News & Opinion

It’s time for golf to turn over a new leaf

Lunar-like landscapes at Oakmont and Shinnecock Hills illustrate a popular trend to fell trees, but that barren look belies courses’ roots

If Joyce Kilmer were alive today, he would be aghast at the sight of modern American golf.

The man born Alfred Joyce Kilmer was killed in World War I after having achieved renown as a poet. To this day he is primarily known for one rhythmic ode, beginning with the famous verse, “I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree.”

These days, a person has to look hard and far to find a trunk, a branch or a leaf on a golf course. For more than a decade, the key word in golf renovation has been, “Timber!”

2016 U.S. Open Championship Oakmont
Golfers at the 15th hole at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, site of the 2016 U.S. Open, must negotiate a wicked bunker complex, but tree trouble is the least of their worries. Nearly 15,000 trees have been removed at Oakmont.

There is hardly an oak at Oakmont, which was the trendsetter in the felled-tree movement, having taken out nearly 15,000 of them.
The well-intentioned concept began with information and innovation, as superintendents and greens chairmen discerned that trees increasingly were robbing grass – particularly on greens – of air and sunlight. They noticed that “beautification” planting projects of the 1960s produced claustrophobia-inducing fairways in the 2000s. So, the healthy and logical plan was to clear out some of the offending behemoths. Makes sense, just as it is wise to knock down a tottering maple that is threatening your house.

What resulted, though, was an all-out assault and total shave. It was sort of like going to a barber for a trim and coming out with the Jeff Bezos look.

It pains me to say this about the course that I consider the greatest on Earth: Compare clips from the 1986 and 2018 U.S. Opens at Shinnecock Hills. There is no question that the former has much more charm. Some of that has to do with the fact the USGA now insists that Open courses look like the surface of the moon. A lot of it is that Shinnecock was swept up in the rush to go treeless.

Do courses really have to chop down every last one? Evidently, the prevailing sentiment of golf’s big thinkers is, Yes, bring on the chainsaws and stump-grinders! Google “golf courses and tree removal” and notice that architects, superintendents, club presidents and commentators overwhelmingly say “aye” to the ax.

Their rationale sounds noble: Almost always, they say they are trying to “return to the original design.” Fine. Except that is selective nostalgia. Original design did not include greens that roll lightning fast. If you want authenticity, make them slow as mud. Original design often involved rock-hard fairways because there were no sprinklers. Why not turn off your digitally operated irrigation systems?

118th U.S. Open Championship
The 18th hole at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., site of the 2018 U.S. Open, offers a sweeping view of an architectural tree-free zone.

Indulge a skeptic’s suspicion that the quest for historical purity is nudged along by the reality that defoliating means less upkeep (no more fallen leaves). Anyway, do we really want to dial the clock all the way back? In Shinnecock’s case, for instance, the course with which golfdom fell in love was not William Flynn’s vintage layout. It was the beautiful, leafy 18 on which Raymond Floyd prevailed on an all-star Reagan-era Sunday.

Someone ought to speak up for golf’s remaining trees, at least the ones who pose no harm. Let’s hear it for aesthetics and shade. Cheers for the drama of wondering whether a shot will produce the unmistakable “thonk” of ball on bark. Kudos for Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson for taking on the creative challenge of hitting through narrow openings with everything on the line.

Not that they need any more pats on the back, but a lesson can be learned from the folks at Augusta National. Their course is the most admired. The Masters is the most popular tournament mostly because of the way the place looks. It looks the way it does largely because of its magnificent trees.

Pines and dogwoods frame the holes. The tallest ones provide an economy of scale, too. Great golfers can seem larger than life, yet when they walk amid the long shadows at Augusta, it becomes clear just who is in charge there.

Somehow, miraculously, the staff is able to get grass to grow despite the nasty deep-rooted interlopers.

Best yet, a tree at Augusta National gets a chance to grow in stature as well as height. When the loblolly pine named for Dwight Eisenhower was doomed by an ice storm in 2014, it was a sad occasion. Two grafts and a seedling were taken from it and preserved, ready to carry on a legacy.

Joyce Kilmer would be proud, more than a century after he wrote, “Poems are made by fools like me. But only God can make a tree.”