from August 2005
As Henry Beard observed in “Mulligan’s Laws”: “You can hit a 200-acre fairway 10 percent of the time and a two-inch branch 90 percent of the time.”
Golfers may grin in validation of his calculus, but it also suggests the ambivalence of trees in golf course architecture. On the one hand, trees are unquestionably among the most visually appealing features of many parkland courses found throughout the Great Lakes Region and elsewhere. Beard’s quip also captures the tree’s uncanny intrigue as a properly deployed design element.
But trees can also be problematic for the strategic integrity of a given hole; and because unlike, say, bunkers, trees are not static entities, their rapid growth can compromise a well-conceived original design. What’s more, the very grandeur that prompts us to value trees can adversely affect maintenance of turfgrass, especially on tees, fairways and greens.
Equilibrium in a course’s tree program is possible, however, and what follows is an object lesson in the problems typically found on many golf courses I have consulted with. The fictitious name of the otherwise anonymous course provides a clue to the success of their old approach.
Purists argue that it is doubtful that trees even have a place in terms of a course’s strategy considering their vulnerability to storms, disease, or other forms of instantaneous elimination. This is a debate relegated to academia and/or the taproom by the actual state of affairs at many courses I have visited, including Bad Tree.
In consulting there -- a very prominent property in the Great Lakes Region -- I was flabbergasted by the negative effect the tree program, or absence of one, had on this classic layout, whose design dates to the early 1900s. After studying the club’s early aerial photographs, it was apparent that the golf course architect specifically intended for certain trees to influence the layout, playability, and strategy in a certain and limited way. In round numbers, this meant only about 300 specimens in the entire layout, which occupies roughly 175 acres.
As frequently happens, an esteemed member with the best of intentions decided to start a tree planting campaign in the mid 1960s. This continued in the years follow, all without involvement of a professional golf course architect. The result, needless to say, was a lot of trees, the placement of which often seemed random, devoid of planning for future consequences.