GORILLA IN THE MIST
Another 7 500 trees are gone at Oakmont, leaving it barren, brawny and beautiful.
’ We can’t see the forest for the trees? In the case of Oakmont Country Club, which from June 16-19 hosts a record ninth US Open, we can’t see the forest for the lack of trees. The last time the US Open visited Oakmont, in 2007, when Angel Cabrera won by a stroke – Tiger Woods missed a 25-foot birdie putt on the nal hole, and Jim Furyk bogeyed the 17th after trying to drive the short par 4 – the course had been so clear-cut that we proclaimed Mighty Oakmont had returned to its roots. “Its one-of-a-kind character has been reclaimed, restored and revitalised by astonishing tree removal,” we wrote. “It’s back to the barren look and brazen playing characteristics it had when it hosted its rst US Open, in 1927.”
Back then we reported more than 5 000 trees had been removed along Oakmont’s fairways, widening the panoramas and highlighting ferocious bunkering and deep drainage ditches that had previously been obscured beneath foliage. John Zimmers, Oakmont’s course superintendent, now con rms that crews actually removed about 7 000 trees before the 2007 US Open. But here’s a surprising footnote: Since 2007, Zimmers and his team have removed another 7 500 trees.
These days, from the veranda on Oakmont’s clubhouse, one can see some portion of every hole, a view all the way to the ag of the hilltop third green at the far northeastern corner of the property. What’s more, if you didn’t know the Pennsylvania Turnpike existed – it separates holes 2 through 8 from the rest of the course – you wouldn’t sense it from today’s view. Because the turnpike is recessed, it’s merely a horizontal shadow, barely noticeable. When dense rows of trees were on either side, they had emphasised its existence.
In the process of chain-sawing away 60 years of growth, Oakmont’s dramatic topography has been fully revealed. Without a backdrop, the front-to-back slopes of the rst, sixth and 10th greens are obvious. (For this year’s US Open, the back of the sixth green has been expanded, providing new pin placements, and at 12 two bunkers were removed and one was expanded. Those are the only major architectural changes to the course, which will play at par 70 and
6 601 metres, down 10 metres from 2007.) Elsewhere, hills look steeper and distances more deceiving.The downhill, par-5 12th now seems like it should be reachable in two even at 610 metres, though it’s not the longest hole in US Open history – the 16th at Olympic Club in San Francisco beats it by three metres.
WHEN OAKMONT LEADS, OTHERS FOLLOW
Why does this tree removal matter? Because Oakmont is the standard for American championship golf. Besides US Opens, it has been the site of ve US Amateurs, three PGA Championships and two US Women’s Opens. Much of what happens at Oakmont a ects the game. After all, it had fast greens decades before they became fashionable. T hose swift greens caused the Stimpmeter to be created in the late 1930s, and whether that’s a positive or negative, the Stimpmeter measurements of green speeds are here to stay at many, many clubs. For this year’s US Open, the United States Golf Association wants Oakmont’s greens rolling at 14 feet on a Stimpmeter, the same speed they measured in 2007.
A near-universal high regard for Oakmont makes controversy acceptable. In 2007, the USGA played the par-3 eighth from a new back tee, stretching the hole to as much as 275 metres for the nal round. (After acing the hole in a practice round at 263 metres, Trevor Immelman was asked if he saw the ball go into the hole and replied, “We couldn’t see that far.”)
At nearly any other club, a 275-metre par 3 would be considered a joke if not a travesty, but because it happened at Oakmont, a number of golf architects subsequently embraced the idea of an extremely long championship tee on a oneshot hole to require champion players to use a metal wood to reach the green. Oakmont gave architects cover to ght technology with an extreme measure.
The tree-removal programme at Oakmont might well be this storied club’s
nest contribution to the game of golf. It reversed a trend it had helped start in the 1950s, the “beauti cation” of inland American courses by a sanctioned programme of constant and misguided planting of trees funded by green committees and membership drives.
Thumb through Oakmont’s tournament programme from 1962 – the year 22-year-old Jack Nicklaus won his rst professional major, indeed his rst professional tournament, in a playo over Arnold Palmer – and what jumps out are aerial photos showing hole after hole dotted with saplings. Plus seven advertisements for tree nurseries. It’s no wonder that the USGA subsequently selected Minnesota’s Hazeltine National for the 1970 US Open, despite cries that the eight-year-old course looked far too immature to host a national championship. Hazeltine at that time didn’t look any younger than Oakmont. Hazeltine, site of the 2016 Ryder Cup (Sept 30-Oct 2), now has towering hardwoods on many holes.
Oakmont was leafy green for US Opens in 1973, 1983 and 1994, but then the club stopped planting trees and started removing them in bunches. Quietly, at rst, and strictly to improve the health of turf normally blanketed in shade. Then-super intendent Mark Kuhns, with the approval of his 18-member green committee, had a crew assemble at 4am. Under truck lights, they’d set down tarps, chop down a tree, cut it up, haul it o , grind the stump to ground level, vacuum up wood chips and leaves, then slap sod over it. By dawn, they’d be nished, and golfers playing the hole were
none the wiser. Kuhns removed almost 500 trees that way until one day a caddie pointed out a gaping void to an in uential club member.
It quickly became a contentious issue among the membership. There were meetings, threatened petitions and the spectre of a lawsuit. Some called Kuhns “The Butcher of Oakmont” to his face. But the green-committee members doubled down, campaigning that Oakmont’s trees should be removed because they were contrary to the original concept of founder H C Fownes. Among the evidence they presented: a 1938 Grantland Rice article, which referenced Oakmont as a links as famed as St Andrews; a 1949 aerial of Oakmont showing scant trees; and a 1994 Golf Digest article critical of the pretti cation of the course (“Has the Old Bully Lost its Punch?” June 1994).
Eventually a majority of the members
came around, but although they grudgingly allowed Kuhns to continue some tree removal, they refused to allocate additional funds. He had to squeeze the expenses from his normal operating budget, and as a result other areas of the course su ered a bit.
In late 1999, Kuhns moved to Baltusrol, site of this year’s PGA Championship, and Zimmers took his place. He stepped up the tree removal, tying many expenses to club capital projects to cover costs. By 2002, the e ects were so dramatic it warranted a follow-up story in Golf Digest (“Mission: Unpopular” October 2002). The story quoted Tom Meeks, then the USGA’s senior director of rules and competition: “If any club thinks they would be hurting themselves by cutting down a few trees, go look at Oakmont and see what they’ve done. They are the leaders in the clubhouse.”
AN EXAMPLE OF SUSTAINABILITY
For this year’s US Open, the USGA plans to highlight Oakmont’s tree removal programme as another facet of sustainability. After all, instead of replacing the trees with lush, maintained turf that would demand additional water and chemicals, many areas of former forest are now covered in tall fescues that need little maintenance and turn bronze and wavy in later summer. (Trivia note: Though other bunkers at Oakmont are edged by a bluegrass-ryegrass mix of maintained rough, the huge Church Pews bunker between the third and fourth holes has each pew planted in unmaintained fescue, because the club believes the famed hazard deserved a distinctive look.)
Other grand American courses have removed pointless trees in the past decade and a half, and some were chopping and pruning even before Oakmont’s extensive clear-cutting became public. But had Oakmont not succeeded in its e ort in such a dramatic, visual manner, and had that e ort not been well-received ( nally) by its membership and those who study and promote golf-course architecture, it’s doubtful that similar programs would have occurred at such prominent clubs as Olympic and Oak Hill. The nearly treeless Oakmont is an extreme example, a total reversal of the sentiment that trees belong on a golf course, because its heritage didn’t rely on aerial hazards whatsoever. Other clubs are more content to retain some trees for safety or aesthetic purposes, which is ne. But the lesson of Oakmont is that every club should re-examine its landscape. Most would nd many of their trees super uous and, as at Oakmont, the character of their layouts would improve once those trees are removed.