This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of LINKS.
When, a couple of months ago, an ice storm ended the life of Augusta National’s Eisenhower Tree, two things happened. Number one: The fervent wish of our 34th President, to obliterate the loblolly pine that had long vexed him, was granted—albeit posthumously by Mother Nature rather than cheerfully by Clifford Roberts. Number two: The game of golf lost its most famous tree.
And so, as Ike basks in schadenfreude from above, the question begs: Which of the game’s other prominent arboreal specimens has ascended the throne? What tree, until a few weeks ago, was the second most famous tree in golf?
It’s a question without a clear answer. Happily, however, there are several worthy candidates. Let me list them in alphabetical order, and then give you my nominee.
1 Chambers Bay 15th Hole Ordinarily, no tree on a course so young (it opened in 2007) would qualify, but this candidate has three things going for it: 1) It’s the only tree on the course. Known as The Lone Fir, it stands sentinel behind the 15th green, silhouetted like a lighthouse against Puget Sound. 2) It has survived a near-fatal attack in 2008 by a nut case who tried to chop it down. 3) For one week next summer, it will be indisputably the most famous tree in golf when the U.S. Open comes to Chambers Bay.
2 Cypress Point 17th Hole If the only criterion was “most spectacularly situated tree,” this one would win hands down. It’s actually a mini-copse of gnarly cypresses, smack in the middle of the drive zone of this Cape Hole par four, forcing players to go wide left and lengthen the hole, play aggressively right and flirt with the Pacific, or lay way back and worry about it on the next shot. I once asked Byron Nelson what was the most daring shot he’d ever hit and without hesitation he pointed to a 3-iron approach he played here in the windy final round of the 1951 Crosby Pro-Am (five years after he’d retired), sending it to the right of the trees, 25 yards out over the sea, and hooking it back onto the green. It secured him the last of his 52 career wins.
3 Cypress Point 18th Hole When Jimmy Demaret said Cypress Point is the greatest 17-hole course in the world, he surely had this tree in mind. The 18th at Cypress is not a strong finisher to begin with—short, sharply doglegging, and straight uphill for the last 150 yards—but a tall cypress in the center of the fairway at about the 225-yard mark takes a weak hole and makes it wacky-weak. If there were an award for most cursed-at tree in the game, this would be the winner.
4 Harbour Town Golf Links 9th Hole This is one of the best short par fours in the world—just 332 yards—but for long hitters the wisest strategy may be to slug a tee shot as far as possible rather than lay back and have to deal with the towering pines that overhang the left lobe of the tiny heart-shaped green.
5 Inverness 8th Hole A scrawny 25-foot Blue Hills spruce—forever to be known as the “Hinkle Tree”—was emergency-planted by the USGA between the first and second rounds of the 1979 U.S. Open after Lon Hinkle had threaded a 2-iron tee shot through a narrow gap and into the adjoining 17th fairway, thereby dramatically shortening the par-five 8th. Today, a new championship tee and several adjacent plantings make the Hinkle Tree all but undetectable but it will live in golf history forever.
6 Oak Tree 16th Hole When this course hosted the 1988 PGA Championship, its rating from the tips was 76.9, the highest in the nation. In keeping with that killer difficulty and the Wild West flavor of the place, the owners strung a noose from a tree beside the green of the par-five 16th, which quickly became known as the “Hanging Tree.” It lasted until 2004 when a local newspaper columnist denounced it as racist. The noose came down soon thereafter but the Hanging Tree has hung in there.
7 Pebble Beach 18th Hole This hole actually has an embarrassment of arboreal riches. First there’s the pair of cypress trees fiendishly positioned in the middle of the fairway at about the 260-yard mark. They’d probably be on our list were it not for another tree that literally towers over them, a massive cypress that guards the right-front of the green, coming into play and mind for anyone whose ball strays to the right side of this hole. The tree is actually a replacement for the Monterey pine that stood in the same spot until 2001 when it succumbed to pitch canker. That tree was removed and this one—all 65 feet and 400,000 pounds of it—was uprooted from the first hole and given a better view of the ocean.
8 Sahalee North Course 2nd Hole No prominent golf course in the world is more claustrophobically tree-lined than Sahalee, site of the 1998 PGA Championship, and no hole at Sahalee is tighter than No. 2 on the North Course (it plays as the 11th in tournaments), a mid-length par five where the approach to the green is a field goal between two pines set just 25 yards apart.
9 TPC Sawgrass 16th Hole When the pros come to the tee of this par five in The Players Championship, they’re thinking “big drive, second shot on the green, birdie,” but that second shot has to avoid two things. On the right there is water and on the left there is a double-trunked oak tree, leaning into the fairway like an enormous umbrella.
10 Waialae 16th Hole They don’t come into play (unless you happen to skull a shot over the green), but who can argue that the four palms that form a huge Waialae “W” are not classics, despite being in place only a few years. The inspiration came from the epic 1963 comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, based on a manic treasure hunt for $350,000 buried under a “Big W.” It was Jonathan Winters’s character that made the discovery: “Why that’s it! Sure! Look, it’s a big W, I tell ya! It’s a big W!” (You can check out the Waialae/Hollywood connection on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUVOetA-POU.)
So which one of them is the new king of all golf trees? None of them. In my view, the most famous tree in golf is still at Augusta National, not on the golf course but beside the clubhouse. It’s the sprawling live oak—160 years old and still going strong—that once again this April will be the iconic gathering point for golfers great and small.