Close your eyes and picture a typical golf course in your mind. Chances are, that image contains a lot of trees. For decades, trees have become an integral part of the golf landscape and there is a widespread belief that “good” courses must have an abundance of trees. And so where trees did not naturally frame holes, owners and green committees planted them by the hundreds and even thousands.
While trees invariably enhance the scenery and provide a host of practical and environment benefits, they are not essential to most courses. In fact, they can drive up the cost of course maintenance drastically. To determine the exact cost of trees, we surveyed 14 private facilities in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic with a wide variety of tree proliferation and maintenance budgets. Here is what we found, with all figures representing averages per 18 holes.
TREES Every course included a line item in the budget for trees, which mainly included pruning, planting, pest control and removal of dead or dying trees. Some also included costs associated with maintaining a tree nursery. The average budget was $28,895, but this number is just beginning. The real cost of trees in spread out among other items, including capital improvements, turf care and labor.
ANNUAL PROJECTS Many courses have become severely overplanted to the point that hundreds of thousands of dollars are needed to correct the problem. Some courses allot money annually for tree work under this category, adding up to $13,377.
DEBRIS REMOVAL In addition to the regular removal of leaves, needles and fruit, courses also have to deal with storms that damage trees. Some have a line item for storm damage; others include it in other costs. In addition, turf areas frequently need to be cleared before they can be mowed. The cited cost, $31,815, does not include equipment or fuel. And given the hundreds of hours spent annually on debris removal, the expense is actually much higher.
MOWING This is a number that varies widely, based on the type of equipment used to trim around trees. Some courses use non-selective herbicides to save money, whereas others do the bulk of their work with string trimmers. Not surprisingly, courses spend a significant amount of labor trimming around trees, and the figure of $9,769 excludes equipment costs.
BUNKER MAINTENANCE Leaves, needles, branches fruit and other items from trees eventually find their way into bunkers, and their removal adds costs: labor, deterioration of bunker sand, tree-root incursion, clogging of bunker drain lines. For the purpose of this survey, we have only included the costs of removing tree debris from bunkers prior to raking: $3,626
TURFGRASS MAINTENANCE Poor grass-growing environments are a leading cause of turf problems. Tree canopies block air circulation and sunlight that are vital for turf health, growth, and recovery, while tree-root systems compete for moisture and nutrients.
Weak turf must be monitored more closely and may require more fertilizer and chemical inputs. Some courses have installed electric fans to improve air circulation and although trees are not always the reason, they usually play a major role. Other costs, like additional irrigation and fertility needs, are difficult to gauge. At the very least, consider the labor, ropes, stakes and signs needed to manage traffic flow, all as a result of trees.
Finally, it is impossible to put a price on golfers’ dissatisfaction associated with poor turf, but it is safe to say it has cost many turf managers their jobs over the years. So we’re going with a conservative figure: $2,823.
EQUIPMENT Courses with extensive tree plantings require more string trimmers and rotary mowers. Since many trees have surface roots that can be damaging to equipment, it is reasonable to assume trees can shorten their life and inflate repair costs. It is very difficult to quantify, but mowing around trees results in a tremendous amount of added wear and tear on equipment. No surveyed course had specific budgets, but given the cost of rotary rough mowing equipment, the expense is certainly worth considering.
Increased inventory, particularly of expensive, specialized equipment, also is worth reviewing. Courses may require blowers, leaf vacuums and tractors to handle leaf removal, as well as chainsaws, chippers and stump grinders. For the purpose of this survey, we are only including nominal funds for shortened life of mowers and annual replacement of string trimmers, which amount to $5,712.
WHEN WE ADD IT ALL UP, the cost of tree maintenance rose quickly. And the total figure of $88,017 is very conservative, as we did not factor in additional costs like fuel and equipment. Chances are, the real expense is closer to $200,000 for some courses.
Golfers like trees, which may be an important asset to some courses. But given the potential long-term costs, courses would be well served to give a lot of thought before implementing tree-planting plans. Additionally, courses with extensive tree plantings and/or a lot of poor quality trees could reduce maintenance costs by reducing their number.
David Oatis is the director of the Northeast Region of the USGA Green Section.
COST OF TREES Trees $28,895 Annual Projects 13,377 Debris Removal 31,815 Mowing 9,769 Bunker Maintenance 3,626 Turfgrass Maintenance 2,823 Equipment 5,712 Total $96,017
5 Famous Tree Projects
Oakmont’s Removal: The club took out nearly every interior tree between 1994 and 2007, originally starting the controversial project secretly, at night.
Pebble’s Cypress: At a cost of $350,000 in 2002, Pebble Beach moved a 70-foot tree from near the 1st hole to the 18th green to replace a pine that had succumbed to disease.
Inverness’ Hinkle Tree: Between the first and second rounds of the 1979 U.S. Open, the USGA installed a 24-foot spruce next to the 8th tee to prevent Lon Hinkle and others from playing down the adjacent 17th hole.
Winged Foot’s Great Elm: Golf lost one of its arboreal landmarks in 1993 when the club cut down the diseased 100-foot elm that had hung over half of the East course’s 10th green for decades, confounding approach shots.
Chambers Bay’s Lone Fir: In 2008, soon after the course opening, vandals took an axe to the only tree on the property, but the fir standing next to the 15th green has recovered thanks to the efforts of the local community.