To tree, or not to tree

Presented by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America

Have you ever wondered why golf course superintendents have what seem to be perfectly healthy trees removed at the course you play?

To the golfer, the biggest hazards on the golf course are bunkers, ponds, creeks and gullies. To the golf course superintendent, the biggest hazards on the golf course can be trees.

To hear one complain about trees is almost blasphemous. After all, poet Joyce Kilmer wrote that “poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.” It’s not that superintendents dislike trees. To the contrary, one of the primary reasons superintendents choose the profession is because they enjoy working with the environment. In fact, golf course superintendents closely monitor the health of trees because they do enhance the environment and are an integral part of the golf course. Trees filter dust, lower temperatures by creating shade and provide wildlife habitat.

But the first responsibility for any superintendent is to provide a high-quality playing surface based on the available resources. Unfortunately, trees compete with turf for the basic nutrients needed to flourish – oxygen, water and sunlight. This battle is waged most often near putting greens and tees where trees often form an amphitheatre-like setting. As the trees encroach the closely cropped turf on the putting and teeing surfaces, they restrict airflow and sunlight while using up the available nutrients. To compensate, fans will be placed in these areas to aid air circulation, but sometimes that tactic is but a short-term solution. With apologies to Kilmer, even God could not grow grass on the golf course if he did not have a proper tree management program.

Perhaps unlike any sport, golfers have a special affection for their playing surface. Golfers talk about golf courses with a reverence that should be reserved for a temple or shrine. Rare is there such admiration expressed for a tennis court, a soccer field or a basketball court. Because of their affinity for the golf course, golfers often cringe at the prospects of having trees trimmed or removed. After all, the tree could be a memorial to a friend or family member, it may have been planted by school children or its life may parallel that of the golfer. Whatever the reason, tree maintenance is not as easy as pulling the chainsaw cord. The most important part of a tree maintenance program may be communicating the reasons why such action is necessary.

Turf health is one issue and human health is another. Tree maintenance programs are important to reduce the risk of falling limbs that could potentially harm golfers. As a means to reduce their liability, some golf facilities have communicated and have enacted well-defined policies regarding tree risk reduction policies.

In addition to turf quality and safety, the strategy of play is frequently determined by trees. Golf course architects use trees to define boundaries such as separating fairways, creating doglegs, providing for depth perception and making challenges by blocking a certain angle of entry.

Superintendents must take into account how the course was intended to play before tree modifications or plantings are enacted. Often times the golf course designer is long gone after a course has matured and grown. Trees that did not affect the strategy based on the original layout mature and create shot making that is contrary to the original intent.

Despite the emotional attachment to trees, a well-planned and executed tree maintenance program often gains quick acceptance, even among the most ardent foes. Under the direction of the golf course superintendent and assisted by a golf course architect and skillful arborist, tree maintenance can be executed with the results being barely noticeable to even the keenest eye. In the end, all benefit as turf quality improves, safety is enhanced and the course plays in the manner in which it was intended.

For more information regarding golf course management practices, contact your local superintendent or the GCSAA at 800-472-7878 or