Problems Associated with Trees on Golf Courses

Dr. Leon Lucas, CGA Agronomist

Trees are important on golf courses to accentuate the beauty of the design and the framing of the golf holes. However, poor quality turfgrasses associated with large trees is a major problem that I have observed on golf courses in the Carolinas over the years. Shade from the trees prevents the turfgrasses from growing the best during the summer and causes more frost or cold damage on the grasses in the winter. Also, tree roots compete with the grasses for water and nutrients during the growing season.

On new courses, when trees are left near the tees, fairways and greens, poor quality turf can be a direct result or this poor planning. Many trees are often left standing on these new courses because owners feel some will die over the ensuing years from the construction damage which has occurred. Tight budgets often dictate this, but it is advisable to remove these damaged trees as they can cause problems for the younger trees in the area. A general rule is establish trees no less than 50 feet of greens or tees to help insure optimum growing conditions. Compass readings should be taken to identify any trees on the east and south sides of greens and tees that will shade the grasses in the morning and during the winter. The removal of these trees will help to insure good quality turf on the greens and tees. Remaining trees should be thinned during construction to leave healthy trees that will mature into large trees. Also, undergrowth near greens (especially on the southwest side of bentgrass greens) should be thinned to improve airflow over the greens, which in return will help cool and dry the grass during hot weather.

The removal of large trees from an old golf course is one of the most difficult projects for a club to approve. One must remember that the trees have grown and enlarged over the years and have resulted in less favorable conditions for the growth of turfgrasses. The large trees shade the grasses, and the tree roots compete with the surrounding grasses for water and nutrients. Large tree roots often become exposed in areas along fairways and around tees and greens. The roots damage the mowers and can cause difficult shots for golfers. The tree roots can be pruned to about 20 feet from the base of the trees without causing serious damage to the trees in irrigated areas. Turfgrasses will grow much better in the area where the tree root competition has been eliminated. Mulch can be placed in areas where the trees cannot be removed to prevent soil erosion, to cover the roots and to improve playing conditions.

On older golf courses, many trees are usually removed during renovation to provide better growing turgrass conditions and to restore the original playing conditions of the holes. Old photographs should be reviewed to reevaluate the growth and change of the trees over the years. One will normally see that once-small trees have grown into large foliage because of the favorable growing conditions, which provide plenty of nutrients and water. Most members will enjoy playing the course more with better turf after the trees are removed.

The removal of many trees and debris can take much time and expense. Some clubs have sold the large trees for timber, which helps to defray the cost of stump removal and debris cleanup.

Shade zones on turf should be marked at 10 am, noon and at 2 pm in the summer and winter to help determine which trees are causing the problem. Morning shade can cause serious problems on bentgrass and bermudagrass golf greens. Some late afternoon shade may be useful on bentgrass greens to help reduce heat stress. Evergreen trees that have winter leaves (i.e. pines) usually cause more problems from shade in the winter than do hardwood trees. The winter shade reduces the soil temperature. The lower temperature causes additional problems from frost on greens and more winter damage to bermudagrass on shady greens and fairways. Grasses with more cold tolerance such as zoysiagrass or some new bermudagrasss varieties can be planted on the shaded tees and fairways to improve winter survival.

The trees that are causing the shade should be marked with tape before permanently marking with paint for removal. The club should have a procedure to obtain input from members and outside experts to make sure that the removal of certain trees would not seriously change the play or the beauty of the hole.

Clubs should develop a tree management program for the golf course. The program should include the removal of unhealthy trees and the thinning of trees where needed to eliminate competition with other trees. This is similar to a timber management program where about half of the trees are removed every 10 to 15 years to allow the dominant trees to grow and mature into larger and more beautiful trees. Some of the large and healthy trees will have to be removed in later years to provide better growing conditions for turfgrasses.

Trees are an important part of a golf course, but good quality turfgrasses throughout the course are more important for good playing conditions. One should seek the advice of a tree specialist to help identify the unhealthy trees which should be removed. An agronomist can also be helpful to help identify the trees that are causing problems to the turfgrasses. The information from these experts can be used to determine which trees should be removed to help improve the quality of other trees, the turf in surrounding areas, and at the same time retain the beauty of your course.

You can contact me at 919-779-3241, 919-604-4813 or E-mail for more information.