Tree-free golf

  • Tree
    Kevin Murray
Mike Clayton
By Mike Clayton

“Mike Clayton hates trees.” If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. Those who claim to know what I think of trees have never spoken to me and wouldn’t have the faintest idea of what I thought of the place trees have – and don’t have – in the game of golf.

Ask them to nominate holes where I have removed some trees. Most can barely name one. They hear I ‘hate them’, assume I pull them out for fun, and enjoy the arguments with members and committees.

Trees played almost no role on the original courses along the Scottish coastline. Gorse and seaside grasses were the extent of the off-fairway vegetation, as the wind-battered sand dunes were hardly ever a conducive environment for growing trees.

Strategy and interest were based around the ever-present wind, hazards on the ground including bunkers, ridges, mounds, out of bounds fences and walls, and all measure of uneven lies on the crumpled ground so perfect for golf.

Greens were often orientated and defended to emphasise the need to play to a particular side of the fairway and usually allowed for any number of ways to play the ball onto the putting surfaces. It was a game which could be played both along the ground and in the air, and courses combining both in equal measure were the most fun to play.

To watch so much of the modern professional game played almost entirely through the air is to watch a game diminished and one lacking in the sophistication so encouraged by the firm surfaces of the links.

Perhaps the greatest and certainly the most famous links hole is the ‘Road’ seventeenth (pictured) on the Old course at St Andrews. Every yard closer to the right-hand boundary is a yard easier with one’s approach; every yard left of the centre of the fairway increases the difficulty of one of the most exacting and feared shots in golf.

It is playable, as the great Ballesteros showed on the 71st hole of the 1984 Open. But it took one of the genius shots of his career to find the green from the left rough.

There isn’t a tree in sight yet the strategy made by the boundary, the green and the feared Road bunker, with all its surrounding contours feeding the ball toward the sand, makes for a hole which has fascinated, inspired and intimidated golfers for centuries.

The game inevitably moved inland to sites more suited to trees and these inland courses looked altogether different.

An amazing collection of courses was established in the heathlands southwest of London. Pine and birch proliferated, as did the purple flowering heather, making it not only a significant ground hazard but also something which adds much to the overall aesthetic.

It is still possible to play the heathland courses without one’s golf being interrupted by trees. They add much to the beauty and the experience, but they are mostly kept well away from the golf and playing strategies.

At present, my colleagues and I at Clayton, DeVries & Pont are writing the long-term course plan for The Addington, Abercromby’s masterpiece in South London, where woodland growth has been largely unrestrained for several decades. Quite a few holes have had their strategic intent altered by little more than the narrowing of the playing corridors due to the unchecked growth of the trees. Hopefully, we will be able show the clear merits of returning the course to its original architecture, where the skill is in mastering the elements and landforms, not the trees.

Jack Nicklaus summed up his view of the role of trees in the playing of the game when he described Pinehurst No. 2 as the “best course I know of from a tree-usage standpoint. It’s a totally tree-lined golf course without one tree in the playing strategy.”

Earlier architects wrote prolifically on the subject and made the same argument, namely, that trees were beautiful but their role in the playing of golf and the setting of strategies was limited. Lest we forget, it was the original links which showed how the game could be mightily strategic without trees.


You would be excused for thinking I have selectively picked quotes to suit my arguments, but any reading of the minds of the great architects shows the most respected voices in the game almost never put forward an opposing point of view. I offer them as an addendum and to show that this debate has been raging for well over a century.

“Trees and shrubbery beautify the course, and natural growth should never be cut down if it is possible to save it; but he who insists on preserving a tree where it spoils a shot should have nothing to say about golf course construction.” – George Thomas Jr.

“It is more or less accepted fact that trees are not the best of hazards, for the obvious reason that they unfortunately afford but slight opportunity for the display of golfing skill in extricating the ball from their clutches…but they are undoubtedly charming features in a landscape view.

“Trees are a fluky and obnoxious form of hazard, but they afford rather good protection, and if a clump of these exists at such a spot, it might well be considered justifiable to leave it standing.” – Harry Colt

“One aspect I should like to comment upon is the tree planting that has taken place in recent years. I am sure that it is recognised that the use of trees is an important factor in golf course planning. Trees generally are used as safety buffers, background making and filling in blank spaces and serve, of course, as wind breaks. The fact they are beautifying is secondary and an added bonus. If trees intrude upon the actual playing area for no purpose other than beautification, their advantage is misplaced and consequently lost.

“I mention this point to bring attention to new trees planted of recent years, intruding seriously onto lines of play and also, therefore, on the planner’s design. “Apart from there being a radical departure from the design principles, no thought has been given I would guess to the effect of these new tree plantings in say ten to twenty years’ time.” – Alister MacKenzie

‘Trees that impinge too much on a golf course merely exaggerate the difference between low-handicappers and higher-handicappers. Strong players can usually get the ball airborne and thus play over trees whereas weaker players struggle to get the ball in the air at all. Why further punish the high-handicapper?” – Donald Ross

‘Woods are like communities and trees are like men. In each, there are a lot of common nuisances and parasites that are best out of the picture altogether. In every forest you will find some rare old trees, oaks and elms, sycamores and hickories that have been hidden away from sight for many years with a tangle of non-descripts all about them. “I sometimes take my very life in my hands when I suggest that a certain tree happens to be spoiling a pretty good golf hole.” – AW Tillinghast

“The last time I saw him, I told him about a rather morose Scottish caddie I'd recently had who took a dim view of most things American, but especially the golf course, which – he'd been told – had lots of trees. We were sitting on the porch of his Augusta cottage and Jones looked down at the towering pines, the great cathedral nave, of the plunging 10th fairway. ‘I don't see,’ he said deadpan, ‘any need for a tree on a golf course’.” – Alistair Cooke on Bobby Jones

Mike Clayton is a partner at golf architecture firm Clayton, DeVries & Pont. The July 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture includes more on the firm’s plans for The Addington. Subscribe to make sure you receive a copy

This is the second article in a series from Mike Clayton.

Read more:

Brown is just fine – June 2020

Rough justice – July 2020