Counting down the best trees—yes, trees!—in professional golf
One way or another, you might be looking for a bit of serenity this week, and let me tell you that nothing is quite as serene as the noble tree. There’s something ancient and calming in a tree, something both vibrantly alive and remote, and that’s why when I’m out on the PGA Tour, I’m never far from my handy Sibley Guide. Give me a few free minutes, and I’m heading out to identify (or, as is often the case, fail to identify) some unfamiliar species. I’m no more than a hobbyist, but it’s the kind of simple kick that gets more appealing the older and more boring I get.
My explorations have been ongoing since 2013, which might make me the most qualified person in the world (at least top 100) to present this list of the professional golf’s best trees. Let’s dedicate it, with the delayed Masters a week away, to the memory of the Eisenhower Tree at Augusta National, which was gorgeous and historic and sadly fell to the ravages of an ice storm in 2014. RIP, mighty pine. (And perhaps we can also include the top-secret rumored appearance of a brand new tree on the 13th hole of that hallowed course. Stay tuned.)
We start the countdown to No. 1 with:
10. Palm Trees — Waialae Country Club, Honolulu
This is the one tree on this list that I haven’t seen in person, and I was tempted to include the palm trees I have seen, be they at PGA National or the Blue Monster in Doral. But while the coconut palms you see at Waialae are not, in fact, native to Hawaii, they’re somehow more iconic in that setting. Go figure. Golf Digest published a story in 2012 about the famous W palms on the shores of Maunalua Bay, and all over the course the tall, swaying trees make for a great visual against the blue blue Pacific water.
9. Strangler Figs — Trump National Doral (Fla.)
Officially called the banyan tree, the strangler fig struck me the minute I drove onto the grounds of where they played a PGA Tour event for nearly five decades because of the roots. Look at these roots! It’s like something out of Grimms’ fairy tales … you almost expect them to start reaching out to pull you in. There are palms and bischofias and java plums and more on the Blue Monster, which do a passable job of disguising the general shopping mall vibe of Doral, but it’s the strangler figs with their intertwined spindly roots that are the most memorable.
8. Saguaro Cacti — TPC Scottsdale
Is a cactus a tree? To hear the scientists tell it, no, and the scientists are usually right. However, I’m going to bend the definition here, because the cacti I’ve seen at Scottsdale and at Dove Mountain when the WGC-Match Play was there are among the most visually impressive tree-like plants I’ve seen anywhere. The cactus has a raw power, a kind of irresistible and dangerous allure. Special honorable mention shout-out to the low palo verde trees and the jumping cholla, which complete the desert landscape and make you feel like you’re on a different planet.
7. Brendon Todd's Hackberry tree — Four Seasons Resort, Irving, Texas (13th hole)
The only individual tree on this list is not especially remarkable to look at, and it stands on a course that is no longer in use for the AT&T Byron Nelson (and the tour is better for it), but I’m using No. 7 as my sentimental choice. In 2014, I watched Brendon Todd hit the most remarkable shot I’ve ever seen in person under the tensest circumstances. At the 13th hole, his ball came to rest against a hackberry tree, and he made the absolutely lunatic choice to chip it onto the green by taking a left-handed stance and hitting the ball with the literal back of the club head. Somehow, it worked, he made par, and he won the tournament. This hackberry will always remind me of that act of brilliant madness.
6. Jacaranda — Royal Melbourne
I have a soft spot in my heart for low, gnarled trees, and when they have a great name like “jacaranda” and when they have gorgeous purple blooms and decorate a course as cool as Royal Melbourne, I’m sold. The most notable tree at Royal Melbourne actually comes later in this list, and like that tree this one is an import. (South American, in this case, hence the name). But it works so well and looks so perfect in the arid landscape, among the wallaby grass and heath and stipa and sword sedge, that it already holds a special place in Melbourne life.
5. Pine — Pinehurst/Augusta National
It’s hard not to mention the Augusta loblolly pines, but truth be told, I like the combination of loblollies and longleaf pines a little better at Pinehurst, where they rise from the dry, hard-baked Carolina Sandhills, competing with the dunes that remain from when this land was a beach. The trees themselves are massive and fragrant, and it also happens to be the state tree of North Carolina … just the pine itself, mind you, not any specific species. That’s because, and I quote, “the 1963 legislature decided not to favor one at the expense of the other seven.” As a North Carolina resident, believe me when I tell you that’s the nicest thing the state legislature has ever done. The pine is special here.
4. Pecan Tree — Colonial Country Club
The pecan is an institution at Colonial, so much so that Dan Jenkins called them “old” 49 years ago in Sports Illustrated. With a thick trunk and spreading, standing amid the cottonwoods and cedar elms and red river oaks, it’s the state tree of Texas, and it’s inextricably tied with the Fort Worth tournament itself, Jenkins and even Ben Hogan. Plus, it makes a great pie, even if southerners pronounce it the wrong way.
3. Live Oaks — Sea Island Resort
The words “southern gothic” were made for this tree, and while the live oak succeeds on its own merits, let’s be honest, it’s the pale white Spanish moss that puts it over the top. There’s nothing quite so eerie, beautiful and positively antebellum as Spanish moss on a live oak on Georgia’s barrier islands, and perhaps no tree except the No. 1 entry on this list makes you viscerally feel your surroundings in quite the same way.
2. Eucalyptus — Riviera Country Club
Riviera is a goldmine for trees, with palms, magnolias, ashy, gnarled sycamores, and a sweetgum named for Humphrey Bogart, who apparently sat by its trunk watching the pros play. But it’s the eucalyptus that lingers in the memory, for its size and especially the bracing, minty smell of the leaves, which is stronger when the wind blows and which makes you feel strangely invigorated. In my perfect world, I’d have a home with a courtyard stocked with gardenia and eucalyptus, and live in an olfactory paradise. Riviera is a gem, but I’m convinced it’s the eucalyptus that gives it the L.A.-area course special magic.
1. Monterey Cypress — Pebble Beach
The best tree in golf, and deservedly famous. I can’t think of anything so starkly appealing as a Monterey cypress viewed at the top of a cliff, the gray Pacific in the background, jagged and hard and of the darkest possible green, growing sideways against the constant wind. It’s such a stunning tree that it was adopted by Royal Melbourne, and works almost as well there. But nothing can compare to seeing the Cypress in their native peninsula at Pebble—the only place in the world where it grows naturally, which makes it all the more unique. The species is best epitomized by the famous “lone cypress,” a tree so special that it has survived storms and fire and still remains on its granite outcrop on 17-Mile Drive.
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