Trees and Their Affect on Golf Course Architecture and Maintenance

At just about any golf course in the world, golfers are apt to choose up sides when the talk turns to trees. A veritable Mason-Dixon line is drawn, with tree lovers on one side and so called tree haters on the other. Tree lovers is an accurate characterization of the those that will defend all trees’ rights to exist on the golf course regardless of the trees’ negative impact on golf strategy and agronomics. On the other hand, there are those that are called many things but that are oft times referred to as the tree haters, who think that trees shouldn’t ever interfere with golf strategy and agronomics. Both camps must understand that trees affect turf quality and golf strategy along with aesthetics and vistas.

I guess that you could put me somewhere smack in the middle of the tree debate and as anyone that has ever read my blog or spoken with me knows, I never straddle the fence. But let me get back to the issue here, pragmatic tree lover is how I choose to think of myself. As a child, I owned every record for climbing highest in the trees in my neighborhood, even if no one else realized it was a competition. And then later on, I spent quite a bit of time climbing and trimming trees at Aronimink Golf Club in the off-season when I had breaks from school.

To me, the wholesale removal of trees on golf courses that would naturally revert to forest seems irrational and aesthetically mistaken. And on the other hand, filling up every void of a golf course with trees is just as irrational. What is called for is an intelligent plan that evaluates where and how trees should be utilized on the golf course that will improve or not negatively impact turf quality while protecting or even enhancing the design’s strategic options.

I started playing golf at eight years old and working at golf courses at fourteen years old and that’s what I have done for the last forty years. This has led me to understand, all too well, the issues of trees on golf courses. Trust me, if you worked at Aronimink and Rolling Green in the 1970s and 80s you learned what shade meant to grass, especially the greens.

Both courses have since had renovations that greatly reduced the negative impact of shade on the greens but also corrected silly tree plantings that adversely affected the strategic options and the playability of the golf course. Having spent a few years working at both courses, I have opinions about the restor/renov-ations and might have done some things differently. But these were large projects that significantly improved these great golf courses from a design and agronomic perspective.

The vast majority of golfers’ opinions about specific trees will be based entirely on how a particular tree affects their game. If they end up behind a tree too often, it’s a “bad” tree. If someone else in his or her regular foursome ends up behind the tree too often, it’s a “good” tree. As humans, we are really very predictable in our opinions. Most Superintendents see trees as a scourge and the enemy of fine turfs everywhere. Again, count me in the middle. I like trees but dislike that they cause shade problems on turf and the loss of strategic options on courses.

Shade’s Effects on Turf and Greens 
Greens typically have the potential to be the most highly stressed turfs on any course. Anyone that can remember biology in grade school probably remembers that plants use sunlight through a process of photosynthesis to produce energy. We really don’t need to discuss this; it simply is a fact. Grasses that we use on golf courses will do better with full sun. Bentgrass greens need morning sun to get started in the mornings. When bentgrass doesn’t have morning sun, it will invariably struggle. Bermuda greens will need even more sun, more is better. Turf 101 is over, you can learn about this in many places.

Trees planted or growing on the east and south side of greens are a problem. Add the Sun Seeker app to your phone so that you can follow the sun’s arc for any day of the year while you are standing on your greens. Green committee members will better understand the amount of shade that is impacting turf quality by using this app.

Reality sometimes interferes with the perfect agronomic conditions for greens. So, when trees must be planted as screens on the east or south side of a green, consider the sun’s arc along with the distance from the green. And mature tree height must also be considered. Think about choosing lower growing varieties that will not cause problems.

If larger plants are needed immediately, use a “planned obsolescence” technique: plant the “wrong” trees in the “right” sizes and then under-plant them with those lower growing species or varieties which are usually available only in smaller sizes. In ten or fifteen years, it will be necessary to cut down the “wrong” trees, as they are getting too large. By then, the proper trees will have gained size and be ready to give decades of good service, providing screening without negatively impacting turf.

Trees’ Impact on Design’s Strategic Options 
Well, now we have opened Pandora’s Box. Trees on the golf course can and do wreak havoc over the intended golf strategies. An excerpt from my essay on golf course architecture:

“Trees on golf courses can cause Civil War type divides in clubs. People just don’t understand tree planting/removal strategies. First of all, grass needs sunlight and air movement. That being settled, we can move on to design issues. For that matter let’s go backwards and start with the latest craze of buzz cutting golf course popularized at Oakmont. Members can, I suppose, do whatever they want to their course, but a site that is surrounded by and if left fallow would become treed should probably have some trees on it.

“So let’s look at reasonable tree plantings that can create a sense of forests but accommodate and perhaps enhance golf and the golf experience. Linear tree plantings are never, ever good, period end of story. I suppose that there is one exception and that would be on those old golf courses that are just so tight that without trees they might not accommodate modern golf.

“What is good is the use of clusters of trees that give a sense of forest but are positioned to achieve strategic and aesthetic goals. We don’t need to talk about the aesthetic goals of tree planting. We all know how pretty trees can be in a landscape and how they can help frame a golf hole and steer a golf shot.

“Just watch a player going through their pre-shot routine when there are a lot of trees or a big bunker on one side of a hole as they are wiggling and waggling you will see that inevitable shift of stance away from the visual hazard of the trees or bunker. Just as bunkers can be strategic and directional and saving and penal, so can trees. The tree can steer your shot. It can knock an errant shot down and keep it in play. Or it can be a hazard when you are behind it.

“So how do we plant, or for that matter, remove trees to better golf? First let’s agree that, when possible, clusters of trees are always better than rows of trees. Let’s also agree that tree plantings and hazards that are penal can be placed in positions so that the better golfers may be more affected than lesser golfers.

“For instance, a tree planting at 275 off of the regular tee on the left side of the fairway is going to affect more good golfers strategically than a tree planting 250 yards off of the regular tee on the right side of the fairway. So the distance of the planting from the regular tee is critical, and the side of the planting to anyone that has ever seen me play golf is obvious as well. But what if we have a cluster of trees at 200 yards from the regular tee on the right side of a hole and there is OB on the right side of the hole. Have we helped the average golfer and done nothing that would typically affect the better golfer?

“And by the way, every green doesn’t have to have trees in back of it to give depth perception, it’s just so predictable and cliché. Part of the game and challenge of golf is being able to adjust to different situations. When every green is framed and backed by trees, there is a sameness and an overt redundancy to the course.”

That brief excerpt gives you just a little taste of a very different way of thinking about existing trees as well as planning for future trees in golf course design.

As stewards of the golf course, it is incumbent upon us to review how time, tree growth, and misguided tree plantings have caused negative changes to our golf courses from both a design and grass quality/agronomic standpoint. The first step is to identify that there is an issue. Then call in someone with the technical skill to develop a plan to “correct” the issues and provide direction and guidance for future tree needs.

Armen Suny
Armen has been in the industry for 35 years, most of that time at Top 100 facilities. He has been a General Manager, Golf Course Superintendent, Golf Course Designer, and Tournament Director, and he has overseen Major Championships and PGA Tour events.