Courses

the last stand

The best trees in golf

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?
October 04, 2022

In the early 1990s, Oakmont Country Club, revered as one of the nation’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 U.S. Open there in 1983, former longtime head professional Bob Ford took the Oakmont green 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.”

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SLEEPY HOLLOW COUNTRY CLUB

18TH HOLE

Scarborough-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Clearing away a group of non-deciduous trees about five years ago revealed the full majesty of the sugar maple poised on the right side of the fairway, its shapely canopy spanning nearly 100 feet from tip to tip. The fairway slopes toward it, so drives need to be nudged up the left to avoid interference—otherwise second shots will have little chance of reaching the elevated green framed against the clubhouse.

Alan Pittman

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 green 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.”

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DIABLO COUNTRY CLUB • 18TH HOLE

Diablo, Calif.

There were few rules in the early days of American golf design, evidenced by Diablo’s par-5 18th. When Jack Neville (later of Pebble Beach fame) built the hole in 1915, he left five oaks directly between tee and green. They have matured into majestic specimens (one shown above) that can pinball golf shots if avenues between them are not correctly mapped. Architects since have occasionally positioned singular trees in fairways, but the five at Diablo’s 18th seem from another time. Photo by Adam Joseph Wells

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, totaling more than 12,000, save one solitary American elm next to the third tee. The culling improved the agronomics 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 realize, 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 on America’s 100 Greatest and Second 100 Greatest Courses rankings followed, with leafy glades yielding to breezy panoramas. During the 2020 remodel of Congressional’s Blue Course, site of the 1964, 1997 and 2011 U.S. 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 nearly a mile 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 Manchester, Mass., and Philadelphia Cricket Club’s Wissahickon Course have all enacted tree harvests that have altered their character in breathtaking but beneficial ways. At other places, like Southern Hills in Tulsa and Cherry Hills in Denver, the deletion has been more surgical but no less transformative.

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PRAIRIE DUNES COUNTRY CLUB

12TH HOLE

Hutchinson, Kan.

Cottonwoods typically thrive on the banks of rivers and streams, but here they rise from the dry sand hills of central Kansas. Two imposing clusters flanked 70 yards short of the green at this short par 4 serve as gates crashing shut. If drives aren’t positioned precisely to allow for shots to pass cleanly through, approaches will have to be punched low under their branches.

Chase Castor

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.

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BULLS BAY GOLF CLUB

15TH HOLE

Awendaw, S.C.

Using trees as strategic lynchpins is risky because they can be felled by weather or disease, but for this par 4, architect Mike Strantz employed two ancient live oaks staggered near the green to create provocative decisions on the downhill tee shot: Play well right toward the water to get a clear inside angle around the first oak or aim left for a safer drive but a longer approach between them.

Clint Davis

What makes tree removal efforts in golf so widespread is not antipathy toward 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 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 clubs 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 Milwaukee Country Club, Kirtland, Bob O’Link and the first nine at Sea Island (among others), 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 neighbors. “Judgment [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.

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OLD MACDONALD

THIRD HOLE

Bandon, Ore.

The “Ghost Tree” is a lone shore pine stripped bare by wind that stands hauntingly atop a dune ridge that must be hit over some 150 yards from the tee. Its forked shape is a metaphorical Styx dividing the terrestrial logic of holes 1, 2, 17 and 18 and the surreal underworld shapes that await on the far side. It’s also a useful aiming target.

Ben Walton

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 recognized, 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 North American 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. In the United States and Canada, whether in the high country and mountains, the Pacific rainforests, along creeks and rivers, the Lowcountry of the Southeast or the old forests of the North, 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.

THE GREATEST 25 TREES IN GOLF

Basic RGB

Thousands of courses have trees, but only a few possess trees that matter. The following are some of the sport’s most impactful and unforgettable specimens.

AUGUSTA NATIONAL GOLF CLUB

Augusta, Ga.

The most impressive tree at Augusta National is not on the golf course. It’s the regal live oak just off the back of the clubhouse, believed to have been planted in the 1850s before Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie were even born. One of the game’s great meeting places, the oak has become a landmark.

BLACKWOLF RUN, THE RIVER, NINTH HOLE

Kohler, Wis.

Known as “Cathedral Spires,” this drivable par 4 can be maddening because the line to the green is over an upshoot of American basswood, red oaks and cottonwoods along the banks of the Sheboygan River. There’s a safe but unsatisfying option to play to the left fairway, so the instinct is to risk trying to fly them. You might not like these trees, but you won’t forget them.

BOSTON GOLF CLUB, FOURTH HOLE

Hingham, Mass.

This hole is called “Wizard’s Cap” for an aptly named Eastern white pine topped by a cocked upper bough angled like the collapsing point of a sorcerer’s hat. It was moved from the fairway during construction and relocated into a stand of slightly less distinguished pines behind the green, oriented so that the tilted point is online with a slope that feeds balls onto the putting surface.

CHAMBERS BAY, 15TH HOLE

University Place, Wash.

The “Lone Fir” tree behind the 15th green at this former U.S. Open site south of Seattle is the only tree of note on the course. Its sentinel posture standing against the backdrop of Puget Sound makes for one of golf’s most iconic images.

CHERRY HILLS COUNTRY CLUB, 14TH HOLE

Cherry Hills Village, Colo. T

Two overhanging cottonwoods, one in the foreground, the other farther downfield, guard against second shots to a green tucked in the nook of a creek. Drives that play left to shorten the long dogleg must contend with branches, but shots played wide to the right leave much longer and more perilous approaches.

CYPRESS POINT CLUB, 14TH HOLE

Pebble Beach

The grove of cypress hugging the cliff at Cypress Point’s 17th is iconic, but the billowing specimen cypress to the right of 14 gets the nod here for sheer otherworldliness. Known as the Octopus Tree for its enormous multi-armed body, it also defends the green against drives played too far right.

ESSEX COUNTY CLUB, 10TH AND 11TH HOLES

Manchester, Mass.

Essex County has been deforested in stages, particularly on the rocky ridges in the center of the second nine. This allowed the club and consulting architect Bruce Hepner to identify the stateliest trees to keep, including the towering white oak that stands watch over the rugged terrain of the 10th and 11th holes.

HARBOUR TOWN GOLF LINKS, SEVENTH HOLE

Hilton Head Island

The gnarly upper limbs of three tall coastal oaks surrounding the green on this par 3 threaten to swat stray tee shots into a moat of sand or flanking canal. Few designers other than Pete Dye would think to nestle a green in such a place, but few have built holes as memorable as this.

MONTEREY PENINSULA COUNTRY CLUB, SHORE COURSE, 11TH HOLE

Pebble Beach

Few trees in golf are more romantic than the Shore Course’s cypress. They appear alone or spaced in contemplative, top-heavy clusters amid the Boschian landscape of architect Mike Strantz, but the most evocative group is the chorus behind the 11th green, sculpted in leeward pose by the harsh Pacific wind.

OAK HILL COUNTRY CLUB, EAST COURSE, 13TH HOLE

Rochester, N.Y.

The grove of red oaks on the right embankment overlooking the 13th green is known as the Hill of Fame. It was created in the 1950s by John R. Williams, the club’s former chairman, to honor golfers who contributed to the game, and each tree bears copper plaques engraved with the names of prominent figures from Bobby Jones to Bob Hope to Nancy Lopez.

OHOOPEE MATCH CLUB, 15TH HOLE

Cobbtown, Ga.

Shortly after the course opened in 2019, a colossal live oak positioned at the inside corner of this dogleg par 4 was struck by lightning, splitting off one large section. The felled half of the tree, with branches that look like a frozen web of horizontal lightning, was secured in place to preserve it, and the best drives are those that just skirt by its reach or fly directly over the top.

OZARKS NATIONAL, 11TH HOLE

Hollister, Mo.

Like a perfectly placed bunker, the solitary pine along the left rough of this par 5 controls the strategy of the hole. Set about 350 yards off the back tee, it looms in the path of seemingly every second shot as the fairway curves left. Drives played to the short side to the left leave a long carry over a ravine, and those pushed farther up the other side must contend with a narrowing strand of seven fairway bunkers.

PEBBLE BEACH GOLF LINKS, 18TH HOLE

Pebble Beach

After the old pine that stood near the front of the 18th green passed on in 2001, it was replaced by a slightly smaller but equally attractive figure, a Monterey cypress transplanted from the first hole. The 18th actually has two trees that players must contemplate: this beauty on the second or third shots and another cypress set prominently in the driving zone.

RIVIERA COUNTRY CLUB, 15TH HOLE

Pacific Palisades, Calif.

Riviera’s most famous tree stands next to the 12th green—Humphrey Bogart was known to occasionally lean on it as he sipped whiskey and watched the pros play the L.A. Open. But the seven California sycamores that ring the gull-winged 15th green combine to make a far more elegant impression, especially during the cool season in their leafless white skeletal forms.

SWEETENS COVE, THIRD HOLE

South Pittsburg, Tenn.

Trees standing in fairways can usually be maneuvered around, but when they preside over the front of a green, they draw the ire of duffers and pros alike. However, the ectomorphic oak covering the left half of the serpentine third green at Sweetens Cove is fair game because everything else at this nine-hole phenomenon is equally unconventional.

THE OCEAN COURSE AT KIAWAH ISLAND, THIRD HOLE

Kiawah Island, S.C.

The weathered live oak in the middle of the landing zone on this short par 4 that swallowed Rory McIlroy’s drive during the 2012 PGA Championship perished, but its replacement is every bit the same nuisance. Drives must fly past it or be short of it—and not in it—for a clear pitch into the knoll-like green.

TPC SAWGRASS, PLAYERS STADIUM COURSE, 16TH HOLE

Ponte Vedra Beach

Though tour pros at the Players Championship can flight long second shots over the top, the two famous oaks leaning in opposite directions 40 yards in front of the green are just where resort players prefer they weren’t. Though they add a much-needed vertical aesthetic, they force second shots toward the water’s edge if a treeless approach is desired.

WADE HAMPTON, 17TH HOLE

Cashiers, N.C.

With holes carved from the Blue Ridge Mountain forests of western North Carolina, architect Tom Fazio had little trouble finding gorgeous evergreens and hardwoods to show off. The two most fascinating are the pair of Eastern hemlocks that rise like twin goalposts on each side of the entrance to this lovely par-3 green.

WINGED FOOT GOLF CLUB, WEST COURSE, SECOND HOLE

Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Architects from William Flynn to Gil Hanse have been averse to placing trees behind greens, preferring to showcase the horizon of the putting surface. But when given one as palatial as the elm to the rear left of the West Course’s second green, you work with it, as Tillinghast did in 1923. It became the largest tree at Winged Foot when a bigger elm on the East Course’s 10th hole, said to be the largest in New York state, succumbed in 1993.