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Key Takeaways:

  • Formal tree management plans help provide a clear road map for future tree decisions.
  • Devote the time and resources necessary for a thorough analysis of tree impacts on your golf course.
  • Professionals from different disciplines will add value and credibility to a tree management plan.

Trees are a big deal on golf courses all over the world. Unfortunately, people’s fondness for trees can become a serious roadblock when it comes to making some of the management decisions required to maintain healthy turf and a healthy tree population. Sit through any golf board or green committee meeting discussion about tree management and you will quickly realize how emotional these issues can be.

Many golfers will protect trees with a zeal matched only by their love for the sport itself. This affection for trees can result in poor judgement or misguided priorities in tree planting and maintenance programs. Proper planning and maintenance often become secondary as the emphasis is placed on planting more and more trees. This philosophy often leads to hasty decisions with new plantings, resulting in poorly positioned trees and choosing species that may not be well suited for the golf course. This can create immediate maintenance headaches and lead to future turf and tree issues.

While there may be great reasons to remove or prune a tree, you can be sure that no matter what tree is being discussed, it means something to someone. It may be an iconic symbol for the property, a memorial tree honoring a former course dignitary or a tree that golfers always aim for or pick fruit from every fall. All the different reasons why people become attached to trees understandably makes navigating the waters of tree pruning and removal tricky.

Like most things in the world of golf course maintenance, there are many ways to successfully approach tree management. For some courses, the superintendent may have the autonomy to simply pull out the chainsaw and prune at grade whenever they want. For other courses, it may take an act of Congress to even remove a dead limb from a tree. In either situation, or any in between, having a plan is always better than not.

Golf courses with good reputations for tree management realized long ago the value of a comprehensive plan to care for existing trees and plan for future tree plantings. Most, if not all, of these courses have taken the time to formalize their goals and guiding principles in some sort of tree management plan. Those efforts have paid off handsomely with healthy tree populations and a minimum of tree-related agronomic problems. Developing such a plan is also critical for creating an environment at your course where tree management decisions can be made without the typical upheaval and emotion that can lead to poor decisions.

"Golf courses with good reputations for tree management realized long ago the value of a comprehensive plan to care for existing trees and plan for future tree plantings."

Getting Started

The superintendent is the resident expert on maintaining the golf property, so it is natural that they should take the lead in creating a tree management plan. While the superintendent may be highly skilled in turf and tree care, it is a great idea to engage services from outside professionals in fields related to tree management. There is an old proverb that says: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Including advisers from the arboricultural, agronomic and golf course architectural fields will help a tree management plan succeed. We’ll call these the “three A’s”:

  • Arboriculture
  • Architecture
  • Agronomy
"While the superintendent may be highly skilled in turf and tree care, it is a great idea to engage services from outside professionals in fields related to tree management."


Before we get into creating a tree management plan, it is important to know what you’re dealing with. Knowing how many trees of what kind are on the property, and how healthy they are, should be the first step in creating a plan. Professional arborists are the best option when it comes to producing a comprehensive and accurate tree inventory. Not only do they have local knowledge and dendrological expertise, they will also be able to provide the inventory in a digital format to use in the overall tree management plan. Let’s look at some of the key components to include in a tree inventory.

Tree Count: Sometimes tree management decisions become more objective when people simply look at the numbers. For example, if a course has 5,000 trees and the superintendent would like to remove 10 of them to dramatically improve putting green health, that represents 0.2% of the tree population. Included in a count would be tree locations, species determination and typical life expectancy. Knowing the tree species, its specific requirements and the life expectancy will help in planning and prioritizing maintenance and planting programs.

Tree Health: While many superintendents are capable of evaluating tree health, bringing in an outside arborist – preferably certified – will add value and credibility to any tree health report. Part of the health assessment should address overcrowding or overplanted areas. Not only does tree health decline in an overcrowded situation, but turf under or near trees can suffer from excessive shade, resource competition and limited air movement. Many tree-lined courses can gradually become closed in and claustrophobic as trees grow together, which can result in lost views and playability impacts.

Tree Safety: Tree failure cannot always be predicted but trees with obvious structural problems should be removed, particularly when they are near playing corridors or high-traffic areas. No matter how rare accidents from tree failure are, it is wise to remove any potential tree safety risks when they become known.

Once the initial tree inventory is completed, ongoing tree evaluation will need to continue in the future. Trees mature, weather events happen and course conditions change. These can all have immediate and long-term effects on the tree population and management priorities.


Trees can play an important role in the architecture of a golf course. Try to imagine Riviera without the towering eucalyptus and stately sycamores, Augusta National without the pines, or TPC Sawgrass without strategically placed oaks and palm trees. Because trees have a big impact on the strategy, playability and aesthetics of golf courses, golf course architects can provide invaluable assistance in determining which trees, if any, on a golf course should be preserved, re-planted or removed.

“The green committee chairman back in 1989 thought this hole was too easy, so he planted that sequoia in front of the green.” Statements like this should never drive tree management decisions.

“The green committee chairman back in 1989 thought this hole was too easy, so he planted that sequoia in front of the green. Statements like this should never drive tree management decisions."

Engaging a qualified golf course architect to help determine which trees are critical to the strategy and design of the course and where more trees could be needed will guide future tree removal, pruning and planting decisions. These reviews are generally easy to complete and straightforward. The architect should include maps and aerial images of each hole, along with specific notations about planting and removal locations. Having an architectural analysis of the trees on property can provide long-term continuity and integrity of the design intent.


It is well documented that trees not only compete for life-sustaining resources with turf but they can also inhibit air movement around key playing areas. Some trees are worse offenders that others, and some turfgrasses are better adapted than others to handle the shade and root competition. However, in many situations trees and turfgrass simply are not compatible. Turfgrass grown in a shady, pocketed environment is physiologically different from turf grown out in the open. Reduced sunlight affects the growth habit of the turf, causing it to be more open and "leggy," much the same as a houseplant grown with insufficient sunlight. This leaves the turfgrass more succulent and susceptible to wear injury. Under low-light conditions, the turfgrass also will suffer from reduced vigor.

Reduced air circulation translates to increased temperature and relative humidity. These conditions favor growth and development of many turfgrass pathogens. In summary, a poor grass-growing environment creates less vigorous turf that is more susceptible to injury and infection. When turf in a poor growing environment suffers injury – whether it is through wear, fungal infection, nematodes or insect infestation – the damage is enhanced and recovery is hampered by the lack of adequate sunlight.

Another factor to consider is surface rooting around trees. Are shallow or exposed roots causing an unsafe condition for golfers? Are they destroying critical infrastructure like cart paths, drainage systems or bunkers?

Preparing a thorough agronomic analysis of turf health as it relates to the tree population on your course will help identify trees that are causing unacceptable turf conditions. Removal or pruning can then be addressed with an eye toward overall turf health and playing conditions.

In many cases, superintendents are successful in overcoming poor grass-growing environments and are able to produce good playing conditions. However, few will dispute the added cost and extra effort involved. It also is a limiting factor in achieving the desired level of playability. All of this translates into more expensive golf with a higher risk of undesirable playing conditions.

Putting it all Together

Once arboricultural, architectural and agronomic reviews have taken place, it’s time to put them all together. Consolidating all the information into an easy-to-understand format will do wonders for the plan adoption process. Having digital and hard copies available for decision-makers that include pictures, maps and charts will display a level of professionalism and care that will be hard to argue with. But you’re still not done yet. Make sure to get all interested parties into a meeting to walk through the plan. This is a meeting the superintendent should diligently prepare and practice for. A polished presentation will be the crowning jewel in developing a successful tree management plan.


Creating a tree management plan takes time and it will be a living document that changes along with the needs and conditions at your course. Once adopted by course management and ownership, it will help the superintendent plan and, more importantly, complete necessary tree work with less hassle.

It is important to recognize that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to tree management decisions. While removing 90% of the trees on one course may make the most sense, removing just 1% on a different course could negatively impact the essence of that facility.

Superintendents frequently face difficult headwinds in the course of their daily work. Navigating the emotional waters of tree care can be made much easier if time and effort are put into developing a proper tree management plan. USGA Agronomists have years of experience and are available to help evaluate tree-related agronomic issues at your facility.