COURSE CARE
The Benefits of Golf Course Tree Management October 29, 2019 | Liberty Corner, N.J. By George Waters, USGA Green Section

Poorly located trees can cause countless issues on a golf course, ranging from turf and playability problems to safety concerns.

When the right trees are in the right places on a golf course, they add tremendous value. Trees can provide strategic interest and beautiful views, along with a host of environmental benefits. Native trees also give golf courses a distinctive character that connects them with their surroundings.

With all these positives, it’s not surprising that tree management can be one of the most sensitive and emotional subjects at any golf course. However, there can definitely be too much of a good thing when it comes to trees on golf courses, and when trees are planted in the wrong locations, they can cause problems for decades.

“Trees are an integral part of golf courses in most of the U.S.,” said Adam Moeller, director of USGA Green Section education. “Understandably, people get nervous when discussing tree removal, even if the issues are very clear.”

“The key is getting past the emotion of the subject and looking objectively at the impact of each individual tree,” said Moeller. “With golf courses everywhere facing higher maintenance costs, higher expectations and tough competition, effective tree management is probably more important than ever. Facilities simply can’t afford the issues that come with problematic trees.”

From the East…

When Todd Raisch took over as superintendent of The Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., in 1995, trees on the course were overgrown and there were hundreds of non-native trees that had been introduced as part of a planting program. Dense shade and limited air movement around the greens were a recipe for disaster.

“I had it pretty easy my first few years as superintendent,” recalled Raisch, “but eventually we had a major disease outbreak on the greens. By August of that summer, you couldn’t even play on a bunch of them.”

Ridgewood had no choice but to act (see image below), even though many members were opposed to tree removal. A company was hired to conduct shade studies and identify which trees were having the most negative impacts. Once that information was conveyed to the membership, the club decided to remove more than 1,000 trees around the greens alone.

 

 

“At the time, I was worried about losing my job,” said Raisch, “but the damage we sustained on our putting greens that summer might have been the best thing that ever happened to me and to Ridgewood because it opened the door to addressing tree issues.”

In the years that followed, the beneficial effects of tree removal showed themselves throughout the golf course with improved playing conditions, better views and restoration of the architect’s intent for how the course should look and play. The positive results allowed Raisch and his team to continue with selective tree removal and pruning on the course, which will host the U.S. Amateur Championship in 2022.

“We worked for more than 10 years thinning out our internal woodlands, opening views and improving air movement,” said Raisch. “We also removed trees that are not native to our site. When I see photos from 10-20 years ago, it’s hard to believe what the course used to look like.”

The experience at Ridgewood shows how bad things can get when courses wait too long to address tree issues, but it also shows the value of being patient once the process begins. After the initial emergency phase, Raisch was very conscious of not doing too much too fast. He took time to document problems and show the benefits of tree removal. Opponents eventually came around.

“Trees always have been and always will be part of the identity at Ridgewood,” said Raisch. “There are still thousands of trees on the property, but now they aren’t causing major turf issues, they have space to grow into their natural form, people can see the movement of the land and you can play golf – which is what we’re here for, after all.”

…to the West

On the opposite side of the country, Lake Spanaway Golf Course in Tacoma, Wash., had its own issues with more than 3,000 Douglas firs lining fairways and surrounding greens. Some greens saw more shade than sunlight even in the height of summer. At a busy municipal golf course that hosts more than 40,000 rounds each year, the encroaching trees were making it increasingly difficult for the putting greens to stay healthy. Eventually, disease caused major damage to several greens.

Selective tree removal at Lake Spanaway allowed more sunlight to reach the putting surfaces.

 

The situation was desperate enough to motivate action that was long overdue. “We knew we had tree issues,” said superintendent Tony Bubenas, “but everyone said we couldn’t afford to do anything about it. Once we started losing greens, we couldn’t afford not to do anything. It’s just too competitive in this area to have bad greens; golfers were simply going somewhere else.”

Bubenas utilized an affordable sun tracking app to identify which trees should be prioritized for removal. USGA Course Consulting Service reports also helped to document and explain the tree issues to the county leadership who oversaw the facility. The USGA Green Section offers a specialized tree evaluation visit that is designed to help facilities identify tree issues and develop solutions that will improve turf health, playing conditions and the overall health of the tree population.

“Obviously, trees are a touchy subject anywhere, but especially here in Washington State,” said Bubenas. “Our golfers, and the public at large, get concerned when you talk about tree management, but we were able to clearly demonstrate that tree removal was necessary to save this business. It was in the public’s best interest with this being a municipal golf course that is part of a larger regional park.”

A professional logging company was hired to remove more than 200 trees around the most problematic greens. While turf conditions improved dramatically in those areas, there was more work to be done.

“We knew that we still had some very tough growing environments, but we simply didn’t have the resources to address everything all at once,” said Bubenas. “This past winter, we ended up with serious damage on several heavily shaded greens, to the extent that one green was closed for three months this spring. That obviously had an impact on revenue, so we’ve got another 50 trees scheduled for removal.”

‘For the upcoming phase, we created some great partnerships within the municipality to reduce costs and increase the benefit to the public,” said Bubenas. “The upper portion of the trees and all debris will be turned into woodchips for use throughout the parks system. The lower 20 feet, stumps and root balls will be used by our Surface Water Management Department to reduce erosion in streams and create fish habitat. We will also be planting trees to replace those removed from the golf course.”

Turf conditions are continuing to improve at Lake Spanaway, and Bubenas estimates that he is using at least 30 percent less pesticides as a direct result of tree removal. Views of Mount Rainier have been revealed and golfers are enjoying better playing conditions all year round.

Common Threads

Ridgewood and Lake Spanaway are very different golf facilities, but their experiences with tree management have important similarities. Both waited too long to address tree issues and paid a heavy price as a result. Documentation and effective communication were critical for building trust and support for tree removal at both courses. Perhaps the most important similarity was that once people saw the benefits of selective tree removal, support grew and additional work was planned.

While tree management on a golf course makes many people uneasy, we can’t allow our discomfort to prevent necessary action. Trees that are poorly placed or overgrown have countless negative impacts, ranging from playability and turf issues to very real safety concerns. Failing to identify and manage these problems is a classic case of missing the forest for the trees.

George Waters is the manager of Green Section education for the USGA. Email him at gwaters@usga.org.

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