Tree removal has been at the heart of golf-course architecture for the past few decades. Has the game finally arrived at its natural balance?

[PHOTO: Gary Lisbon]

In the early 1990s, Oakmont Country Club, revered as one of America’s greatest courses and host of 14 men’s and women’s Majors, was covered in trees. Each hole was shrouded in a cloak of timber and leaf, the views of other holes almost non-existent.

The members – at least most of them – loved it that way. They and their predecessors had spent decades enhancing the course through beautification programs, planting trees by the hundreds. Although originally built in the early 1900s to resemble a links on barren, broken farmland, Oakmont had gradually matured into a prototype of parkland golf.

Not everyone believed the forestation of the course was a good thing. Shortly after Larry Nelson won the US Open there in 1983, former long-time head professional Bob Ford took the Oakmont greens committee out to the first hole to demonstrate how overgrown and invasive the trees had become. He climbed into a fairway bunker and asked them to stand behind to see what kind of shot a player in that position faced.

“I had to hit out of the bunker and over a tree to get to the green,” he says, “and the tree was 50 feet tall by then. I looked at the grounds chairman to get his reaction, and he said, ‘You know, Bob’s right – we need to take that bunker out.’”

Ford cringed. As A.W. Tillinghast, creator of Oakmont’s peers such as Winged Foot, Baltusrol and San Francisco Golf Club once proclaimed, “The necessity of lofting over a barrier of trees cannot be countenanced.”

Such is the affection that people, and not just golfers, develop with trees. Despite the negative impact on playability and turf conditions, nothing happened to that or any other tree at Oakmont for nearly a decade. Even by 1993, with a president and greens committee in place who were vested in returning the course to its pre-sylvan roots, the sentiment of the membership had yet to step out of the shade. Under the cover of darkness, with the support of Ford and a small team of club leaders, superintendent Mark Kuhns and crews began to stealthily take down select trees.

“We had a team that would go out at 4:30 in the morning, cut ’em down and take ’em out, and by 6:30 there wasn’t a leaf out of place, only sod where the roots used to be,” Ford says. The gradual clearing started small, but over time became more determined.
“Then we got caught,” Ford says. “The caddies ratted us out.”

Those caddies, who knew the course as well as anyone, noticed the new sod regularly being laid down in the rough. They began searching for new patches during their loops, and eventually the word trickled into the membership. Oakmont’s covert tree removal program, now exposed, escalated into a pitched battle between those who wanted the course restored and those who wanted to preserve the wooded character. Eventually, as the peeled vistas began to reveal startling benefits, the restorationists persevered.

Between 1993 and 2015, with superintendent John Zimmers continuing the program, every tree that might impede a golf shot or a view across the property had been taken down, totalling more than 12,000, save for one solitary American elm next to the third tee. The culling improved the agronomy and allowed playing strategies that had long been constricted to breathe again. More importantly, it uncovered the property’s dazzling array of ditches, beautiful slopes and tiers that most didn’t realise, or didn’t remember, existed yet are such vital elements of its architecture.

The denuding of Oakmont had ramifications that reverberated beyond the banks of the Allegheny River. It initiated a conversation among clubs, superintendents, architects and historians about the purpose of trees on golf courses. If a landmark of Oakmont’s stature, long known for its trees, found such treasure in stripping them away, what was to stop other courses from doing the same? Chainsaws have been buzzing ever since.

The first move almost any architect prescribes today when consulting with older clubs is to begin paring back trees. This is always done in the name of healthier fairways and greens – trees compete with grass by blocking sunlight, impeding airflow and drinking up soil nutrients. Heavy canopies can also interfere with intended hole strategies.

In practical terms, the deforestation of Oakmont was the beginning of a new movement of tree removal that has infiltrated almost every level of renovation. Dozens of layouts followed, with leafy glades yielding to breezy panoramas. During the 2020 remodel of Congressional’s Blue course, site of the 1964, 1997 and 2011 US Opens, holes once bordered by hardwood groves now flow through undulations of short fescue grasses punctuated by only occasional copses of remaining wood. Members can stand on the second green at one end of the course and see more than a kilometre across to the 16th green. Oak Hill’s East course, site of the 2023 PGA Championship, Essex County Club, a Donald Ross design from 1917 in Massachusetts, and Philadelphia Cricket Club’s Wissahickon course have all enacted tree harvests that have altered their character in breathtaking but beneficial ways.

In Australia, golf courses’ relationship with trees is likewise chequered. Early tree-planting in many cases at our top golf courses was either overzealous, poorly chosen, ill-thought out, or a combination of all three. In a lot of instances, the trees selected were exotic – usually European, as the thinking was they were superior and more sophisticated than those of the wild Aussie bush. Using such trees to create a desired golf landscape was also often reminiscent of the homelands of those making the decisions. Yet it was also too often a shortsighted way of sprucing up a course.

“The best golf courses in Australia have all had trees planted at some stage that were non-local,” says Sydney-based golf course architect Harley Kruse, who also specialises in vegetation management and landscaping.

“The mindset of the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, pre-war and post-war was: how do you beautify a course? You planted trees.

“Despite the natural vegetation – I’m talking Sandbelt-type places where the natural vegetation was beautiful flora – planting a small Epacris heath plant that only grew to a metre tall didn’t have the same satisfaction as the planting of trees, which would obviously, within a couple of decades, make a big difference.

“Even Royal Melbourne, East and West in the early days, they planted cypresses and pine trees in part to make the courses look a bit more European. They were tough enough to grow in those locations without any irrigation or too much care, so Metropolitan, Kingston Heath, Commonwealth, Yarra Yarra, they all suffered from some malaligned tree planting at some stage in their history and the generations today are dealing with it, or not dealing with it.”

That’s the situation at the top-echelon courses, but what about the high-traffic layouts that everyday golfers play? The problem is almost entirely a shared one. Kruse says that, in general, tree planting was historically done to fill gaps between holes as much as for beautification purposes. The unanticipated result of these fulsome, treelined fairways – apart from severely restricted playing lines – is often excessive shade and reduced airflow, neither of which does anything for the quality of the turf playing surfaces.

Trees also have a way of impacting a golf course in glacial fashion and regular visitors to the same courses don’t always notice the gradual encroachment of a canopy that strangles a certain playing line or the slow impact of increased shade covering a green or tee.

“Any treed golf course that is older than 50 years – in other words, mid-’60s and prior – today will have a tree problem to deal with,” Kruse says. “And they all do. It’s all about how these trees have now reached maturity and they’re over-mature and going into senescence and what to do. Or they were planted too close to the golf, and they matured and now they’re closing in golf holes. Australia is full of golf courses that have got to have trees taken out of them because the trees are either on the stage or too close to the stage and compromising the golf. There are also trees that as they age will begin to fail and be a serious hazard and a risk to golfers and staff. Golf courses are needing to acknowledge and manage these issues.”

Then comes the emotional attachment. As happened at Oakmont, the removal of trees seems to draw the most angst from club members, sometimes even after explaining how retaining them is negatively impacting the course. “You knock out a few shrubs and no one cares; you knock out a big tree and out of the broad church of a typical golf club, you’re going to get someone who’ll be against it,” Kruse says.

The reasons for opposition are varied. Often it’s simply a general resistance to change. Occasionally it’s a club’s better golfers who equate tree removal with ‘dumbing down’ the challenge factor and think the course will play too easy. Kruse references one New South Wales club where he provided a course masterplan that included a healthy dose of declining radiata pine tree removal and was met with the ‘it’ll be too easy’ response. Researching further, Kruse discovered that the ever-encroaching treelines led to the mowing lines also tightening over time, so what he was suggesting was merely to restore the fairway widths and return the course to something closer to its origins (which is often the main reason to take out trees at any course).

“Do you reckon the scores came down?” Kruse asks. “No they didn’t. But was it a more user-friendly golf course for the higher handicapper? Yes, it was. They weren’t having to hit out sideways or get caught up with trees, as the trees were out of the way. You could play the golf course as it was originally intended.

“A lot of trees get planted and people have no concept of the scale the trees get to. Golf courses are full of well-intentioned tree planting to beautify the course, but they haven’t understood the horticultural implications of that choice of tree in that location and, ultimately, 20, 30, 40, 50 years down the track, people and golf courses have inherited the problems of the wrong tree and the wrong place.”

A case in point is Royal Sydney, where Kruse is working as the landscape architect in the club’s upcoming Gil Hanse redesign. The esteemed club’s Championship course was once open, sandy and featured coastal floral heath. In 1949, on the bequeath of a member, an intensive tree-planting program took place. Within two decades, it went from an open, ‘heathy’ layout to a parkland golf course with the loss of the heath flora that couldn’t survive under the trees. When Peter Thomson and Mike Wolveridge were called in to redesign the course in the 1980s – likewise with Ross Watson 20 or so years after them – they were briefed to work within the existing corridors of trees. In other words, they weren’t to be touched, so any course architect had their insights and plans dictated by trees that had no right being there in such volume or such positions.

“These were trees of a mixed species that didn’t even belong to the sandy site at Rose Bay,” Kruse says. “They were well-intentioned but misguided tree plantings sponsored by a doctor member out of generosity and wanting to beautify the golf course. But only two decades later, presidents and captains of that era were lamenting the loss of the character of Royal Sydney, lamenting the loss of an open links character and all the beautiful ground flora that was once there that attracted all the bird life – all lost because of this tree planting.”

Fortunately, the course has turned a corner with Hanse and Kruse working with the club to revive much of the site’s former biodiversity. Their work will also include replenishment of the course with new trees, but more suitable local species planted in the right places.
The in-vogue quest for many course architects performing restoration work is to remain true to a layout’s origins. As many of Australia’s classic golf courses near or even pass the century mark, turning to the past paves the way to the future. Trees and vegetation form a sizeable part of plans to restore any course’s former glory, with clues often revealed in old photographs. While some trees – usually those flanking boundaries – are planted with the intention to grow, the vast majority are there for peripheral purposes only.

That was the case at Victoria Golf Club, where Mike Clayton was part of the team that assessed the venerable course’s vegetation as part of a successful renovation late last decade. However, the short stuff was analysed with equal scrutiny as the tall timber. “The heathlands at Victoria are increasingly the most important parts of the course vegetation,” Clayton says.

Clayton’s relationship with trees on golf courses is widely known. Sometimes unfairly nicknamed “Chainsaw” for his supposed penchant for taking out trees, Clayton is in fact a staunch supporter of trees on golf courses – in the right places. He’s another disciple of the ‘trees shouldn’t be on the stage’ movement and there’s no question that the courses where he has suggested tree removal are better off from a playability and agronomy perspective.

“It depends on what the problem is with the tree,” Clayton says. “Is it interfering with the architecture – so is it on ‘the stage’? There are almost no trees on the stage at Royal Melbourne. They’re peripheral things off to the side that add to the beauty of it, they don’t interfere with the golf. The golf is built around the hazards on the ground.”

Clayton and most course architects scrutinise trees by asking whether a certain hole would be better without a certain tree. That question is posed mainly from an architectural vantage but also accounts for other factors such as turf health and any safety concerns.

“We’ve never lost a tree argument. Ever,” Clayton says of discussing the merits of individual trees with golf clubs. “Because we made a sensible case. The people who criticise me for ‘hating’ trees or wanting to cut trees down, well, show me a picture of a hole – the before and after – and tell me which hole is better. There’s not one tree ever I regret cutting down because in every instance the golf was better for the tree going.

“The other thing is, people never see the trees you plant,” Clayton adds, referencing the hundreds of Coastal Manna gums added to Victoria but planted well away from the playing lines.

Clayton, like Kruse, recognises there’s deep history in the tree malaise. Selecting European species all those decades ago was the first error in judgement but later came an overplanting of even native trees, which was another mistake golf clubs often made. “What relevance do trees from Coffs Harbour or Bega or Margaret River have in Melbourne, for example?” Clayton asks. “There was no reverence for what was growing there before the golf course was there.”

The pair are also in agreement that, when it comes to the Melbourne Sandbelt, it’s all about the little plants. The heathland plants have tended to be suffocated by ti tree, which Peter Thomson used to call a “creeping weed”, and the heathland areas have only flourished in recent years by removing the ti tree.

“Ti tree is another revered-in-some-circles plant on the Sandbelt, but it smothers all the great little plants that are so important to the texture and feel and look and contrast of the golf course,” Clayton says.

More lessons came with the 2018-2019 redesign of the North course at Peninsula Kingswood by OCCM. With a reputation as the best vegetated golf course on the Sandbelt – perhaps in the country – the re-unveiling of the North’s purely indigenous vegetation gave others a model by which to plan all future works.

Australian course architects ask clubs to ponder another question when it comes to examining the validity of trees: if you removed the tree or trees in question and never knew they’d been there, would you think planting a tree in the same spot was an improvement to the hole? Almost without exception, the answer is ‘no’.

All of which calls into question the reasons behind retaining or removing trees and the decisions and emotions behind the potential extraction of something that in some cases has stood for a century. For golf clubs, often the difficult decision is the correct one.

Mike Clayton wanted to remove the sprawling gum left of the first fairway at Royal Canberra, but couldn’t win that battle. [Photo: Gary Lisbon]

However appropriate the taking down of trees might be, it doesn’t quell a deep emotional opposition to it. For most golfers there is nothing comforting – at first – about seeing the sacking of familiar friends.

Large trees possess a satisfying primordial presence, on golf courses or elsewhere. Strolls over beaches and meadows can be pleasant, but for more soul-searching hikes we seek the solitude of forests and the partnership of trees. The woods take us in and pass us through, covering us in blinking glimpses of scenery, their air filled with the swish of wind and the scent of new buds, sap and pine. What is golf, at its best, but a wondrous hike with nature.

There can even be sport in it when a tree appears to have stymied our shot. “Most of the best inland courses owe their popularity to the grouping of trees,” wrote Alister MacKenzie. “Groups of trees, planted irregularly, create most fascinating golf, and give players many opportunities of showing their skill and judgment in slicing, pulling round or attempting to loft over them.”

In this view the act of chopping them can seem purely destructive, like the wrecking of a beneficial if not sacred ecosystem. Trees and woods are critical to the sustainability of our environment. They capture carbon, help cool urban areas and provide shelter and habitats for wildlife. Golf courses account for the largest green spaces in many cities. More trees are needed at this moment, not fewer.

What makes tree removal efforts in golf so widespread is not antipathy towards trees. Rather, it’s what is needed. The land beneath most of North America’s historic courses was not naturally wooded. The trees being cut now were added during beautification sprees much like Oakmont’s and Royal Sydney’s throughout the middle of the 20th century. Aerial photographs from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s show how scarce trees were on courses built in those decades.

Much of American golf came to life on land that had been cleared for agricultural reasons or on prairies and other open spaces. Courses we have long considered synonymous with parkland fairways were largely bereft of significant tree cover, from Westchester Country Club in New York to Laurel Valley in Pennsylvania, from Interlachen in Minneapolis to Baltusrol, Inverness and Merion. Even Pine Valley, the ideal of hole-to-hole isolation, was sparsely populated by spindly, half-grown pines.

Almost as soon as the grass was growing, however, members at American clubs from coast to coast began garnishing holes with trees. Settings with broad, stark horizons were rarely considered desirable, and it was taken as a matter of faith that trees lent beauty to courses and thus made them better. This notion was widely shared, including among many of the best architectural minds of the classical era.

“From a landscape point of view, you can get greater value from tree planting on a dull piece of land than from any other form of work,” wrote Charles Alison, partner of Harry S. Colt and designer of Huntingdale here, plus Milwaukee Country Club, Kirtland, Bob O’Link and the first nine at Sea Island (among others) in America, though he did advise against placing them where they might block desirable views. Donald Ross, like Tillinghast, resisted placing them in the line of play and urged restraint when clearing them. “There is no need to ruthlessly cut down everything before us,” he said. “We must go about this tree matter carefully, else we will have a barren, devastated appearance on many of our courses.”

In spite of protestations against the interference of shots, no architect of the era expressed a greater love of trees than Tillinghast. “I find one of the greatest joys of my profession in working among the trees, for I cannot conceive of an inland course without them. Indeed, I like many,” he said. “To some, one tree is very like another. To others its influence is as satisfying as anything a round of golf may provide.”

As golf moved deeper into the countryside, often necessitating forays into woods, tree clearing became a crucial element of construction. Tillinghast noted this allowed the discerning architect to bring into view the most prominent trees by cutting away less sturdy neighbours. “Judgement [must] be used in removing trees, to the end that every possible beauty be featured so long as it does not interfere with the sound play of the game,” he wrote. He was particularly fond of the noble varieties – hickories, elms, sycamores and oaks – so much that he often had to make himself “absent during the execution” when the timbering of a particularly impressive creature could not be avoided.

In the post-World War II years, tree-planting became frenzied and took hold of nearly every old club or city course. Some hired landscape architects to advise on species and placement, but more often committees and greenkeepers took it upon themselves to arrange their saplings and seed, often in crowded, linear rows. These superfluous trees are typically the first to be taken out, clearing the way for other specimens to take prominence. As the old architects recognised, removing clutter and green noise accentuates what’s left behind.

Oakmont’s night moves may be regarded as the genesis of the modern tree-reduction movement but will also be the exception. Few courses have had the motivation or historical justification Oakmont did for such total tree reversal. Elsewhere, the pruning is more judicious, with the goal of producing healthier turf, more room to play and to showcase the exemplary species that most inspire us. Trees are a part of golf. Without them the game is less diverse and frequently less attractive. What the past 20 years has taught golf is how to better appreciate the long-lived, majestic trees that make courses unique – not by accoutrement and crowding but by giving them and the air around them the space they deserve.