Monday, November 18, 2013
Beautification committees, along with renegade green chairmen have ruined many golf great holes, and for that matter, entire golf courses throughout the United States. Well-meaning as they may be or have been in the past, there has been a recent groundswell of clubs who have said enough.
Once great layouts, designed in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40‘s...sadly look unrecognizable today. The fifty-yard corridors with multiple options and uneven fairway lies have been replaced by U.S. Open-sized landing areas with (obligatory) over-grown clusters of trees on courses that rarely hold anything more than a local invitational tournament once per year.
There is a reason why golf participation is shrinking. Sure money is a factor, but difficulty and time to complete a round are frequently cited as reasons some drop the sport altogether.
The reality is, few eighteen handicaps enjoy searching endlessly for balls on twenty-eight yard wide fairways. Most aren’t adept at hitting off bare lies under trees or worse, hitting off exposed roots. And as these same golfers age, so do the trees they are forced to play around.
Unfortunately, unless your club was designed pre-1950 by the likes of a Ross, Raynor, Tillinghast, or Mackenzie, the very mention of cutting a single tree is tantamount to concreting the club pool or removing Hot Dogs from the menu.
The fact is trees, while beautiful and life-sustaining, have little value when it comes to the actual play of golf. Trees should be the backdrop, not the focal point, with very few exceptions. The evidence of this philosophy is backed by many of the top 100 courses in America who believe par should be defended on the ground. Meaning, if a player hits a shot to an “approved” position, the degree of difficulty for the next shot should be rewarded appropriately.
When the true impact of trees are brought to light, it is interesting that the burden of proof to ‘cut or leave be’ is always laid upon the person with the chainsaw rather than the neophyte, young or old, who has never taken the time to study the basics of golf course architecture. I’ll admit, this process isn’t an easy one to broach as it relates to Private Clubs and Club members, but the best starting point should be to challenge the existence of each and every tree, regardless of age. This could sound like semantics, but instead of asking “why cut”, the real question should be, “why keep”?
Defending par via trees, (or what my friend, Vinnie Kmetz likes to call, ‘sky bunkers’) in truth, is ignorance.
A.W. Tillinghast believed, “we may play around trees but certainly the only route to a hole must never be over or through them…we must not have them directly by our putting greens (and) not too close to the line of play”.
H.S. Colt said, "a tree is fluky and obnoxious form of a hazard, because a tree can obstruct and/or stymie one ball without even affecting another ball located just a couple of feet away”.
The first thing to consider when assessing the value of any tree on a golf course is whether or not you can live with the negative impacts they have on the surrounding turf grass, namely thin or bare lies, whispy grass, and/or exposed tree roots.
Jeff Harris of Harris Golf, a Maine-based course developer, contractor and operator, said, “The final and easiest argument to make against trees on the golf course comes from an agronomic standpoint. Simply put, trees have no agronomic benefit to the turf grass on the golf course. They create shade, steal moisture, and out-compete turf grass for vital nutrients.
My week old Vokey played from beneath a tree.
The second factor to contemplate is the impact on playability for all handicaps.
Does a single tree or cluster of them hang over the fairway? Is an eighteen handicapper with a twenty-yard slice typically blocked by a tree after hitting the fairway (i.e. planting trees in the corner of a doglegs) while his low-handicap counterpart on the same line twenty yards ahead has a clear shot? Do players frequently lay-up because of a tree or cluster of them? If so, they need to be removed.
Here we have a twenty-five yard landing area with a small creek at the end of the fairway...and this ubiquitous tree which seems to block mostly mid-high handicaps who have neither the length or accuracy to do anything more than punch out on this 397 yard par 4. How good would this hole be if the tees were moved up 40-50 yards and this giant eyesore was removed?
Par 5 shown from approximately 240 yards away. ‘Sky bunkers’ on the left force players to lay-up to the right (boring), when four (actual) bunkers already block approaches (two shown) and two more bunkers in the foreground block lay-ups, laid up too far. This could be a great (and difficult) risk/reward 2nd shot as the green in the foreground is sized to received a short iron.
Third, does a tree or cluster block a prescribed landing zone; meaning in-flight or on its descent. If so, it should be removed.
Twenty-eight yard wide, pinched in fairways = no fun.
Fourth, how much are trees costing your club in maintenance each year?
We have already discussed how trees increase water and chemical demand by robbing adjacent turf from nourishment, but what about the time your maintenance crew spends mowing around trees, and if the turf isn’t dead (yet), trimming? Have you ever considered the additional time to continually sharpen and purchase new blades that are impacted by exposed tree roots or worse, re-pave cart paths due to their close proximity to a tree or cluster of them?
Tree roots eat blades.
Some members may frown upon the use of natural areas to replace tree corridors, due to the increased chance for lost balls, but the fact is, they save thousands of dollars every year in maintenance costs. If your fairways are pinched in like bowling alleys, natural areas may be a tough sell, but with a proper rough buffer, natural areas increase aesthetics and turf quality.
Fifth (and this point really comes down to personal preference) are the vistas gained by opening up the course, in general.
Holston Hills Country Club in my hometown of Knoxville, TN went through a massive restoration a few years ago and the results speak for themselves with regard to the stunning views now afforded on so many holes that were formerly cluttered with trees.
So what factors should one consider when deciding to keep trees?
- Does it form a sound barrier from adjacent housing, but not impact shot-making?
- Does it provide an aiming point in the distance for tee shots, but not typically impact a properly played shot to the fairway?
- Does it shade a bench on a hole where back-ups occur and but not hang over the tee box?
- Does it provide safety for players on neighboring holes from errant shots, but not affect playability or shot-making?
“This is all well and fine, but my course was not designed by a Ross or a Raynor. Most of our membership is older and believe that trees add beauty, and when cornered, many fear the course will become too easy for better players”.
It really doesn’t matter who designed your course. What matters is the overall enjoyment and playability for all handicaps.
Yes, courses with more of a pedigree are easier to ‘clean-up’, but to claim the course will become too easy for the better player is hog wash. First, low handicappers make up less than 5% of your membership, so who cares?
Second, they aren’t affected by twenty-eight yard wide fairways and ‘sky bunkers’ like the high handicappers that make up the majority of a clubs membership. If anything, handicaps might improve by a shot or two for the high handicapper, but many positives will be gained by thinning out needless trees.
Alister Mackenzie stated, “there are more mistakes in designing a golf course by attaching too much importance to the element of luck and there is too much of that very element in having to negotiate with trees”.
Donald Ross thoughts were, "as beautiful as trees are, we must not lose sight of the fact that there is a limited place for them in golf."
So why is there so much reluctance, obstinance and even anger when it comes to ‘smartly’ discussing the return of lost corridors and the improvement in turf quality when greens committee across the country meet?
When you look at the shear volume and clarity with which the greatest architects who have ever lived have opined, one can only conclude the fight is an educational issue.
After all, how many green committee’s require their participants read at the very least, Donald Ross’s, “Golf has never failed me”, Mackenzie’s, “Golf Architecture", or the more recent work of Tom Doak’s, “The Anatomy of a Golf Course”?
If influence, stubbornness, playing ability, and/or tenure continue to be the hallmark of a ‘good’ green committee member, than the greats of our past and their beliefs about how a hole or course should play will be just that...history.
With sound principles and a little self-education, I bet many of us are playing on unpolished gems!