GO­RILLA IN THE MIST

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Con­tents - By Ron Whit­ten

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.

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