Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

Trees and turf – think oil and water

By Mary Armstrong

Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News December 24, 2010

In this column I’ve probably covered nearly every essential part of the golf course – greens, tees, fairways, roughs and bunkers.  And while we have covered trees here and there – the Arominink Golf Club article for one – we haven’t given them the depth they deserve.

Historically, courses have begun with few or no trees.  Since golf originated on the treeless links lands of Scotland, trees became a feature only because of the spread to more inland locations.  I imagine they were a nuisance, but it’s likely the expense was too large to remove all but those that were absolutely in play.  If you’ve ever looked at pictures of new courses from the early part of the 20th century, you might have noticed that the land was nearly always mostly barren of trees.  Whether this was a reason for selecting the site or because the architect had them all removed is hard to say.  However, from experience I know that if you have a treed site and aren’t using mapping – as few of the “turn of the twentieth century” architects did – then it is very difficult and time consuming to layout 18 or even 9 holes. 

Trees have been added to most layouts – even to those that had many trees saved in the construction process.  The nation went through a tree planting “kick” in the late 50’s and early 60’s and golf course management people have been regretting it for the last 20 years or so. 

Why?  Well, it’s pretty simple.  Turf and trees don’t mix.  You can have lovely trees, but it’s doubtful that you’ll have very good turf – especially if you want playing surfaces that meet today’s standards.  On-the-other-hand, you can have wonderful turf, but not very good trees and you probably wouldn’t want to put the effort into pruning (limbs and roots) to get the turf product you wanted.  Besides, the trees wouldn’t look…well, like trees. 

But John Q has a certain affinity for trees.  There’s been research into that, but I don’t have the space here to explain more completely.  Suffice to say humans do seek out trees for shelter – physical and psychological.  The more hostile and barren the landscape, the more we look for shelter – be it from the wind, rain or sun. 

So, what to do?  Well, first of all, my recommendation is never start planting trees on a golf course – they really are too much trouble – not within playable areas and especially not where turf will be the groundcover.  Let’s say you have ‘em already.  Well then you really need to be actively managing them – just as you would any other feature on the golf course.  Certainly the management doesn’t need to be on a par with greens, tees or even roughs.  At a minimum, you’ll need an annual inspection.  And what if you haven’t done a thing with them for years and years?  The effort to get things back into proper shape may be drastic and/or take years and plenty of expense.  In the past ten or so years many courses have removed thousands of trees in order to eliminate competition from in-play areas and restore the shot values envisioned by the original designers.

Most turf species require nearly a full day’s allotment of sunshine.  Shade tolerant species generally don’t stand up to traffic (foot, play and equipment) very well.  Perhaps the most confounding aspect of the interplay of trees and turf is that the typical protocol for creating an acceptable golf turf only gives further advantage to the tree.  Irrigation and fertilizers only make the tree lusher – casting a heavier shade and growing ever taller.  So, often a superintendent’s efforts to grow quality turf around trees really only makes it less likely he/she can do so, while pouring “good money after bad” into extra fertilizer, pesticides and water. 

A tree’s roots will commonly extend to its drip line edge.  Sometimes, if the tree isn’t getting adequate water and nutrients the roots will extend even further to more intensively managed golf features such as greens and tees.  A single mature tree can draw 50 or more gallons of water each day.  NMSU research has determined that Pecan trees use 150 – 250 gallons of water per day!  Water usage by trees varies among tree species, the growing environment and season.  Roots also pose a hidden danger to golfers.  Some tree species are especially shallow rooting and a normal golf swing with an iron can contact the root, injuring the player’s hands, wrists and/or arms.  Tendon damage is especially prevalent and the result can be surgery.  Where roots are actually at the surface a thinly struck shot can strike the root and come back and hit the player.  I’ve personally know players that have been stricken in the face in such instances.

Tree litter is another factor that increases golf course maintenance costs.  They rarely lose their leaves all at one time and even a minor leaf “drop” can cause significant problems for players in locating their ball.  Fallen nuts, berries and other fruit can sometimes interfere with ball roll. 

I once was working at a course in Westchester County New York when seemingly without reason a 120 foot Tuliptree fell across an adjacent cart path and most of the 10th fairway.  As I recall, there was hardly a breeze and the crashing sound was deafening and shocking.  Thank goodness no one was playing the hole.  Inspection revealed severe rot and insect damage on a nearly hollow trunk.  While we love and need trees, golf courses shouldn’t be arboretums any more than arboretums should have golfers. 

Next week – Considerations for a well prepared tree management plan.

A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces last January.  She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects.  You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog:


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