Light and Shade – Trees on the Golf Course

One of the perks of this job is being able to return to a golf course we’ve designed and see how it has grown and matured over the years. I recently had the pleasure of returning to Woburn Golf Club to look at the Marquess Course which we designed in 1998. Opened on 4th June 2000, The Marquess made an immediate impact on the golfing world by hosting the 2001 and 2002 British Masters and receiving rave reviews from the tournament professionals. Since then the course has gained a reputation as one of the top 18 hole tracks in England.

Returning to The Marquess for the first time in three or four years I was struck immediately by the fine condition of the course. The greens in particular have really come on and despite it being only mid-April the putting surfaces were firm, fast and true. The fairways were also in great shape and the winter had seen a programme of restoration on the bunkers. I have no doubt that, come the 10th anniversary celebrations in June, The Marquess will be in its finest condition yet.

An important part of the golf course maintenance programme on The Marquess is the tree management programme. Like Woburn’s other courses, The Dukes and The Duchess, The Marquess is laid out within mature woodland of pine, oak and sweet chestnut, with every hole lined by tall trees. While the trees add so much to the setting and strategy of the course, they do require a specialised management regime both to maintain the health of the woodland and also the condition of the turf, so there is a continual process of felling and removal of dead or diseased trees, planting of new trees and general tree surgery.

However, while at Woburn the need to carefully manage trees seems obvious almost all other golf courses would benefit from having a similar tree management programme. Many courses start out with relatively few trees, but over the years begin to plant trees usually for aesthetic reasons as part of a beautification process, but sometimes for practical reasons to screen or protect certain areas. Often it is ornamental trees or exotics which are planted rather than native species, and sometimes there is little thought given to the impact of tree planting on the golf course in the long term. A golf course can very easily become overplanted with consequent negative impacts on turf, playability, strategy and views.

Not long ago I visited a golf course where the committee wanted to re-bunker the golf course as the original bunkers were “out of play”. Well they were right, most of the bunkering was out of play because it was hidden in the trees. About 20 years previously the club had instigated a tree planting programme of which they were clearly very proud. To give them their due they had used native species, but they appeared to have forgotten what the impact would be when the trees grew. Consequently the bunkers which had previously been on the side of the fairways were now surrounded by trees, the fairways were all about fifteen metres wide and the quality of the turf on the fairways was getting progressively worse as the light became more restricted and the tree roots sucked the moisture out of the soil. What the course actually needed was a policy of tree removal but it appeared that every tree on the course was now sacred! So the club went on with their re-bunkering plans and consigned themselves to poorer turf quality, higher maintenance costs and reduced playability.

Nearly all courses with trees would benefit from having a proper review of their planted areas to assess the following criteria;

1 – The health and life expectancy of each tree, including any potential safety issues.
2 – The potential size and form of each tree.
3 – The suitability of tree species.
4 – The impact on turf health, including an analysis of shade at different times of the day and year, the effects on air circulation and root system types.
5 – The impact on golf course playability and strategy.
6 – The impact on golf traffic and wear.
7 – The impact on aesthetics of the golf course and also the broader landscape.
8 – The impact on views, both within and outside the course.

Obviously, the most direct impact of trees is on the condition of the course. Grass needs sun, air and moisture and if trees block any or all of these elements then turf is really going to struggle to stay healthy. And the problem will only get worse where grass is closely mown and gets more wear, such as on greens. However, while most people are aware of these problems, and indeed are familiar with them in their own gardens, it often seems that golf committees are slow to understand the impacts on their course.

A good tree management programme will identify trees which are to be cleared as part of a selective thinning operation. Often removing a number of trees improves the growing conditions for those which remain while alleviating shade and air circulation problems at the same time. But it’s not all about tree removal. The programme should also give advice on the locations and varieties of any new planting, taking into account the impact on turf quality and strategy, as well as the need to replace individual specimen trees.

As at Woburn, trees on a golf course can provide a majestic backdrop. They have many environmental benefits, they help to divide playing areas and provide definition and, if properly planned, play an important role in the enhancement of both the golf course and local landscape. Ultimately however, trees and tree planting need to be managed so that they don’t inhibit the growth of the healthy turf on which the game is played and relies, especially at a time when sustainability is such an important part of the future of golf.

The signature 7th hole on The Marquess Course at Woburn Golf & Country Club