and they can put it in the context of their own lives.”
Keeping Trees in Their Place
“On a golf course, there’s a place for [trees],” says MacKenzie “Trees add beauty and accent a property, as long as they’re not overdone.”
Olympia Fields, which was built on oak forest and farmland, has about 5,000 trees, including oaks, maples, and other deciduous trees, on its wooded, parkland golf courses. Specimen trees improve the look of a property, MacKenzie notes, but too many can overwhelm and dominate a golf course.
“They’re an integral part of the course, but there has to be a balance,” he says. “People forget how big they can become.”
Trees have been growing for decades at Olympia Fields, which was founded in 1915 and by 1925 had four 18-hole golf courses and the largest private clubhouse in the world. Currently, the property has two nationally ranked golf courses, the North and South, which have significant areas of totally natural, unmaintained woodland areas spread around the property that serve as wildlife habitat. “When a tree falls in these areas, we leave it there,” notes MacKenzie. “If it falls on the course, we put it in the natural areas.”
At Olympia Fields, championship traditions run deep. As the site of the 2015 U.S. Amateur Championship, the property joined only eight other American golf courses (including Winged Foot, Oakland Hills, and Cherry Hills) to hold the U.S. Open, U.S. Senior Open, PGA, and U.S. Amateur championships. Olympia Fields also hosted the KPMG PGA Women’s Championship in 2017. In August, the North Course will be the site of the 2020 BMW Championship, the penultimate event of the PGA Tour’s FedExCup Playoffs.
Ed Evers, Golf Course Superintendent at Fauquier Springs Country Club in Warrenton, Va., presides over a golf course with a storied past as well. The property sits along the Rappahannock River on the site of the most celebrated mineral water resort in the country before the Civil War, and Evers also appreciates the aesthetic and environmental benefits, such as shade and animal habitat, that trees bring to the venerable property. In addition, he believes trees add character to golf courses.
Evers, who has been at Fauquier Springs for almost eight years, says a fair amount of the property, which is located about 40 miles west of Washington, D.C., is wooded. Tree species include evergreens, cypresses, oaks, maples, sycamores and willows.
“They can be frustrating for golfers,” Evers acknowledges. “There are certain times golfers like trees, and certain times they don’t think much of them.”
Trees bring just as much value, however, to properties that are beginning new traditions as to those with long histories. A case in point is LedgeRock Golf Club in Mohnton, Pa., which opened in 2006.
“Trees have a place on golf courses if they’re not affecting turf quality,” says Alan FitzGerald, LedgeRock’s Golf Course Superintendent. “They can add aesthetic value and environmental benefits by providing shade. Once they’re out of play and not near my turf, they’re great.”
LedgeRock, the last private golf course to be built in eastern Pennsylvania, according to FitzGerald, was constructed on 212 acres of woodlands, farmland and former nurseries on rolling terrain. The property features open fields, ponds, elevation changes, and wooded areas.
“We did a lot of clearing for construction and got rid of bad, dangerous trees,” says FitzGerald, who joined the LedgeRock staff before construction started. “We removed aging trees and those damaged during construction, when equipment ran over their roots, As the golf course matured, we found pocketed areas to remove trees.”
To manage the trees on their properties, golf course superintendents employ a number of maintenance strategies, from tree removal and battling infestations to shade studies and mapping inventories.
At Olympia Fields, MacKenzie has a tree management budget of $50,000-$70,000 a year. “Managing trees is a very expensive proposition,” he says. “We don’t remove trees unless we need to.”
During MacKenzie’s 14-year tenure at the property, Olympia Fields has removed more trees that it has planted. Trees have been removed because of overplanting, during construction projects, and for safety reasons.
“We do most of our tree work in the winter,” notes MacKenzie. “The ground is frozen, and they can put their big equipment on the golf course.”
To prepare for the BMW Championship, the property is conducting extensive safety pruning on the North Course. The effort, which got underway last year, will be completed in the coming year. Some trees will be removed to make room for chalets that will be built for the tournament as well.
Olympia Fields recycles trees that have been taken down and grinds them into mulch. The property pays to have the debris hauled away and processed, but it keeps some wood chips for native and natural areas. These low-maintenance areas are planted with fescue, which is mowed and treated for weeds once a year.
MacKenzie has not conducted a tree inventory, but the property has done shade studies to evaluate the shade trees and how much shadow they cast on the greens.
“We manage turfgrass, and the golf course needs the same type of things that trees need,” he says. “Trees need sunlight, water, and nutrients. But so do the greens, and they are the priority.”
About every six years, MacKenzie goes through the property to thin out dead trees, clean up debris, and take out vegetation that needs to be removed.
Funding the Work
Although it is an old property with old trees, Fauquier Springs has found a new and creative way to finance its tree management endeavors. Last year the property started a new tradition when two members, Dan Weber and Mark Smith, came up with the idea to hold an annual Arbor Day tournament to raise money for tree maintenance and removal.
“It’s geared toward keeping the tree population healthy and aesthetically pleasing,” says Evers.
However, entry fees are not the only source of income during the tournament. “If anyone hits a tree during play, it costs them $5,” Evers reports.
Tournament proceeds go toward the removal of old or damaged trees, the purchase of new trees and fertility products, and stump removal. “If trees are within play, we take care of them,” says Evers.
Cleanup after storm damage at Fauquier Springs, where about half of the golf course acreage includes wooded or natural vegetation, results in tree work as well. The Fauquier Springs maintenance staff members do some of the work in-house.
However, Evers says, “If we need to remove a large tree or one that’s in an area that could damage utility lines or greens, we contract it out. And we don’t do any tree climbing. We rent a lift.”
To keep tree roots from taking away too much fertilizer from the turf, he also uses extra fertilizer products in some areas.
As LedgeRock thins out its trees, which include lots of oaks and maples, on its 18-hole, woodland golf course, FitzGerald says many people don’t even miss them. When a dogwood that was a focal point on the golf course died, however, the property replaced it with another flowering tree.
Typically, however, the removal of a tree can improve turf conditions and aesthetics by opening up the view on the hole. Once tree work has been completed, the property frequently follows up with sod or repair work.
At LedgeRock, FitzGerald says, the maintenance staff tries to be proactive with its tree management efforts. “If we find diseases or see damage or other issues, we address them as they come,” he reports.
Before the leaves are off the trees in the fall, LedgeRock staff members make a lap around the golf course to search for dead trees. They perform the majority of their tree-management efforts in the winter, and prune branches as needed.
LedgeRock had an arborist on staff until about a year ago, and the property did the majority of its tree work in-house then. However, it contracts out large or dangerous jobs. Certain staff members do the tree work, and they take local tree-removal training classes.
“We defer to the experts for big, dangerous jobs,” says FitzGerald. “We’re smart enough to know when to stop.”
FitzGerald started a tree-mapping program in late October of 2019, because LedgeRock is pursuing Audubon and BMP certification. As part of the effort, a horticulturist is listing the trees and plant life that she finds on each hole.
Some golf courses have had to purge their tree populations because of disease and pest infestations. Like many golf courses in the Upper Midwest, for instance, Olympia Fields battled an emerald ash borer breakout several years ago.
The emerald ash borer, originally from Asia, is an exotic beetle that was initially discovered in the U.S. near Detroit in the summer of 2002. Adult beetles nibble on ash foliage, causing little damage. However, the larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees and disrupt the trees’ transport of water and nutrients.
The insect has been located in 35 states, primarily in the Midwest and East. Signs of emerald ash borer infestation include thinning or dying of ash tree crowns, suckers at the base of a tree, splitting bark, tunneling under the bark, D-shaped exit holes, and woodpecker activity.
Most of the affected trees at Olympia Fields already were old and unhealthy, notes MacKenzie, so they were not worth saving. To combat the infestation, Olympia Fields initially hired a contractor to inject insecticide into the trees that then drew up into the canopies, but later abandoned the practice. “A lot of golf courses tried to save them, but it got too overwhelming,” MacKenzie notes.
Olympia Fields started taking down the trees as they died, ultimately removing about 200 trees. However, many of the ash trees, which were planted before MacKenzie arrived at the property, survived. The property treated some of the surviving trees, but didn’t touch others.
Since the end of the emerald ash borer outbreak, notes MacKenzie, tree removals at Olympia Fields have dropped off considerably.
With the spread of the emerald ash borer to the East, Evers says Fauquier Springs has removed about 35 ash trees in the last two years. “There isn’t a lot that you can do about them that wouldn’t be cost-prohibitive,” he notes.
In 2014 the spotted lanternfly was discovered in Berks County in Pennsylvania, and the invasive insect has spread throughout the southeastern part of the state. Sightings have been reported in neighboring states as well. Also native to Asia, the spotted lanternfly feeds voraciously on many plants, including fruit trees, hardwoods, and ornamentals.
LedgeRock first noticed spotted lanternflies on site in 2017, and in 2018, their numbers started to increase at the property. FitzGerald says the pests have not been as problematic in 2019.
“The first year or two, we stopped the spread of the insects as much as we could. We checked for egg masses in the winter and scraped them away,” he reports. “We also discovered that praying mantises took a liking to them, so they had natural predators. A soil fungus attacks them as well.”
Researchers now advise that systemic insecticides to control adult spotted lanternflies should be used only in high-population areas and on high-value trees. Three application methods are used to get systemic insecticides to be taken up by the plant—injection, trunk sprays, and soil drenches. In addition, insecticides should be applied only after the bloom is finished, to help protect natural enemies and pollinators.
While spotted lanternflies can leave plants with significant damage, FitzGerald says the chief concerns caused by the insects at LedgeRock have been aesthetic in nature.
“We have sprays we can use, but they haven’t been enough of a problem,” he adds.
Common Tree Diseases and Pest Infestations
Depending on the species, along with the region of the country where they are located, trees can be affected by a number of diseases. Some of the more common ones include:
• Dogwood Anthracnose – affects flowering and Pacific dogwoods
• Dutch Elm Disease – affects American elms, winged elms, September elms, slippery elms, rock elms, and cedar elms to varying degrees
• Eastern Filbert Blight – affects hazelnuts
• Oak Wilt – affects many species of oaks
• Pine Wilt – affects nonnative pines such as Austrian, Scots, and Japanese red and black pines
• Sudden Oak Death – fatally affects tanoaks, coast live oaks, Shreve’s oaks, California black oaks, and canyon live oaks; also affects Douglas firs, coast redwoods, madrones, and many other trees
• Thousand Cankers Disease – affects black walnuts
Pest infestations, which also depend on the type of tree and the part of the country where they are located, can threaten the health of trees as well. Common pests include:
• Asian Longhorned Beetle – affects green ashes, paper birches, cedar elms, golden rain trees, hackberries, horse chestnuts, katsuras, London planetrees, sugar maples, mimosas, mountain ashes, poplars, and willows
• Bark Beetles – affects a wide variety of trees, depending on beetle type
• Emerald Ash Borer – affects ash trees
• Gypsy Moth – affects hundreds of species of plants, but oaks and aspens are most common
• Hemlock Woolly Adelgid – affects both eastern (Canadian) and Carolina hemlock
• Japanese Beetle – affects hundreds of species of plants
• Periodical Cicada – occasionally affects small trees or shrubs
Summing It Up
> Trees can bring aesthetic and environmental benefits to a golf course. However, because they also compete for the same sunlight, water and nutrients that greens need, putting surfaces should take priority for superintendents.
> Golf course superintendents employ tree-management programs with strategies that range from the removal of dead or damaged trees and pruning, to shade studies and mapping inventories.
> To maintain the health of the trees on their properties, golf course superintendents in various parts of the country have had to battle infestations by pests, such as the emerald ash borer and spotted lanternfly, in recent years.