Trees on the Golf Course, pg ii
by Joe Sponcia

“The purpose of a golf course is to have the game of golf played on it, and not to be viewed as an arboretum. The ground features and playing surfaces should always be top priority, with trees playing a supportive role”. – Jim Skorulski, Senior Agronomist, USGA

Like most things in life, tree placement isn’t a black and white issue, but many in the architectural community can agree on several common points.  As a general rule, trees should reside on the periphery, meaning out of the way of a properly played shot, with few exceptions.  Trees should complement individual holes, not adversely affect them, especially when it comes to the least skilled.

Included below are common pitfalls and their consequences:

  1. Avoid planting in the corner of every dog leg. Dog legs can be defined by bunkers and/or rough just as easily as they can by a cluster of trees.  Both are a more fair option for mid to high handicaps because they eliminate distance and trajectory as the primary defense of par.  The golden age architects used bunkers extensively on corners to create risk/reward options, a design principle that has only recently begun to take hold once again.  The worst scenario is when a player is in the fairway, and his/her only option is a lay-up or punch out due to over-treed corners.

This is an all too common scenario on dog leg par 4’s where low handicaps and long hitters get a distinct advantage over their mid-high handicap counterparts. (Dog-leg left, green is in the foreground).


(Same hole as above, 40 yards forward) Take a look at all of the new plantings left of the cart path? How will the surrounding the turf look in a few years? How many times will the cart path need to be repaved in the future?

(Same hole as above, 40 yards forward) Take a look at all of the new plantings left of the cart path? How will the surrounding the turf look in a few years? How many times will the cart path need to be repaved in the future?

From the photo, this fairway appears sufficiently wide, but in reality is only twenty-three paces wide at 150 yards out on this par 4 that measures 373 yards. With a bunker left, water at the end of the fairway, and branches extending over the landing area, this hole induces lots of punch shots and lay-ups.

  1. Remove trees whose limbs hang over fairways, tee boxes, and especially those who impede sunlight around greens. The USGA recommends tree canopies be set back a minimum of 10 yards from the edge of fairways and tee boxes.  Green sites, which are more fragile, need much more room, literally, to breathe.  And what about yearly pruning?  Pruning is better than the alternative, but as Dr. Brad Klein points out, “if a tree needs to be trimmed, it’s easier and better just to cut it down altogether.  If it needs trimming, it doesn’t belong there”.  Some would argue that this position is too extreme but the benefits outweigh the costs in almost every case:  Wider effective fairway angles, better turf, more fair conditions for all handicaps, and increased safety as players aren’t forced into hitting shots from roots, buried or on the surface.  Width is a point of contention for the robotic ‘too easy’ crowd, but the fact is, as handicaps rise, so does the challenge of hitting fairways that have narrowed over time due to tree encroachment.


Notice how the effective fairway has been severely compromised due to tree encroachment on what could be a fun risk/reward par 5. How can a slicer fairly play this shot after hitting the fairway?


“Make sure to select a planting location so that the mature canopy of the tree will not protrude on the line-of-flight between a tee and a fairway. Trees with protruding limbs dramatically reduce the usable size of a tee. For example, a tree planted too close to the front right hand side of a tee will promote concentrated use on the left-hand side of the tee. The result of such concentrated divoting on one side of the tee usually promotes discussion about the superintendent’s abilities. The solution to large overhanging limbs is usually sympathetic pruning that leaves the tree permanently disfigured. Actually, complete removal of a tree could be the best solution”. – American Society of Golf Architects


“Never plant large trees closer than 75 feet from a green or tee, because they will become serious competitors for available water and nutrients. Most individuals are under the mistaken impression that tree roots cannot extend outward from the trunk further than the drip line of the tree. In reality, tree roots can extend outward from the tree trunk approximately one to one and a half times the total height of the tree”. – American Society of Golf Course Architects


One of the tell-tale signs of too many trees - the ubiquitous fan

One of the tell-tale signs of too many trees – the ubiquitous fan

  1. Avoid planting in clusters. If one tree is good, four are better…or so it seems on many courses.  The truth is, if you really like a certain tree and you really want it to have a strategic (not penal) impact on play, it is better to leave it on its own.  Single plantings, while unfair in certain circumstances, do at least offer a chance for an exciting recovery.  Clusters afford no such luxury more times than not.  And is there any question aesthetically-speaking what is more preferable: A single specimen oak vs. a cluttered grouping?


“The key is to mix things up.  Most courses cut from trees are repetitive, because the owners have tried to clear only the minimum amount, instead of trying to create a varied landscape.  And most courses where trees are planted become repetitive, because if left unchecked, committees tend to plant in every available space, which leads to the same thing.  As much as possible, one should avoid parallel holes separated by trees.  If you’re stuck with that, sometimes make the clearing two holes across [or even three!] instead of one.  Try to work on diagonals, or leave the trees tight along one side and very wide to the other side. Highlight the fine specimen trees [if there are any], use them as features, and remove all the clutter around them.  Create longer views on the interior of the course; look for chances to open up behind the green” – Tom Doak

A sliced drive with the only option: a boring punch-out. This is what clustering produces.

A sliced drive with the only option: a boring punch-out. This is what clustering produces.

  1. Avoid creating ‘double-hazards’. The most common occurrence is pictured below where a tree is placed immediately in line with a bunker and the target. Situations like these are common where beautification committees ran unfettered many years ago.  Not only do they unfairly hurt the higher handicaps, they greatly slow play hurting all players.

Pinball or golf?

Pinball or golf?

Pinball or golf?

  1. Remove trees growing into cart paths. This should seem like the easiest point to get consensus on, but many clubs repave the same areas every few years. This is an actual excerpt from a blog post Steve Kealy, Course Superintendent, Glendale CC wrote: “Cart paths and adjacent trees are like oil and water, they don’t mix. When Glendale was built there were no trees on the course.  The cart path routing was laid out and trees were planted.  Maybe trees were planted to hide the paths, who knows?  Fast forward fifty years and we have a lot of tree issues that need to be resolved.”

“This tree on the 5th hole is typical of so many trees on our course, it’s located right next to a cart path. The path is damaged from the tree roots and needs to be repaired. The only real fix is to dig up the path and remove the tree roots. This is an expensive process and we have paths all over the course in this condition. Golf carts and the people in them take a beating driving over these areas. Cutting off those large roots will buy us a couple years before the tree puts out more roots and the path is back in the same condition. The permanent solution is to remove the problem causing the path condition – cut down the tree! Does that tree really need to be there? That is the real question that needs to be determined.”


“This photo shows the path heading through the trees on the third hole where almost 300′ of path needs to be replaced. In the past we were able to add another 2″ overlay to smooth out the rough areas caused by the tree roots. As the trees continue to grow the roots get bigger and the overlay process is not an option any more. This path will need to be dug up and the asphalt hauled off to a recycle facility, the tree roots removed, a new layer of gravel added, and 4 ” of new asphalt installed. This is big money and a lot of time and disruption to do the work. The solution is to remove those trees causing the problem.”


5(a). Remove plantings on the inside of cart paths.  Trees don’t hide cart paths, they hide players behind trees that others will hit into.

Dog-leg left par 4, walkers cannot see the group in front….

…until they walk up nearly 60 yards forward and twenty yards right.

A no-brainer for tree removal with cedars shading just off the fairway, instead the area was re-sodded because they ‘make the hole’? Cedars are among the worst tree varieties for a golf course.


Seldom is there a need to plant trees on the inside of most cart paths. This is especially true around greens, where larger-sized tree species should not be planted within 75 feet of a green. Avoid planting larger-sized tree species altogether on the southeast side of greens, where they will block the morning sun. – Jim Skorulski, USGA

A few examples of proper framing:

Diamond Creek, Banner Elk, NC

Whippoorwill Club, Armonk, NY

The Renaissance Club, Scotland

Lookout Mountain Golf Club, Lookout Mountain, GA

Dormie Club, Pinehurst, NC. Notice how the player is invited to challenge the bunker on the corner, but in no way is dictated by over-hanging limbs.