Tips for Maintaining Golf Course Trees

By: Scott Niven, CGCS and Property Manager at The Stanwich Club

When the summer sun dips into the Southern sky and golf courses begin to wake up with blankets of frost, the trees start to put on their annual show of  autumn brilliant colors. It was most likely this time of year when Joyce Kilmer wrote his famous poem entitled “Tree,” which begins, “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree.”  It is also this time of year when the golfing community expresses most of their appreciation for trees. Besides marveling at the wonderful pallet of colors, this is the ideal time for course officials and superintendents to make plans for tree removals, pruning and planting of new specimens. The work resulting from that effort is best done during the cooler months of the year when golfers aren’t around and the golf course is dormant.

To help make the most informed decisions regarding their trees, it is advised that clubs bring along an individual who is knowledgeable in tree care such as a licensed arborist, golf course architect, USGA agronomist, or your golf course superintendent.  Trees are one of the most dynamic elements on a golf course as they constantly change and those changes can mean simply growing larger or being damaged by storms, insects or diseases. Scheduling an annual trip to conduct a thorough evaluation of all the trees on your golf course property will help you to make the right decisions to give your course the most attractive look and best placement of trees for the strategy of each hole.  In this part of the country, trees are used to define the line of play and often the point where a dogleg dictates the length of your shot into the green. It is very important to understand that expansion of trees over the years might narrow the line of play or even make doglegs nearly unplayable. For a time, selective pruning can help to keep mature trees in check before they become too large for their original role, however in time, it is often necessary to remove trees to maintain the line of play and or intended strategy for each hole. 

When their shade becomes detrimental to the health of the surrounding turf is another reason trees should be removed. Trees will win the competition with turf for light, moisture and nutrients resulting in thin, weak grass which is not conducive to good playing conditions. In this case it is almost always prudent to remove the tree to help improve the health of the turf for optimum playing conditions, especially in the case of putting greens. Damaged trees which have become safety hazards and often unsightly should be pruned or removed completely as well.  A common scenario here is with older weak wooded varieties such as the White Pine, Willow, Poplar, or Birch which often loose their aesthetic appeal when they grow beyond their average life span.  Trees competing with each other should also be thinned to help feature the best remaining specimens.

After you have completed all of your removals, if necessary a well thought out planting plan can be implemented to assure that your golf course continues to look aesthetically pleasing while maintaining the intended strategy for each hole.