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June 15, 2020

The undercover war that swept the game

How tree removal at Oakmont Country Club turned into a movement

Editor’s note: In celebration of Golf Digest's 70th anniversary, we’re revisiting the best literature and journalism we’ve ever published. Catch up on earlier installments.

The National Golf Links on New York’s Long Island was the first great American course to engage in massive tree removal, circa 1990. But it wasn’t until Oakmont near Pittsburgh started a deforestation program a few years later that the movement gained momentum, and a full-fledged war on hardwood was legitimized as “good for golf.” By the time the U.S. Open was played at Oakmont in 2016, the United States Golf Association celebrated its “20-year restoration plan [for removing] more than 12,600 trees in what will long be regarded as one of the most definitive architectural renaissances in golf history.” From Merion outside Philadelphia to Los Angeles Country Club North, hundreds of courses followed the trend. Even Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., which once subtitled its club history The Golf, the People and the Friendly Trees, removed those affable trees by the thousands.

What started as an underground maneuver in cover of darkness eventually went mainstream, and the first writer to examine the movement was Senior Editor Peter McCleery with this story called “Mission Unpopular” in October 2002. McCleery wrote and edited features for Golf Digest since joining the staff in the early 1980s, but his specialty was investigative reporting and TV criticism. He also pioneered the use of reader surveys as a regular fixture of the magazine, for example, identifying Johnny Miller as the most loved and most hated announcer in golf—pure gold for a player agent to sell. McCleery was not averse to digging into controversy, so the subject of tree removal captured his imagination as clubs across the country, then as now, continue to debate the subject. —Jerry Tarde

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In the beginning there were no trees on golf courses, “links” land being particularly inhospitable. Many of America’s most notable courses also had barren beginnings, but over time trees were planted and the “parkland” concept took hold. Indeed, so deeply rooted are trees with American golf that approximately one in every 10 courses has some kind of leafy reference in its name (all those Oak Trees and Shady Oaks). But as those beloved trees mature and branches spread, they become problems, impacting playability and turf quality. Courses nationwide are now coming to grips with the emotionally and politically charged realities of tree removal, sometimes on a massive scale. Call it the de-treeing of American golf.

Nowhere is this reversal or “restoration” more apparent than at Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh. The home of multiple U.S. Opens has gone through a decade-long program of tree removal that is ongoing. It started one day when head pro Bob Ford ushered a group of members out to a “double hazard” on the first hole—a bunker with tree trouble between it and the fairway. “See this?” Ford said. “Something’s gotta go here.”

But when Oakmont’s tree-removal process began in earnest in the mid-1990s, it took place surreptitiously, as it often does to avoid detection by tree-loving members. Former Oakmont superintendent Mark Kuhns assembled a SWAT team of 12 workers assigned to different tasks, with headlights showing the way. Their days would start at 4 a.m., while members were still asleep. Huge tarps were spread out as the crew cut down trees, mainly pin oaks, then hauled the limbs into no man’s land. A stump grinder was on hand, and two high-powered vacuums sucked up leaves. The greens chairman and an 18-member club board were behind the plan, but the bulk of the members were kept in the dark.

“We took down so many trees before anybody knew what was going on,” Kuhns says.

The crew was working on removing a grove of 13 large pin oaks dividing the 12th hole and the 13th green. “We got down to three of them still standing when somebody noticed what was going on,” Kuhns says. “Then they caught up to my chairman, and it became a very sour issue.”

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At one full membership meeting, former greens chairman Banks Smith recalls that all those opposed to removing more trees sat aggressively in the front rows, while those on board with the program “ordered a drink and went to play cards.”

There were factions, a threatened petition, prayers for the trees’ survival from a neighboring church, even a whiff of a lawsuit. But after much quiet persuasion, politicking, four greens chairmen and, in the end, 3,500 felled trees, Oakmont has been fully and magnificently restored. Sure, a number of trees remain, but the emphasis is back on the bunkering and the dramatic contours of its fairways and greens. A round there this spring with three of those former greens chairmen revealed the zeal of their mission, with remaining trees still being discussed and targeted. “Those have to go,” the group agreed about a grove of three trees left of the 18th fairway.

“They used to say that you could see almost every hole at Oakmont from the second story of the clubhouse,” says Bill Fallon, general chairman for the 2003 U.S. Amateur at Oakmont. “Now we’ve almost got that back. You can now see the vistas from fairway to fairway or across several fairways. We’ve rediscovered the beauty and genius of Henry Fownes.”

OPPOSITION, THEN ACCLAIM

The thinned-out Oakmont stands as a beacon for others embarking on the hazardous path to de-treeing their courses. “If any club thinks they would be hurting themselves by cutting down a few trees, go look at Oakmont and see what they’ve done,” says Tom Meeks, the USGA’s senior director of rules and competitions. “They are the leaders in the clubhouse.” Representatives from numerous other clubs already have made the pilgrimage to Oakmont for inspiration.

Tree-removal programs have transformed many of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses, including Merion, Winged Foot, Medinah, National Golf Links of America, Oak Hill, Garden City and Baltusrol. In the publinx arena, Tension Park, the hustlers’ paradise in Dallas, removed trees as part of a restoration program—but not without a fight.

A.W. Tillinghast discovered the perils of tree removal years ago. “I sometimes take my very life in my hands when I suggest that a certain tree happens to be spoiling a pretty good golf hole,” he wrote in 1937.

Today, the process usually follows a similar pattern to Oakmont’s initial wariness, if not outright opposition, giving way to an almost unanimous embracing of the results. So complete is the memberships’ turnaround at Oakmont, jokes Mark Studer, another former greens chairman, that “people who were never involved are now trying to take the credit” for the project’s success. (One notable exception to the movement: Augusta National, which has planted more than 250 trees while tightening driving areas as part of its design overhaul by architect Tom Fazio.)

“No one that I know who has any feel for aesthetics or nature has anything negative to say about trees,” Fazio says. “How can anyone not like them? God put them here to give us shade and shelter. But I don’t know that anybody really thought about them relative to golf. They just always assumed they were a positive influence.”

John O’Neill is a member of the USGA Executive Committee who has been advocating tree removal since the late 1970s, when he was greens chairman at his home course on Long Island, Westhampton Country Club. O’Neill says the awakening to the need for more active, ongoing tree maintenance is long overdue. “It’s like painting a room that hasn’t been painted in a long time,” he says of the process. “You think the room looks fine until you get in there and realize, ‘Oh my gosh, this looks pretty shabby.’ The leading clubs are very important. If Oakmont does it, removing trees becomes a lot more legitimate for other clubs."

‘TREES SNEAK UP ON YOU’

Jim Snow, national director of the USGA’s Green Section, has given seminars around the world in which he labels trees the biggest problem facing American golf agronomy. “Trees are a natural part of our landscape, and they serve a lot of practical purposes on courses, strategic as well as aesthetic,” Snow says. “But trees sneak up on you. They get bigger little by little, and over 20 to 30 years they have a huge impact on golf courses, even though people around them all the time don’t realize what’s happening.” Snow says golfers only need look in their own back yards to be reminded of the inherent difficulty of growing grass beneath trees.

Agronomy experts say there’s a simple non-negotiable tradeoff between turf and trees. Turf needs sun and air to thrive, and if trees are blocking that, something’s got to give. Trees that overhang greens and tees create the most problems, mainly because those areas get the most foot traffic.

Because trees on the south and east side of greens block the sun for more hours than any others, they are the most problematic. “If you want a tree close to a green, put it on the north side,” Fazio says. The golf-course superintendents’ treatise on the subject is titled, tellingly: “Shaded Greens: Turf, Trees and Politics.

PAYING THE PRICE FOR OVERPLANTING

Tree-planting programs that were popular in the 1960s and ’70s during the “make America beautiful” movement were often carried out haphazardly, with different species placed too close together. Trees get in the way of each other and sap nutrients from the soil if not properly spaced.

Some influential golf people are hard-liners when it comes to hardwoods. Asked about trees, USGA President Reed Mackenzie says, “I hate them.” Why? Three reasons, really: The agronomics (“Trees end up costing you a lot of money; you get areas where you can’t grow grass”), the emotions they stir (“People become attached to trees, and their attachment is irrational”) and the practical realities (“Trees get diseased and they fall down”).

Others, including noted architect Jack Nicklaus, take a more balanced approach. Nicklaus cites Pinehurst No. 2 as the “best course I know of from a tree-usage standpoint. It’s a totally tree-lined golf course without one tree in the playing strategy of that golf course. I love what Donald Ross used to do at Pinehurst. Every year Ross would walk through the trees and say, ‘That tree has gotten too big; you can’t play a recovery shot from in there anymore. Take that tree out and cut the branches off that one.’ Then if you hit it in there, you could get in and play a recovery shot back out. Too many trees prevent recovery shots, and I think the recovery shot is a wonderful part if the game.”

Safety issues also surround trees. Although healthy trees provide a buffer between holes, old, diseased or dying trees pose real dangers. “We’ve had a lot of trees fall down that were in that 70-year-old range,” says Jim Lucius, director of golf at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. “I often think that golf courses can die of old age because of trees.”

Selective pruning is often a tentative first step for clubs, but it doesn’t really get at the root of the problem. “Pruning improves light situations, but it doesn’t fix them,” says Scott Robinson, vice president of technical operations for ArborCom Technologies, a firm that provides computer-generated proof of how trees block sunlight to greens (see accompanying story). I’ve never seen a light-penetration problem solved by pruning alone.”

If you’ve ever seen electric fans on a golf course, you’ve probably noticed large trees nearby. Fans have been installed at many courses in the past decade to improve the air circulation that trees inhibit. If those clubs would cut down some trees, “there might not be as many fans or a need to run them for the duration that they do,” says Clark Throssell, the Golf Course Superintendents Association director of research. Adds Snow: “Fans are expensive to run and something you’d just rather not see on a golf course. But a fan is better than dead grass.”

Thus far, the major thrust of tree removal has taken place at the older Eastern clubs where trees are older and bigger than in other parts of the country. West Coast courses also “seem to be a lot more tolerant of Poa annua in their greens,” says ArborCom’s Robinson, “and light requirements are a lot lower with Poa.”

THE STILL-POPULAR OFF-SEASON PLAN

If overall tree removal is going more mainstream, it’s not quite out in the daylight. Secrecy still seems a big part of the process at some prominent clubs. “They don’t say much about it,” says an official at one of the big Eastern clubs, in hushed tones. “It’s a political bombshell.” Says John Zimmers, Oakmont’s superintendent: “We still, to this day, do not just go out and cut a tree down. We do it in the morning or when the club is closed.” Members who return to a club that has been de-treed in winter tend to look around and notice something different, but they’re not sure what. “It’s amazing how little they do notice,” says USGA agronomist Kimberly Erusha.

Memorial trees, of course, can be especially sensitive. “They’re the worst,” Mackenzie says. “You can’t move grandpa’s tree.” Or can you? That’s pretty much what officials did at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. Over the past 50 years, Oak Hill had dedicated 35 trees for famous golfers on its “Hill of Fame” surrounding the par-5 13th hole.

As Oak Hill began removing troublesome trees, some members became “very concerned” about the Hill of Fame, says Bill Reeves, an Oak Hill member and chairman of its Hill of Fame committee. “To us, those trees were almost sacred.”

But when members saw the rapidly improved condition on greens where other trees had come down, Reeves says it didn’t make sense to have “17 superb greens and one in mediocre condition.” So Oak Hill decided to remove 13 trees on the Hill of Fame, including those dedicated to Dwight Eisenhower, Charlie Coe, Gerald Ford and Miller Barber. Nicklaus’ tree, on the southern-exposure side, remains intact after some serious pruning.

“If we were to take down that tree,” says Oak Hill superintendent Paul B. Latshaw, “it might solve all our light issues on that hole from here to eternity. I don’t know Jack Nicklaus, but knowing what he must know about agronomy, I’m sure he’d be supportive if it came to that.”

In an easy salve for the dethroned, Oak Hill reaffixed those honorees’ plaques to other trees nearby. “We’ve got thousands of trees at Oak Hill,” Reeves says. “We’re not going to run out of trees.”


Thankfully, no one ever will. Which is probably why more and more of them are coming down.

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IS YOUR COURSE OVER-TREED?

How do you tell if your home course is over-treed? To paraphrase Ben Hogan, don’t look up, look down, because the answer is in the dirt. The health of the turf provides an important tipoff to a potential tree problem.

“You almost have to go by what’s happening to the grass,” says Jim Snow, national director of the USGA’s Green Section. In particular, greens under too much shade will be subject to a general thinning of the turf, or in extreme cases, no turf at all. When holes are in shady spots, traffic around the hole will exacerbate the wear and tear. And once the turf on a green loses its density, “that’s when the weeds will invade,” says Clark Throssell, director of research for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. “When the turf isn’t that competitive, that’s where these other species get started.”

Tees also can be susceptible, and the telltale sign will be that only one portion of the tee is ever used, either because the shaded portion is in bad shape or because overhanging limbs or interloping trees ahead eliminate that angle. “Tees suffer a lot at the hands of golfers,” Throssell says. “Letting the light in so the turf has a reasonable chance of recovery is very important.”

Should your club or course decide to undertake a program of tree removal, John O’Neill of the USGA’s Executive Committee recommends a gradual approach. “Don’t shock the members,” he says. “Start slowly, taking down the trees that most affect agronomics. Don’t take down stuff that could be the most controversial. Get the members into it, and once they see results, they’ll get behind it.”

Beware the dreaded “double hazards.” This is when you hit into a fairway bunker, for example, and also have a tree to deal with between you and the hole.

Exposed, above-ground tree roots. Not only dangerous for playing shots, but tree roots compete with the grass for soil nutrients.

A general sense of claustrophobia. If you start to feel as if you’re in a bowling alley instead of on a golf course, some serious tree removal might be required.

Where’s the rough? Most courses were designed to have 15 to 20 yards of rough between the fairways and tree lines.

Overhanging limbs. From the middle of the fairway, you should be able to access any hole location on the green without tree trouble. “Your approach shot shouldn’t be obscured by tree limbs overhanging the green or the fairway,” O’Neill says.