Re-thinking Trees on Golf Courses

“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree…”
-Trees, Joyce Kilmer

With apologies to Joyce Kilmer, I’m having some issues with trees.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed too many courses, including some championship venues, are neglecting and putting a blind eye to how their trees are impacting play. It’s not uncommon to find one’s shot on a par-three to be partially blocked by overgrown limbs and branches reducing the effective path to the pin. I faced this scenario last September at a top private course in Michigan and it completely baffled me how the members tolerated it. Later in the round, a scenic and challenging par-five was reduced to being ludicrous when one’s third shot to the green had to thread the needle between overhanging branches from both sides of the fairway! In effect, the fairway and path to the green was narrowed down to only a few paces. If one were taking a mere hike in the woods one would marvel at the picturesque and venerable hardwoods and that would be fine. But there’s a game here and you’re keeping score.

When discussing overgrown trees with golfers during a round, this question often comes up: is this what the architect and designer really intended for this hole way back when? Invariably the answer is “no;” the hole and its inherent shot value didn’t change, only its surrounding environment which is a living, organic thing. As with any landscape or garden, golf courses need to be pruned and trimmed and in some cases their trees need to be removed for the good of the course, the turf and the game itself.

This point was sharpened last October when I was visiting the Philadelphia (PA) area and had the good fortune to play several fine courses in the area. Most notable was Saucon Valley CC in Bethlehem which has hosted a slew of USGA championships including the ’09 U.S. Women’s Open. What I hadn’t known about Saucon Valley, once owned by the Bethlehem Steel Co., is what a huge golf village it is, with three excellent courses (two of which are in the Top 100) on over 850 woodsy acres. With one of the largest private club memberships in the country, it still boasts over 1100 members. And in spite of The Great Recession, it’s even built a new Health and Fitness Center!

I played the Old Course, designed in 1920 by the respected yet unsung architect Herbert Strong (who also did the Engineers Club on Long Island and Canterbury GC in Cleveland) and with a deft touch-up and updating in recent years by Tom Fazio. It’s an exceptional golf course, marked by subtle shotmaking demands over gently rolling terrain ideal for its walking and caddie ethos. It’s no surprise it has hosted so many national championships. But what struck me most about it–besides the bright white sand (brought in two years before the Open) that punctuated the layout’s exquisite bunkering– was how the property had been so expertly managed and pruned. I can’t recall a single tree or limb that blocked or spoiled a good shot off the tee or into the green. And this is a golf course with lots of large and majestic trees, going back—I thought—several generations.

But in paging through Saucon Valley’s impressive club history, I noticed identical side by side aerial shots of the course taken 24 years apart. In 1926, the Old Course looked like a links course with hardly any trees on the layout. Taken again in 1950, one sees the same routing and holes but now with trees aplenty over the layout. In reading through the club’s meticulous timeline, meeting minutes described trees being planted in 1922, 1924 and 1930. So the layout was transformed not in some random and sacrosanct fashion by Mother Nature but by club’s leadership and staff with a plan in mind. Moreover, the trees were smartly planted far off the fairway and the rough line affording wide and player-friendly corridors off of the tee. And over the years, the Course Superintendent (Jim Roney) and staff have been vigilant in its trimming and pruning efforts.

So the point of all of this is to see a golf course not as some protected “domain” for trees. Instead, let’s see it as an ever-growing landscape that requires a player’s and a superintendent’s attention with a common sense perspective to the game.

Notice how trees are present but pruned at Saucon Valley

One Response to “Re-thinking Trees on Golf Courses”

  1. Marc rabinowitz

    Member at lake forest cc 20 miles south of Canterbury in Hudson, Ohio. It is a wonderful Herbert strong which we are about to start our 5 year renovation program to bring it back. I am a golf course rater under brad Klein at golfweek and have played many Herbert strong including my favorite green complexes at Ehgineers. If you are in the Cleveland area, please contact me and I want to invite you to Lv and my favorite Ross course in canton,oh named Brookside with wild , original Ross greens.

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