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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

The Two Tree Conundrum

So, when does a golf course architect keep a tree as part of a golf hole design and when does he not? In new construction the options are solely up to the golf architect, pending any permitting requirements. But even then, enough trees are preserved as buffer between holes that any canopy requirements are typically accounted for long before decisions need to be made regarding individual trees. In the renovation realm of the business, the question of tree utilization requires a bit trickier answer.

In the renovation work I have undertaken over the past two decades, trees play a remarkable role in decision making. Often times, they are the catalyst for undertaking renovation, either from what they physically provide in the name of strategy and playability or what they contribute regarding agronomic challenges for the golf course. One fact is undeniable: Trees and grass compete for the same nutrients for survival and trees will usually win the fight, especially for sunlight. But another fact is also undeniable: golf is played on grass, not in trees (most of the time).

I am always challenged by those who love the stately sight of a mature hardwood or a grove of pines. I have even become a Certified Arborist in order to become more educated in my endeavors to communicate the dangers of sick or dying trees as well as the reasons for removing some trees in order to allow other trees a chance at survival.

Sometimes, the emotions toward a tree come from a love for nature. More often than not, the loyalty to a particular tree comes from its effect on the way a golf hole plays. That is where the challenge as a golf course architect considering tree removal starts.

For the most part, trees act as hazards that impede the golfer’s ability to make decisions, the cornerstone of golf strategy. When they are in gangs, lining the fairways of many mature golf holes, they are pushy and demanding, forcing the golfer to follow the straight line. “Do not even think about straying left or right among us”, they shout. The straight and narrow strategy these fairway sentinels create is known as penal strategy, not providing the golfer any choice upon the matter and penalty the only option if a golf ball strays too far. The essence of strategy in golf is all about options and choices. With tree-lined fairways, there are no options.

For me, trees should not be relied upon to provide strategy. Not only when lining fairways, but also when specimen trees stand alone on the corner of a dogleg or even as a cross hazard. A newly planted tree is rarely charged with the task of creating challenge. More likely, they are planted to impede progress. Often, they will have no effect on the golfer for whom it is planted because of its size. Most people who plant trees to make a golf hole more challenging (read: more difficult) plant them not where the golf ball will land, but where the limbs can knock a high fade (or draw) out of the air.

There are few instances when a tree is planted on day one at the proper height. It could be many years before these trees can achieve the desired effect. In just a small (relatively) window of the tree’s lifetime leading to maturity will it be the optimal height to challenge a long hitter to carry its limbs in the name of strategy. Once a tree does reach maturity, it will effectively block the golfer from approaching any type of game plan in the name of strategy (as most people unfortunately intended). Meanwhile, it will penalize the higher-handicapper and slowly suck the life out of your golf course superintendent as the membership slowly rallies mob-like for a good old-fashioned lynching because he/she can’t grow grass. One day that tree will pass on and the golf hole which relied upon that tree will have no character left to provide any strategy (good or bad). The hole will be rendered defenseless.

At every golf course I visit, I encounter a tree which is at mature height, but no longer effective in knocking the ball out of the air as the hot golf balls introduced in the past six or seven years fly unimpeded beyond. My recommendation is almost always the same: cut it down before it comes down on its own. Although a beautiful specimen, it usefulness as a hazard (as flawed a strategy as that may be) is gone and so is the grass that surrounds its canopy. It is time to find a new hazard.

Every now and then I am challenged with the possibility of keeping a tree. Frankly, it is a tree that I know I can negotiate the “release of the rest of the trees” with. This summer at Orangeburg Country Club in Orangeburg, South Carolina I was confronted with that exact situation. There were two trees which lined opposite sides of two short par four holes.

Because of new technology, both holes have pretty much become driver-wedge for all. In both cases, the specimen trees were irrelevant to the strategy of the golf hole. But for many, they became part of the membership. One tree I kept and the other we kicked out of the club.

Why did I choose one over the other? That was my conundrum for the dog days of summer. Tree number one was in front of an original Ellis Maples fairway bunker on the right side of a straight par four of 367 yards. My biggest gripe was that it blocked the view of a sand bunker which would be remodeled as part of the full-scale renovation of which we were in the midst. Strategically, the new bunker was going to be the challenge, not the tree.

When replacing trees as hazards with a more traditional ground hazard such as a sand bunker, it is important to place the ground hazard in such a place that will catch a golf ball as it lands, not at the height of its trajectory. No matter what we could do, that tree was too close to the tee (even as we backed the tees up a good forty-three yards). Since we could move the bunker out to a proper position off the tee and not the tree, the decision to adjust the sand was an easy one. But what about keeping the tree?

The ninth hole is a par four of 372 yards. An oak stands sentinel along the left side about 250 yards from the tee. So stately was this oak the assumption was that it was there forever. But in reality, it was planted around 1972. Unlike the fourth hole, we could not lengthen this golf hole. Obviously, there was no opportunity to move the tree farther from the tee even if that was what I wanted. The tree was rendered useless in the battle off the tee for many long hitters and only penalized a stray shot by others. With the exception of this one tree, this hole wasn’t tree-lined. That was a good thing because we had the opportunity to create strategic challenge for the golfers without relying on a runway strategy. Nor would I allow us to go down that road. But would the tree contribute to this challenge?

I kept one tree and cut down the other one. On number nine (380 yards), I added a sand bunker which will require a 275 yard carry from the tips. By sculpting the ground, I created the opportunity for the successful carry to result in a downhill roll leaving a short pitch. I also placed it the hazard such a way that the hole is now a dogleg left. The bunker was shaped so that it appeared that it was immediately in front of the green. In other words, the bold golfer could not see the reward beyond the bunker. The rest of the fairway was well-identified.

I kept the tree on the straight-away par-four fourth hole. Why? By limbing the tree up, the view into the new bunker was unimpeded which was my biggest concern). It also helped to define the hole boundaries from a visual standpoint (not a penalty standpoint). More importantly, it made the membership happy and had no negative impact on the golf hole’s new strategy.

Many people are convinced that a golf course cannot be all things to all people. I disagree. The solution at Orangeburg Country Club is a good example of how you can preserve the right trees for the tree lovers yet at the same time, free up the removal of another tree to create a great strategic golf hole elsewhere. As long as a tree doesn’t have a negative impact on the playability of a golf hole or impede strategic challenge, I may be persuaded to keep it. Of course, when the members start complaining about bare ground to the right side of the fourth hole at Orangeburg, we’ll gladly recommend the tree’s removal!

Good day.

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