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Ryan Leaf asks, ‘Why are some courses taking down beautiful trees now?’

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer


Just as men and women differ, as documented in "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus," there are equally wide differences in perception between golfers and superintendents regarding golf course trees. That book might be called, "Members Love Trees, Superintendents Love . . . Chainsaws?

Most golfers treat the loss of a tree like a death in the family, agreeing to tree removal only when a particular tree often penalizes them. Superintendents, however, are always looking for opportunities to – ahem – increase their firewood stock.*

This golf gulf wasn't always so wide. Transplanted Scots sought to replicate familiar treeless seaside links on early American courses, and used trees reluctantly. Eventually, American courses felt the influence of the "City Beautiful" movement, which emphasized parks and tree planting to naturalize growing cities. For the rest of the 20th Century, tree-planting dominated many clubs, filling in every conceivable gap between fairways. Only recently have clubs seen the long-term results of a century of tree planting: As those trees mature, they crowd and narrow our fairways.** And clubs are reversing the trend.

Certainly, trees are both beautiful and necessary on most golf courses. But, when overabundant, the game loses intrigue and turfgrass suffers.

The agronomic problems are summed up by one veteran superintendent as, "Do you want to grow turf or trees?" Similarly, when asked if a particular tree shading a green could be saved, one golf course architect replied, "Sure. Where do you want the logs stacked?"

The old saying, "It's not nice (or possible) to fool Mother Nature" applies. Turf needs six hours of unfettered sunlight daily, preferably in the morning period! Without it, highly trafficked areas inevitably decline.

Solar charts show that sun angles are higher in Southern regions. In Texas, I clear about a 1:1 ratio of tree mature height, while in Minnesota, the ratio is 2:1 (i.e., 100 feet east-northeast for 50-foot-high trees) and even further on early holes to minimize frost delays in shoulder seasons.

Golf is actually less interesting on narrow fairways. There is excessive and redundant emphasis on tee-shot accuracy. Strategy is reduced. Recovery is usually a sideways chip shot, rather than a dramatic "Talk about it in the 19th hole" shot. Narrow fairways with "good definition" actually play easier, while wide fairways create options that confuse golfers, challenging them mentally, rather than physically. Aesthetically, fewer trees offer a chance for long vistas.

Whoever coined the phrase, "Too much of a good thing," may have been thinking of golf course trees!

* I do know of a superintendent who named his chainsaws "Thunder" and "Lightning" so that he could honestly tell members that "thunder and lightning" got their favorite tree. On new construction sites, there have been occasional "construction accidents." More than one master plan has had math errors – "Oh, I guess we really took out 243 trees, not 143."

** If only America's waistlines were narrowing as much as her fairways!