Beautification committees, along with renegade greens chairmen have ruined many golf great holes, and for that matter, entire golf courses throughout the United States. Well-meaning as they may be or have been in the past, there has been a recent groundswell of clubs who have said enough.
Once great layouts, designed in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40‘s…sadly look unrecognizable today. The fifty-yard corridors with multiple options and uneven fairway lies have been replaced by U.S. Open-sized landing areas with (obligatory) over-grown clusters of trees on courses that rarely hold anything more than a local invitational tournament once per year.
There is a reason why golf participation is shrinking. Sure money is a factor, but difficulty and time to complete a round are frequently cited as reasons some drop the sport altogether.
The reality is, few eighteen handicaps enjoy searching endlessly for balls on twenty-eight yard wide fairways. Most aren’t adept at hitting off bare lies under trees or worse, hitting off exposed roots. And as these same golfers age, so do the trees they are forced to play around.
Unfortunately, unless your club was designed pre-1950 by the likes of a Ross, Raynor, Tillinghast, or Mackenzie, the very mention of cutting a single tree is tantamount to concreting the club pool or removing Hot Dogs from the menu.
The fact is trees, while beautiful and life-sustaining, have little value when it comes to the actual play of golf. Trees should be the backdrop, not the focal point, with very few exceptions. The evidence of this philosophy is backed by many of the top 100 courses in America who believe par should be defended on the ground (or the green complex). Meaning, if a player hits a shot to an “approved” position, the degree of difficulty for the next shot should be rewarded appropriately.
When the true impact of trees are brought to light, it is interesting that the burden of proof to ‘cut or leave be’ is always laid upon the person with the chainsaw rather than the neophyte, young or old, who has never taken the time to study the basics of golf course architecture. I’ll admit, this process isn’t an easy one to broach as it relates to Private Clubs and Club members, but the best starting point should be to challenge the existence of each and every tree, regardless of age. This could sound like semantics, but instead of asking “why cut”, the real question should be, “why keep”?
Defending par via trees (or what my friend, Vinnie Kmetz likes to call, ‘sky bunkers’) in truth, is an uneducated position.
A.W. Tillinghast believed, “we may play around trees but certainly the only route to a hole must never be over or through them…we must not have them directly by our putting greens (and) not too close to the line of play”.
C.B. MacDonald stated, “No course can be ideal which is laid out through trees. Trees foreshorten the perspective and the wind has not full play. To get the full exaltation playing the game of golf one should when passing from green to green as he gazes over the horizon have an unlimited sense of eternity, suggesting contemplation and imagination.”
The first thing to consider when assessing the value of any tree on a golf course is whether or not you can live with the negative impacts they have on the surrounding turf grass, namely thin or bare lies, whispy grass, and/or exposed tree roots.
Jeff Harris of Harris Golf, a Maine-based course developer, contractor and operator, said, “The final and easiest argument to make against trees on the golf course comes from an agronomic standpoint. Simply put, trees have no agronomic benefit to the turf grass on the golf course. They create shade, steal moisture, and out-compete turf grass for vital nutrients.
The second factor to contemplate is the impact on playability for all handicaps.
Does a single tree or cluster of them hang over the fairway? Is an eighteen handicapper with a twenty-yard slice typically blocked by a tree after hitting the fairway (i.e. planting trees in the corner of a doglegs) while his low-handicap counterpart on the same line twenty yards ahead has a clear shot? Do players frequently lay-up because of a tree or cluster of them? If so, they need to be removed.
Here we have a twenty-five yard landing area with a small creek at the end of the fairway…and this ubiquitous tree which seems to block mostly mid-high handicaps who have neither the length or accuracy to do anything more than punch out on this 397 yard par 4. How good would this hole be if the tees were moved up 40-50 yards and this giant eyesore was removed?
Par 5 shown from approximately 240 yards away. ‘Sky bunkers’ on the left force players to lay-up to the right (boring), when four (actual) bunkers already block approaches (two shown) and two more bunkers in the foreground block lay-ups, laid up too far. This could be a great (and difficult) risk/reward 2nd shot as the green in the foreground is sized to received a short iron.
Third, does a tree or cluster block a prescribed landing zone; meaning in-flight or on its descent. If so, it should be removed.
Twenty-eight yard wide, pinched in fairways = no fun.
Fourth, how much are trees costing your club in maintenance each year?
We have already discussed how trees increase water and chemical demand by robbing adjacent turf from nourishment, but what about the time your maintenance crew spends mowing around trees, and if the turf isn’t dead (yet), trimming? Have you ever considered the additional time to continually sharpen and purchase new blades that are impacted by exposed tree roots or worse, re-pave cart paths due to their close proximity to a tree or cluster of them?
Tree roots eat blades.
Some members may frown upon the use of natural areas to replace tree corridors, due to the increased chance for lost balls, but the fact is, they save thousands of dollars every year in maintenance costs. If your fairways are pinched in like bowling alleys, natural areas may be a tough sell, but with a proper rough buffer, natural areas increase aesthetics and turf quality.
Fifth (and this point really comes down to personal preference) are the vistas gained by opening up the course, in general.
Holston Hills Country Club in my hometown of Knoxville, TN went through a massive restoration a few years ago and the results speak for themselves with regard to the stunning views now afforded on so many holes that were formerly cluttered with trees.
So what factors should one consider when deciding to keep trees?
- Does it form a sound barrier from adjacent housing, but not impact shot-making?
- Does it provide an aiming point in the distance for tee shots, but not typically impact a properly played shot to the fairway?
- Does it shade a bench on a hole where back-ups occur and but not hang over the tee box?
- Does it provide safety for players on neighboring holes from errant shots, but not affect playability or shot-making?
“This is all well and fine, but my course was not designed by a Ross or a Raynor. Most of our membership is older and believe that trees add beauty, and when cornered, many fear the course will become too easy for better players”.
It really doesn’t matter who designed your course. What matters is the overall enjoyment and playability for all handicaps.
Yes, courses with more of a pedigree are easier to ‘clean-up’, but to claim the course will become too easy for the better player is hog wash. First, low handicappers make up less than 5% of your membership, so who cares?
Second, they aren’t affected by twenty-eight yard wide fairways and ‘sky bunkers’ like the high handicappers that make up the majority of a clubs membership. If anything, handicaps might improve by a shot or two for the high handicapper, but many positives will be gained by thinning out needless trees.
Alister Mackenzie stated, “there are more mistakes in designing a golf course by attaching too much importance to the element of luck and there is too much of that very element in having to negotiate with trees”.
Donald Ross thoughts were, “as beautiful as trees are, we must not lose sight of the fact that there is a limited place for them in golf. We must not allow our sentiments to crowd out the real intent of a golf course, that of providing fair playing conditions. If it in any way interferes with a properly played stroke, I think the tree is an unfair hazard and should not be allowed to stand.”
So why is there so much reluctance, obstinance and even anger when it comes to ‘smartly’ discussing the return of lost corridors and the improvement in turf quality when green committees across the country meet?
When you look at the shear volume and clarity with which the greatest architects who have ever lived have opined, one can only conclude the fight is an educational issue.
After all, how many green committees require their participants read at the very least, Donald Ross’s, “Golf Has Never Failed Me”, Mackenzie’s, “Golf Architecture”, or the more recent work of Tom Doak’s, “The Anatomy of a Golf Course”?
If influence, stubbornness, playing ability, and/or tenure continue to be the hallmark of a ‘good’ green committee member, than the greats of our past and their beliefs about how a hole or course should play will be just that…history.
With sound principles and a little self-education, I bet many of us are playing on unpolished gems!
Ask a perspective member behind closed doors about one of the knocks against joining a Private Club, outside of monthly dues + steep initiation fees and they will probably cite, ‘having to play the same course again and again’.
It is a valid concern, especially if they have a good selection of upscale public options already available, but in reality, it should be a non-issue. The problem is, few clubs have formal reciprocal agreements in place as an option for this often heard objection, and fewer actually use them to their benefit (as a selling point).
Forty and fifty years ago, Clubs and Club Professionals were honored when an out-of-town member of another Private club chose to visit their club for the day. In certain pockets of the Northeast United States it is still the case, with many clubs charging cart/caddy fee (only) or fully comping the guest(s) round as a courtesy to the members Golf Professional.
For the most part, that courtesy is dead today. Instead, we have companies like Private Club Network, The Outpost, and Elite Tee who have (sadly) cashed in on something that should be part of any Private Club membership.
“C’mon, our members know if they are out of town and want to play another Private Club…all they have to do is speak with our Head Professional and he can, in most cases, arrange it”.
I won’t deny that many members (probably) know this, but why then do the aforementioned businesses even exist?
- Communication – fewer and fewer Clubs are engaging one another like in years past. Part of the reason is, there are more clubs in existence, but many don’t see the value in driving three hours away with a few key staff members to share best practices with clubs that are outside of their market, yet could be a strategic partner.
- Ease/Convenience – some members feel like they are asking for a special favor by requesting a tee time out of town and don’t want to feel like they owe their Pro. One call or email to third-party, for some, feels better and is often faster than ‘putting’ their Pro out.
- Open pricing – once you become a member of one of the third party groups, you receive a complete list of courses, by state and by city, each with corresponding fees. Open pricing means members don’t have a chance of being embarrassed because a reciprocating course came back with a higher-than-the-member-was-willing-to-pay-fee.
Elite Tee, one of the more popular third party web-based reciprocal businesses, piled on with this email just this morning, “If you belong to a private course, chances are you already have reciprocal deals with local courses, but they are often informal agreements which must be pursued by getting one course pro to contact another. After consulting with many Head Pros the common consensus is that they feel that they are spending more and more time arranging rounds for their members and it takes them away from their primary responsibility as a Head Pro. This arrangement usually results in confusion over how much should be charged and a feeling from visiting golfers that they are somewhat of an inconvenience”.
If this doesn’t insult your Head Golf Professional and his staff, than maybe Elite Tee has a point? A five-minute call is a hassle? If this is true, than our industry is in worse shape than I ever thought. I can only guess how “inconvenient” ordering shirts or wedges must be?
Obviously, there is a market and more importantly, a benefit to Private Club members being able to play an occasional round away from their home club.
One club that gets it, is Stafford Country Club, in Stafford, NY. The club sits on a classic, Walter J. Travis design and reciprocates with twenty-four clubs within the area.
I recently spoke to Julie Haile, Golf Shop Manager at Stafford CC about the details of their reciprocal program. The club is a model for how to administer and view reciprocal agreements in their proper light.
Mrs. Haile said, “We view reciprocals as an extension of our own club, as do the other clubs in the area. We aren’t trying to make money on our agreements as much as give our members a place to play, on the off-chance they don’t want to play their home club on a particular day or for instance, when we have a tournament going on. With that said, we have all agreed to extend this privilege for cart fee only. Members are already paying enough in dues, and if we have the space in off-peak times, we are happy to have guests much the same as other clubs are happy to have our members. We see it as a win-win for everyone within our Private Club community”.
I asked Mrs. Haile about how the membership would feel if they took the program away and she quickly said, “I think we would hear about it! We did around 500 reciprocal rounds at our club last year and sent out close to 800 rounds to our sister clubs. Members can play a maximum of (3) rounds per year at neighboring clubs with our closest club being forty-five minutes away and our furthest is probably three hours out”.
Mrs. Haile went on to say, “the neatest thing is when a guest comes to one of our stag nights or plays in one of our daily events. Even though they aren’t our member, we try and make them feel like they are, and treat them as such. You would be surprised to hear some of the ideas we get from guests and vice-versa”.
I intentionally spoke with multiple clubs that didn’t have a formal reciprocal program in place. When I was able to reach the Head Pro, the conversation was usually abrupt and dismissive with concerns such as:
- “…too difficult to administer”.
- “We don’t think enough people would use them”.
- “We don’t want just anyone playing our club”.
When I spoke to the Assistants instead, who all asked to remain anonymous, the conversation was quite different with many agreeing it would be a great way to keep members and add value to their overall membership.
Getting started is exceedingly easy and with cold weather upon us, now is the best time to move forward:
- Draw a 180 mile circle around your club and determine like clubs for each city. If you are a full service Country Club and still have an initiation fee, for example, seek out sister clubs (who you probably already know well from PGA chapter meetings) and introduce the idea. Two clubs per city or area would be ideal.
- Determine a fair price for the member. Is this a service for your membership or a way to build a fitness center by years end? By in large, the more you ask in fees, the less likely many members will utilize the service.
- Set a fair number of times visiting clubs can utilize the service. Some limit reciprocals to (4) rounds per year, others allow (1) round per month.
- Agree on when members can utilize the service, for example, on holidays or weekends, or after certain times in the afternoon. Standardization is best when setting agreements up with multiple clubs.
- Determine how the member will pay for the service. Some allow charge-back privileges while others believe having the member use their credit card is simpler for everyone.
- …And most importantly, advertise the program to your membership! If they don’t know about it, they won’t use it. And with regard to perspective members; utilize the service as a sales tool. This could be the one benefit that tips the scales in your favor.
Many clubs that adopt a formal reciprocal program report higher member satisfaction than those who do not. Could this be a great opportunity to promote cross-town interclub and/or Ryder Cup type matches? What about “cross-over” weekends where a couple of times per year each club actively promotes playing a sister club? What if your next great idea came out of a member visit to a reciprocating club? All good reasons to get started now!