By Tony Dear
No part of the golf course has come in for as much stick in recent years as its trees. Until around 2010, trees enjoyed a healthy-enough reputation, but over the last decade golfers have gotten wise to their shortcomings—impeding views, blocking sunlight, restricting air movement, sucking soil nutrients the turf needs, and hindering strategy.
Actually, architects as far back as Alister MacKenzie and H.S. Colt have maligned trees on golf courses, MacKenzie saying fairways bordered by rows of trees make “tedious and uninteresting golf,” Colt that trees are a “fluky and obnoxious form of hazard,” and that they “afford but slight opportunity for the display of golfing skill in extricating the ball from their clutches.”
Yet Colt also stressed that trees were “undoubtedly charming features in a landscape view.” American architect George Thomas believed that “natural growth should never be cut down if it is possible to save it.”
So trees that add or retain character, create a strategic puzzle, do not negatively affect the turfgrass or spoil a view, can stay. We asked architects, writers, and a photographer for their favorite golf course trees.
My first thought was the stand of trees to the right of the 14th fairway at Cypress Point. It’s just an amazing plant community. Can’t say it adds strategy to the hole, but it makes the tee shot by itself. A tree that definitely adds strategy is the pine that overhangs the 18th at Pebble Beach. It makes bailing out to the right there a real problem. The sugar maple to the right of the fairway on the 8th at Crystal Downs forces a decision on the tee shot.
The trees in the middle of the 17th at Cypress Point. They really focus the eye on the coastline and the aggressive line playing along the coast.
I can think of two holes—one defended by a copse (17th at Sunningdale Old), the other by a single tree (3rd at Royal Melbourne East). Both are shortish, downhill, sliding dogleg-right par fours. You want to hit the longest club possible but have to fade it. Hit it straight and it’s into the trees through the fairway—the perfect defense.
The first one that comes to mind is on the 2nd at Mammoth Dunes. That tree in front of the far waste area is exactly on-line with where you want to play a no-sweat drive across the sand cavern. It forces you to bail out even farther to the left, leaving a longer, semi-blind carry over the sand from a poor angle, or, take on more of the sand cavern with a longer carry up the right. It effectively makes the massive fairway play much narrower.
The spindly Cypress to the left of the 16th tee at Cypress Point. It can affect the tee shot. The way Seth Raynor originally designed the hole, players were supposed to have three options: 1. At the green, super long carry; 2. Left of the green, shorter carry; 3. Way left, very short carry (effectively playing it as a short par four). That tree could definitely affect the latter two options.
The pine that can be used as an aimpoint at both the 2nd and 8th on the Himalayas Course at Prince’s Golf Club in Kent. Having a single tree as a marker for two holes that run in different directions is cool. It’s similar to the church spire at St. Andrews.
The American Beech on the 420-yard 12th at Crystal Downs. It’s an enormous specimen, straight away from the tee on the far side of the dogleg. The tree is in play for longer hitters and demands you turn the ball a little left to right to avoid being blocked on the second shot. It’s in decline sadly, split in the middle of the trunk from its large outstretched branches weighing it down. It’s cabled to help keep it together.
No course possesses beautiful trees that provide a strategic element quite like Cypress Point does. Trees have a significant influence at the 1st, 5th, 14th, and 17th, but perhaps the most beautiful and strategic of them all are the trees on the 18th—a very underrated hole. I think it’s a stunningly beautiful, interesting, and strategic hole, made so by its trees and the thoughtful way MacKenzie and Hunter routed its fairway through the Cypress grove.
The Black Pine on the left side of the fairway at the 15th at Hirono in Japan. It was a two-stemmed pine but one of the trunks was lost. Hence, the club planted another two-stemmed pine to take its place in years to come. A drive slightly left is stymied by the tree, so it demands accuracy as well as length for the tee shot.
The “v trees” in the sandy area just short of the par-five 16th green at TPC Sawgrass—cool-looking trees that factor into the playing strategy of the hole.
The Lone Fir on the 15th at Chambers Bay. We removed all 80 acres of vegetation there, saving only one Fir tucked within a grove of deciduous trees along the berm. We wanted to see it by itself and as the months passed it became a focal point. While not perfect, it had personality.
What do you think are the greatest trees in golf? Let us know in the comments section below!