IIn the early 1990s, Oakmont Country Club, revered as one of the greatest courses in the country and featuring 14 men’s and women’s disciplines, was covered in trees. Each hole was covered with a mantle of wood and leaves, and the views of the other holes were almost non-existent. The members – at least most of them – love it that way. They and their ancestors spent decades improving the course through beautification programs, planting trees by the hundreds. Although Oakmont was originally built in the early 20th century to resemble links found on barren, broken farmland, it has gradually matured into a prototype garden golf course.
Not everyone thought forestalling the course was a good thing. Shortly after Larry Nelson won the U.S. Open there in 1983, former head pro Bob Ford took the Oakmont Green Commission to the first hole to show how large and sprawling the trees were. He went up to a bunker bunker and asked them to stand behind them to see what kind of player they were shooting in that situation. “I had to get out of the dugout and over the tree to get to the green, and the tree was 50 feet high by then,” he says. “I looked at the grounds chief to get his reaction, and he said, ‘You know, Bob’s right—we need to get that dugout out. “”
Ford backed off. As A.W. Tillinghast, creator of Oakmont’s peers such as Winged Foot, Baltusrol, and San Francisco Golf Club, once stated, “The necessity of going above a barrier of trees cannot be accepted.”
Scarborough-on-Hudson, New York
The removal of a group of non-deciduous trees some five years ago revealed the full majesty of the sugar maple laid on the right side of the waterway, its graceful canopy stretching nearly 100 feet from end to end. The fairway slopes towards it, so drives must be pushed to the left to avoid interference – otherwise second putts will have little chance of reaching the high green opposite the club.
These are the feelings people develop with trees, not just golfers. Despite the negative impact on playability and turf conditions, nothing happened to that tree or any other tree in Oakmont for nearly a decade. Even by 1993, with a president and green committee tasked with restoring the track to its earlier roots, member sentiment had yet to step out of the shadows. Under cover of darkness, with the support of Ford and a small team of club captains, superintendent Mark Cohens and his crews began surreptitiously taking down selected trees.
“We had a team come out at 4:30 in the morning, cut them down and take them out, and by 6:30 there wasn’t a leaf out of place, just the roots,” Ford says. The step-clearing started small, but got more determined over time.
“Then we got caught,” says Ford. “The cans bothered us.”
Diablo Country Club
There were few rules in the early days of American golf design, as evidenced by the par-5 18th Diablo. When Jack Neville (later of Pebble Beach fame) built the hole in 1915, he left five oak trees directly between the tee and the green. They have matured into imposing specimens (one shown above) that can hit golf shots if the roads between them are not mapped properly. Since then, architects have sometimes placed single trees in aisles, but the five in Diablo XVIII seem to be from another time.
These caddies, who knew the course as well as anyone, noticed the fresh sludge being regularly laid out in the open. They began looking for new patches during their episodes, and eventually the word got to the members. Oakmont’s secret tree removal program, now revealed, escalated into a pitched battle between those who wanted to restore the trail and those who wanted to preserve the wooded character. In the end, when the flaky vistas began to reveal amazing benefits, the restorers persevered. Between 1993 and 2015, with Superintendent John Zimmers continuing the program, every tree that might obstruct a golf shot or view across the property was removed, totaling more than 12,000, with the exception of one American elm beside the third tee. Culling improved agricultural engineering and allowed playing strategies that had long been restricted to breathe again. More importantly, it revealed a dazzling array of ditches, beautiful cliffs, and layers that many did not realize, or did not remember, but which hitherto had such vital elements in its architecture.
Oakmont’s erosion had repercussions that reverberated far beyond the banks of the Allegheny River. It started a conversation among clubbers, supervisors, architects, and historians about the purpose of trees on golf courses. If a landmark of Oakmont’s stature, long known for its trees, has found such a treasure in stripping them, what’s to stop other courses from doing the same? The chainsaws have been buzzing ever since.
The first step that almost any architect would prescribe today when consulting with old clubs is to start cutting back the trees. Always done in the name of healthier fairways, green trees compete with lawn by blocking sunlight, impeding airflow, and drinking up soil nutrients. Heavy drapes can also interfere with intended opening strategies.
In practice, the deforestation of Oakmont was the beginning of a new deforestation movement that infiltrated nearly every level of regeneration. Dozens of layouts followed in rankings of America’s Top 100 Courses and America’s Top 100 Greatest Courses, with lush panes of glass succumbing to refreshing panoramas. During the 2020 reconfiguration of the Congressional Blue Trail, site of the 1964, 1997 and 2011 US Opens, holes once bordered by hardwood groves are now swayed by undulations of short lawn grass punctuated by only small patches of remaining wood. Members can stand on the second green at one end of the course and see approximately a mile across the 16th green. East Oak Hill Course, site of the 2023 PGA Championship, the Essex County Club, a Donald Ross-designed 1917 in Manchester, Massachusetts, and the Philadelphia Cricket Club’s Wissahickon Racecourse are all harvest trees that have changed their character in startling but instructive ways. Elsewhere, like Southern Hills in Tulsa and Cherry Hills in Denver, ellipsis has been more practical but no less transformative.
Cottonwood trees usually thrive along the banks of rivers and streams, but here they rise from the dry sandy hills of central Kansas. Two majestic groups flanking 70 yards of green at this short par 4 act as gates to shut. If the drives are not precisely positioned to allow shots to pass cleanly, they must be knocked low under their boughs.
However appropriate the uprooting of trees, it does not quell a deep emotional opposition to it. For most golfers, there is no comfort in the beginning of seeing familiar friends thrown out. Big trees have a satisfying pristine presence, on golf courses or anywhere else. Strolling on beaches and meadows can be fun, but for more soul-searching hikes, seek solitude among the woods and partnership among the trees. The forest takes us in and runs through us, blanketing us with flickering glimpses of landscape, its air full of rustling winds and scents of new buds and sap and pines. What is golf, at its best, but a great walk with nature.
There can be a sport in it when it seems like a tree is blocking our shot. “Most of the best indoor courses owe their popularity to tree-gathering,” wrote Alister Mackenzie. “Groups of trees, planted irregularly, create a very fine game of golf, and give players many opportunities to show their skill and judgment in chopping, paddling, or attempting a pass over trees.”
From this point of view, the act of chopping them up can seem downright destructive, like destroying a beneficial if not sacred ecosystem. Trees and timber are essential to the sustainability of our environment. They capture carbon, help cool urban areas, and provide shelter and habitat for wildlife.
Golf courses represent the largest green spaces in many cities. More trees are needed at this moment, not less. – Golf Digest