Trees on the Golf Course:

A Common Sense Approach

by

Joe Sponcia

March 2016

Scotland and Ireland have their links, America has her trees.  With course names that include, “oak, pine, willow, cedar, and hickory”, the American golf community has embraced the proliferation of trees on golf courses since the import of the game.

The mere mention of planting trees as part of a beautification campaign will assure you a seat on the board of directors or at the very least a sub-committee.  But try and take a few out at your own risk, unless you want to be the club pariah.

Trees are beautiful, but they also come with a hefty and often unforeseen price tag.  Are they the most expensive ‘feature’ on your golf course?  It depends, but many greatly underestimate their impact on the yearly maintenance budget.  Do the costs justify the end product?  Many courses, especially those in the top 200 in America, have responded with a resounding NO.

“The irony, of course, is that Augusta National used to be the trendsetter in matters of course design.  But now its well behind the curve.  While Augusta is on a tree-planting splurge, most other prominent clubs are removing trees, having finally recognized their adverse effects on strategy, playability, and turf quality”.  – Ron Whitten, Golf Digest, April 2006

Trees do serve a purpose, but like everything else in life, moderation is the key.  When you strip away all of the emotion from the topic (which is often controversial) and look objectively at their impact on playability for all handicaps, current/ongoing/future costs as it relates to labor and course maintenance, and their adverse affect on pace of play, the argument to keep every single tree or add new ones becomes a hollow one.

Turf quality

 “My basic point is that most people who (literally) embrace trees on golf courses are more interested in trees than golf.  That goes for most of those arborists’ reports that look to protect trees and don’t bother to integrate trees with golf and turf grass”- Dr. Brad Klein

Grass needs three things to grow and remain healthy:  adequate sunlight, water, and air circulation.

Ask your average club member about how to grow healthy turf and they might respond with: more fertilizer, more water, or a new Superintendent.  If your course is prominently decorated with bare spots and stressed turf, more than likely trees are playing a major role in its demise, not your Superintendent.  Shade is the biggest enemy of healthy turf.  Grass is weakest (or non-existent) under branches, limbs, and where tree roots compete with the surrounding turf for moisture.   Most turf grass varieties require at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight.  Without it, turf weakness and/or total failure is inevitable, especially when you consider the traffic on a busy golf course.  Grass needs light to photosynthesize, producing food for growth and regeneration.  When direct sunlight is too low for too long, carbohydrate reserves become depleted and plant cells become too frail to recover.  Shade also prolongs the drying out period after heavy rainfall or irrigation, which is a leading cause of turf disease.  The winter months are often the hardest on turf as trees block precious sunlight, which prolongs ice and delays frost thawing.  Add a little traffic and expect heavy winterkill.

And what about water demand?  Trees take a lot more than most people believe.  A general rule of thumb is to measure the trunk at four feet above the ground and multiply by 10 (gallons) for every inch in diameter to determine water demand.  Ideally, this quantity needs to be met once per week in the heart of summer.  With clusters of trees, one can quickly see how turf often fights a losing battle just by doing a little math.  Strong, healthy turf and trees are often at odds with one another, and in a head to head fight, trees always win despite the best efforts of experienced Superintendents.

“The final and easiest argument to make against trees on the golf course comes from an agronomic standpoint.  Simply put, trees have no agronomic benefit to the turf grass on the golf course. They create shade, steal moisture, and out-compete turf grass for vital nutrients. – Jeff Harris, course developer, contractor, and operator based out of Maine

image001

Holston Hills Country Club (Ross, 1927), 18th fairway, 2003. Thin, wispy turf was often the norm at the canopy edges.

 

Holston Hills Country Club, 18th fairway, 2015. With full sunlight, turf is now strong and healthy.

Holston Hills Country Club, 18th fairway, 2015. With full sunlight, turf is now strong and healthy.

Maintenance costs

“The problems trees cause for turf are well documented, and many articles have been written on the subject. Surprisingly little has been written about the costs of trees on golf courses. Many golfers assume that planting a tree is the extent of its cost, but nothing could be further from the truth. The cost of planting a tree is merely a small down payment on a bill that, for some courses, runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars annually”.  – David Oatis, USGA

If you have ever shadowed your club’s maintenance staff for more than a day or two, it’s pretty easy to ascertain the areas that demand the most labor per square foot.  While greens rightfully need the most attention (as do bunkers), the areas surrounding trees eat up time and labor at an inordinate rate when you consider the extra care needed to properly maintain their consistency.

A few line items to consider: How much labor does your club devote to string mowing vs. riding?  Are there areas where riding would be more practical and not affect playability if trees were removed?

  • Does your club maintain ‘special’ mowers that are only used around trees because of exposed roots? The cost to maintain and repair this equipment is often triple and quadruple the cost.
  • How many times does your club re-sod the same areas year over year, and what is the annual cost?
  • How much does your club spend on leaf, fruit, needle, and debris removal per year? Could this number be reduced?
  • What is the annual cost for pruning and tree removal? When trees are properly placed (on the periphery), this line item can have minimal impact on the budget.
  • How much does your club budget for adding additional trees?
  • How often does your club tear out cart paths and repave due to root damage?

David Oatis of the USGA points out in his excellent piece, “The Hidden Cost of Trees”, that trees cost clubs an average of $88,000 per year and can run as high as $192,000.  Many clubs greatly underestimate this cost.

Playability for all handicaps

It would be cost prohibitive and frankly over-reaching to suggest that every course in America resemble the Old Course in St. Andrews.  Without heavy earth-moving equipment at the turn of the century, many of the Golden Age Architects laid out their masterpieces on rolling fields and open farm land.  Years later, members took it upon themselves to add texture and beauty to the landscape by planting trees – which in many cases, completely changed the look and feel of the original layout.  The problem was and still is today, a single plantings affects aren’t felt for some time with regard to playability (and agronomy).

Playability, in layman’s terms speaks to the fairness for all players, regardless of skill level, age, handicap, and/or gender.  The biggest farce as it relates to trees on individual holes is the claim that trees, ‘even out the playing field’.  Nothing could be further from the truth when you consider that low handicaps, who make up less than 3% of the average club’s membership, are adept at hitting fairway and green targets at a clip of 50% more than their mid to high handicap counterparts.

Trees on the corner of doglegs are a favorite of many club members for ‘protecting par’, but better players often go over, around, or past them, while the rest of the membership is blocked causing pace of play issues.  The biggest fear is that any tree removal will render the course defenseless or ‘too easy’.  Trees disproportionately hurt the least skilled.  Ironically, high handicaps are often most in favor of keeping trees as a defense for par, but this is largely an ignorance and ego issue.  Time after time, when massive tree removal is completed, handicaps remain virtually unchanged.  The conundrum is two-fold:  Club members love to brag about how tough their golf course is and trees hide poor play.  If you’ve ever teed it up on a ‘wide open’ course and played poorly, your ego will say, ‘you stink’.  Shoot the same score on a tree-lined course, and the same ego says, ‘it’s not you…the course is tough’.

In truth, greens have always been the equalizer and the greatest defense of par.  Consider the make percentages for the PGA tour on the putting green (from www.pgatour.com) and then safely cut the average club members same percentages in half:

10 feet – 38%

15 feet – 22%

20 feet – 14%

25 feet – 10%

Next take a look at the average greens in regulation by handicap (via http://www.thegrint.com/range/2013/03/golf-tips-gir/)

25-30 – 10%

20-25 – 12%

15-20 – 20%

10-15 – 27%

5-10 – 36%

0-5  – 47%

Golf is hard.

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