What Do Trees Have to Do With Golf?
On our way back from a recent round of golf, Fritz and I were discussing the way most golfers evaluate golf courses. We've had this discussion before, and it inevitably gets around to my heartfelt conviction that trees do not enhance the "golfing experience".
Most golfers in North America assume that golf is not golf without tree-lined fairways. If I am not mistaken, this is a bias created by a century of golf course design compliments of a relatively small number of trend-setting designers. In Canada, Stanley Thompson was the main man. His course designs can be found across the country, and inevitably they feature lush green (soft) fairways lined with majestic trees.
Of course there are many reasons for this, both practical and esthetic. For starters, eastern North America has lots of trees, and just as important, it is impossible to replicate the sandy turf of Scotland or Ireland in other parts of the world that do not share the same climate.
Nevertheless it struck me as a bit odd when on a recent trip to Saskatchewan we found the same type of fairways in that relatively dry prairie climate as we have here in our much more humid environment in southern Ontario.
What we have seen in first half of the last century was a progression from the use of native grasses in a place like St. Andrews or Dornoch, Scotland to the use of highly manipulated hybrids like bentgrass in Ontario, where the climate can (more or less) support them (with constant watering, of course).
But rather than using native grasses in the prairie or semi-desert settings of the North American western plain, course designers in those regions seem to have imported the ideas developed in the east. Especially the use of trees and non-native grasses.
One course we played near Elbow, Saskatchewan had water lying around from the overnight watering. This was in spite of the recent rainy period in the area. And while the greens seemed to be holding up well, they were typically left quite long and shaggy so they could withstand the inevitable dry spell that was just around the corner.
Seems to me there should be native grasses that would do better than this. Of course I could be completely wrong...
My point is that golf course design in North America has often created synthetic environments that alienate the golfer from the native terrain and turf. Which gets me back to trees...
To my way of thinking, that trees should come into play during a round of golf seems an unfortunate departure from the original way the game was conceived. Once you play a bit of links golf you realize that the game was originally meant to be played by running the ball along the ground. Like curling, that other Scottish obsession, the game represents an attempt to control the way the ball (stone) interacts with the course (ice).
In the first 100 years or so of golf in North America we have tried to take this element out of the game by making sure that the ground remains soft, that the grass is as green and lush as possible, and that there are as many strategically placed trees as possible to get in the way of our drives and approach shots.
On the other hand, trees are an important part of the native landscape in many parts of North America, so I would be contradicting myself if I said they should not be part of a "natural" layout in eastern North American. I am not advocating the "denuding" of the landscape in order to create a pseudo links-like environment. But trees should remain strictly in the background as far as I am concerned. Thankfully, this seems to be the way golf course design has been moving for the last 15 years or so.