Trees on the Golf Course, pg. iii
by Joe Sponcia

Beautification Committees

No group has collectively disfigured more golf courses across the United States than beautification committees.  Well-meaning as they may be, the large majority are ill-trained and ill-equipped to pick suitable species or locations for trees.  What looks like the perfect placement today will be a superintendent and players nightmare in 10-15 years as few grasp just how high and wide an individual tree often extends.  This becomes even more dreadful when it comes to memorializing fellow members.  In short, a memorial plaque in the clubhouse, a bench, or a marker on the grounds work much better, all things considered.


 ‘Great damage can be done to a golf course in the name of ornamental tree planting. Sometimes the argument is for safety between holes. Other times, the membership is determined to make or keep its golf course tough. But too often the plantings detract from the design.  Among the worst offenders are those who specialize in course beautification.  One of the most prominent of these, run by well-intentioned folks who neither golf nor understand golf strategy, consistently recommends an aggressive program that becomes tantamount to filling up every available space, even if it means with little dopey Christmas trees 10 yards off the fairway.  Yet there is too much evidence of recent tree plantings, many of them alongside the landing areas of tee shots, or to block long hitters from carrying the inside of doglegs.  Such tampering gradually puts at risk a wondrous piece of natural strategic contouring and subtly forces its artful ground game into a less subtle version of modern target golf. – Dr. Brad Klein

Politics, master plans, and a few final thoughts

“The biggest challenge with trees that we have to deal with is, by far, golfer education.  Its an issue the USGAs green section has been promoting in recent years. Golfers must understand that trees and turf do not get along and trees are not essential to a golf course”. – Adam Moeller, USGA

As mentioned at the outset, trees are by far the most controversial subject at any club.

Do they ruin the game of golf, as this essay may have alluded?  In moderation, of course not!  The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be enough moderation.  If one says, “I don’t think this or that tree is fair and should be removed”, he is thought to want every tree removed?

Like an old western, the two gunslingers shout obscenities from the bar: the tree-hugger vs. the tree-hater.  One armed with emotion, the other, logic.  But who wins when both paint their opponent as the extremist straw-man?

Bobby Jones said, “I don’t see any need for a tree on a golf course”, but Augusta clearly had over 100 trees when it opened?  With many golden age architects coming from and influenced by the links of Scotland, I would submit that their collective opinion would have suggested a limited place in the game.  After all, could anyone fathom a Tillinghast or MacKenzie referencing how great their courses would become once the new green committees handiwork matured?

The extensive planting of trees to narrow the course may be the most extreme departure from Jones’ philosophy, particularly considering his wish that Augusta National would reflect links style golf’ – Geoff Shackleford

Width and angles (being on the correct side of the fairway) combined with thoughtfully crafted greens were the early architects calling card.  The hemmed in fairways we see today at many clubs, where the only way to play a hole is down the middle has replaced fun with arduous and taxing.

Instead of tricking up individual holes with overhanging limbs, architects like Tom Doak are purposely creating wide fairways.  Doak maintains that his, ‘favorite hazard is short grass’.  But how could short grass defend par?

I’ll never forget meeting Rob Collins, of King-Collins design on a cold March day, as I marveled at the waves in the first fairway at Sweetens Cove.  Collins said, ‘I like to imagine a fairway in the same way you would a bed sheet if you fluffed it once and then let it go’.  How much more interesting is this than a fairway lined with cedars?

If you have gotten this far, you may be asking how you might help improve your own club?  If you happen to be on your club’s board of directors or green committee, tread lightly when mentioning trees.  It takes minutes to rev up fellow members, years to appeal to their common sense and quell their emotions.

In fact, the best advice, at least in the beginning is not to debate tree removal at all.  The focus should be turf quality and health.  To proceed otherwise will only get closed arms and clenched fists.  Physically walking naysayers out to problems areas and asking bluntly “how can we grow grass (here) when we have this condition (a tree overhead)”, will prove itself more effective than years of meetings behind closed doors or debates in the 19th hole.

Generally speaking, few care or take the time to understand what width or options mean to their fellow members; the highest handicaps are an afterthought.  Few attribute pace of play to misplaced trees which have undoubtedly pinched in multiple fairways.  Few brag about having the easiest course in town.  Things like wider fairways mean ‘pushover’ to the uneducated, but put these same golfers on vacation at one of Mike Strantz’ designs and they will marvel at how fun their round was after playing with a little width.

Few care about strategy either.  Many would rather stump for a target-type course with few decisions, than one where a player can run up a three wood onto a par five, even though the missed par five could actually get the player in more trouble than a forced lob wedge.  They only care about difficulty and being perceived as a ‘test’ (“They, many, and few” refer to the average club member).

If your club is of a certain pedigree; designed pre-1950, by a Ross, Raynor, or Tillinghast, the task of restoration and/or clean-up will be much easier than if it was designed by a lessor name.  A good starting place is to find the original drawings or course master plan…and then circulate it throughout the club.  If none can be found, original pictures can prove to an invaluable part of any improvement plan.  Many will be stunned when they see how much the course has changed (probably for the worse).

As it relates to lost fairway width, Google Maps has proven to be an excellent resource for measuring changes over a time.

Above all, enlist the help of an expert.  The USGA has regional arborists that can do a site survey and provide a thorough report that will touch on many aspects mentioned in this essay.  The American Society of Golf Architects is another great resource to turn to if and when an objective expert is needed.  Undoubtedly, the greatest objections to many of the points discussed will come from the least educated among us.

Selected quotes:

Willie Park, Jr.:

“Trees are never a fair hazard if at all near the line of play, as a well hit shot may be completely spoiled by catching the branches.”

Charles Blair Macdonald:

‘Trees in the course are a serious defect, and even when in close proximity prove a detriment.

“No course is ideal which is laid out through trees. Trees foreshorten the perspective and the wind has not full play. To get the full exaltation when playing the game of golf, one should, when passing from green to green as he gazes over the horizon, have a limitable sense of eternity, suggesting contemplation and imagination.”

Harry S. Colt:

‘There is of necessity a feeling of restriction when playing the game with 6-foot oaks paling on every side…The sense of freedom is usually one of the great charms of the game, and it is almost impossible to lay out a big, bold course in a park unless it be of large dimensions, and one needs some three or four hundred acres within the ring of fence to prevent the cramped feeling…It is essential to make the clearing bold and wide, as it is not very enjoyable to play down long alleys with trees on either side.

‘Trees are a fluky and obnoxious form of a hazard.

‘In cases where the ground is covered densely with trees, it is often possible to open up beautiful views by cutting down additional timber. In such cases, it would be unwise merely to clear certain narrow lanes, which are required for play. The landscape effect should also be studied, and although great care must be taken not to expose any unpleasant view in the process, every endeavor should be made to obtain a free and open effect.

‘On the other hand, where very few trees exist, every effort should be made to retain them, and in every case the architect will note the quality of the timber with a view of retaining the finest specimens.

Max Behr:

‘It goes without saying that trees lined to hem in fairways are not only an insult to golf architecture, but the death warrant to the high art of natural landscape gardening, aside for the fact that, of all hazards, they are the most unfair.

Stanley Thompson:

‘In clearing fairways, it is good to have an eye to the beautiful. Often it is possible, by clearing away undesirable and unnecessary trees on the margin of fairways, to open up the view of some attractive picture and frame it with foliage.

George Thomas:

‘Trees and shrubbery beautify the course, and natural growth should never be cut down if it is possible to save it; but he who insists in preserving a tree where it spoils a shot should have nothing to say about golf course construction.

Donald Ross:

‘As beautiful as trees are and as fond as you and I are of them, we still must not lose sight of the fact that there is a limited place for them in golf. We must not allow our sentiments to crowd out the real intent of a golf course – that of providing fair playing conditions. If it in any way interferes with a properly played stroke, I think the tree is an unfair hazard and should not be allowed to stand.

Alister Mackenzie:

‘Playing down a fairway bordered by straight lines of trees is not only inartistic but make tedious and uninteresting golf. Many green committees ruin ones handiwork by planting trees like rows of soldiers along the borders of fairways.’

‘Narrow fairways bordered by long grass make bad golfers.  They do so by destroying the harmony and continuity of the game, and in causing a stilted and cramped style by destroying all freedom to play.  There is no defined line between the fairways in the great schools of golf like St. Andrews or Hoylake.  It is a common error to cut the rough in straight lines.  It should be in irregular, natural-looking curves.  The fairways should gradually widen out where a long drive goes;  in this way a long driver is given a little more latitude in pulling and slicing.

‘The difficulties that make a hole really interesting are usually those in which a great advantage can be gained in successfully accomplishing heroic carries over hazards of an impressive appearance, or in taking great risks in placing a shot so as to gain a big advantage for the next.  Successfully carrying or skirting a bunker of an alarming or impressive appearance is always a source of satisfaction to the golfer, and yet it is hazards of this description which so often give rise to criticism by the unsuccessful player.’

‘In an ideal hole, there should not only be a big advantage from successfully negotiating a long carry for the tee shot, but the longer the drive, the greater the advantage should be.  An ideal hole should provide an infinite variety of shots according to varying positions of the tee, the situation of the flag, the direction and strength of the wind.’

‘We can, I think, eliminate difficulties consisting of long grass, narrow fairways, and small greens, because of the annoyance and irritation caused by searching for lost balls, the disturbance of the harmony and continuity of the game, the consequent loss of freedom of swing, and the producing of bad players.’

Bruce Hepner:

‘Many golfers believe that widening a course will make it easier. This may be true for high handicappers, but wide angles can make the course more difficult for better players. Less skilled players are afforded room to enjoy their round and better golfers are provided strategic options that induce thought and, in turn, make for a more sporting game. The weak players may shoot 98 instead of 103. Theres nothing wrong with that.

Geoff Shackelford, reiterates that classic architects built holes:

‘… where there was no right way or clear way to play them. If there was a ‘right way, certainly there was never an agreement of opinion. Many restorationists claim that there are two necessary ingredients to recapture original designs, undulating green complexes and extreme fairway widths, the latter of which is most essential. Wide fairways create ‘mystery, variety, strategy, options, and choices and further encourage thought, decision-making, shoemaking, and recovery play. These elements have all but diminished today with much narrower fairway widths. Tee shots are forced to the center, and any lateral alternatives are too penal for its reward. The only right way to play the hole is straight. How uninteresting and monotonous.

Jack Nicklaus:

“Pinehurst #2 is the best course I know of from a tree-usage standpoint.  Its a totally tree-lined golf course without one tree in the playing strategy of that golf course.  I love what Donald Ross used to do at Pinehurst.  Every year Ross would walk through the trees and say, ‘that tree has gotten too big; you cant play a recovery shot from there any more.  Take that tree out and that tree out and cut the branches of that one.  Then if you hit it in there, you could get in and play a recovery shot back out.  Too many trees prevent recovery shots, and I think the recovery shot is a wonderful part of the game.”

Ron Forse:

‘Permanent ground features dictate design, not trees, (unless an old oak, or such, can be used).  Many courses are now going to the expense to remove trees, and the lesson is use them sparingly.  Safety is an important use for trees, and improperly placed trees destroy design intent.’

‘A good golf course is one that tests the golfer’s wit as well as his ball-striking ability.  Strategy requires a golfer to put varying values on his successive shots on a golf hole.  If a golfer risks a hazard on the tee shot he should be rewarded with an easier approach shot to the green.  Strategy implies alternative routes from the tee to the green.  This mean that the golf hole should be sufficiently wide to give players choices of direction.  The golfer may choose to hit around trouble but has a proportionally lesser chance at par if he does so.  The bunkering and other hazards thus come into play for the bogey golfer as well as the scratch golfer.  The beauty of the strategic design is that the bogey golfer can enjoy his round as much as the scratch golfer.  Also, these strategic courses are forever enjoyable for every golfers ability.’

Reed Mackenzie, USGA President (2002 Golf Digest/October):

‘I hate them.  Why? Three reasons, really:  the agronomics (Trees end up costing you a lot of money; you get areas where you can’t grow grass), the emotions they stir, (People become attached to trees, and their attachment is irrational) and the practical realities (Trees get diseased and fall down).

Dr. Brad Klein:

‘Trees should play no more than a framing role on a golf hole. On linkslands they play none, on parkland they usually play more, but I think it is overdone. For the most part, trees are hopelessly overused to create – or destroy – strategy and to block out the ground features. The occasional overhanging hardwood on the inside of a dogleg is tolerable once a round, but never more, and only if there is room around it to play. Trees with memorial tree-planting programs are hopeless. Clubs that trim their trees back are flailing at the wind. Wholesale removal is the only way to go.’

‘Nothing is more frustrating for the advocate of a restoration project than having to face dozens of fellow home club golfers who think no changes are needed. “Dont fix it unless its broke,” hell be told. “We love our course just the way it is.” “Its always been like that, dont mess with it.” “The trees are the best part of our course.  Each of these oft-uttered clichés is evidence of ignorance.’

‘Tree management is crucial to good turf quality. That usually means tree removal. Without getting into the details of arbor care, suffice it to say that any restoration effort has to focus on tree management, and the best way to defend this objective (knowing how much people love their trees) is to make a case for the healthy turfgrass that will be produced.’

Tom Doak (excerpted from ‘Anatomy of a Golf Course’):

  • Avoid planting trees to the inside corner of a dogleg hole or even near typical landing areas. These positions undermine the principles of strategy and shot making.
  • Avoid planting trees too close to the playing areas, especially tees and greens, because of turf-grass issues.
  • If necessary, plant trees between typical hitting areas and typical landing areas, so long as they do not affect playability.
  • Avoid filling up every open space with new trees.
  • Avoid planting new trees too close to sand bunkers or other hazards. Such would create a double hazard for the golfer to avoid.

‘The same club members who tell me that taking down a tree or expanding a green will make the course “too easy” will turn right around the next minute and tell me that restoring a cross bunker would make the course “too difficult’.

David Oatis (USGA Agronomist):Trees are an integral part of many courses and can perform a variety of valuable functions. Trees can add definition and strategy, improve safety, and add a wonderful naturalizing quality to the landscape. However, trees can also wreak havoc on golf courses. Between the shade and reduced air circulation caused by their canopies, and the competition caused by their root systems, trees can make it physically impossible to grow healthy turfgrass. They can cause severe play- ability problems. USGA Green Section agronomists have for years agreed: Trees are the leading cause of turf- grass failure and poor performance in North America’.


Special thanks to Jon Cavalier and Robin Hiseman for their photo contributions.


Proper tree watering 101,

In praise of width, Tyler Kearns,

The Hidden Cost of Trees, David Oatis,

Man’s friend or Enemy, David Oatis,

Using technology to solve and old problem: Trees, David Oatis,

A guide for selecting and planting golf course trees, Jim Skorulski,

The pitch for preservation, Dunlop White III,

Trees – The biggest problem of golf course turf, James Snow,

Below the Trees, Dunlop White III,

The cutting edge, Dunlop White III,

Wide Open – A new angle on Width, Tom Ferrell, Mark Fine,

The role of the Green Chairmen, Dr. Paul Rowe,

The End