Tree and ornamental management principles for the golf course

Trees and ornamentals on a course can go from pleasant to problematic. Try these options to keep things manageable.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Trees in locations such as these might bring a few complaints from golfers whose ball is on the edge of the fairway. Photos by John Fech

Trees, tree branches, shrubs and other plants can grow over time to be in the line of sight from tee to green or on approach shots. Others develop surface roots that golfers can trip on and create dull mower blades. Still others drop all sorts of debris on putting greens that get in the way of a ball rolling toward the cup. In some cases, these undesirable trees and tree parts are a nuisance to be accepted. In others, they are troublemakers to be eliminated. 

As with any problem, it’s important to start with a full understanding of the contributing factors so you can formulate an effective solution that maintains the functionality of these areas while preventing them from interfering with the game or creating safety hazards.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
While picturesque and framing, branches over tees can block valuable sunlight.

Identify the problem

In most cases, identification of the offending plant part or parts is the first step. In many situations, more than one contributing factor is involved.

Line-of-sight blockers. Sometimes, it’s just one branch that’s blocking the line of sight of a golfer standing behind his or her ball in the fairway. Other times, it’s the whole tree. Depending on the intended difficulty of the hole, the tree can be adding to it or limiting the number of strategic options for the approach shot.

Surface roots. Whether they’re in fairways, roughs, tees or greens, woody plant roots are a problem. They damage cart paths, support finer roots that absorb badly needed water and nutrients, and are often downright ugly.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Branches from trees in these locations may be good targets for thinning. Regular evaluation is important as the canopies expand in size.

Debris producers. Whether it’s on the playing surfaces of a golf course or in the gutters of a residence, too much debris is problematic. Putting on a green littered with tree seeds or flowers is not only distracting, it also changes the path of the ball rolling to the cup, sometimes dramatically. In fairways and roughs, leaves make it tough to find a ball after a tee shot, which slows play.

Shade producers. Plainly put, grass is a full-sun plant, different from shade-adapted groundcovers such as English ivy and lamium. Trees that are close to grass blades greatly reduce the daily light interval, aka sunlight intensity, needed for turf plants to photosynthesize adequately. Without the minimum amount, turf thins and often becomes infected with various diseases.

Low-hanging branches. Trees with branches that are less than 10 feet off the ground are physical blockers of recovery shots. Low hangers can cause problems for maintenance crews operating equipment nearby, causing them to lose focus while working.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Installation of new trees and shrubs should always take into account their eventual size and shape.

Overgrown plants.Smallish woody plants such as vines and shrubs that have overgrown their space can be just as problematic as trees that produce unwanted vegetation. Fortunately, there are several simple solutions to bring these specimens in line. 

Dead, dying and eyesores. Trees that lack a full canopy or are a recent victim of storm damage are good candidates for removal considering the troubles that they pose. The key determiner of needed action is their location on the course. If there’s little chance of the tree falling on a golfer or golf cart and the tree is somewhat attractive in its state of decline, it might be a keeper. Most specimens in this category, however, beg for removal.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Installation of new trees and shrubs should always take into account their eventual size and shape.

Relative importance

Some plants have one or more of the flaws outlined above but are in a good location on the course. Trees that provide shade for rest­rooms, refreshment stands, clubhouses and dining patios should be given a little grace in light of the benefits they provide. Backdrop trees for greens and course-entry identifiers are other good examples of trees that provide both amenity and valuable functionality. For trees that carry some historic value, that reinforce the theme of the course or geographic region, or are an homage to a no-longer-with-us founding club member, a deeper dive might be in order as well. From a pure safety perspective, some plants are living walls between fairways and practice greens or dining spaces; these also require a second look. 

On the other hand, some trees have little to nothing to offer other than oxygen production and carbon sequestration; in other words, they’re alive. After a thorough consideration of the benefits that they do or don’t provide, the offenders can be given their due.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Once a tree reaches the end of its useful life, removal may be necessary, especially if it poses an undesirable line-of-sight challenge.

Remediation/intervention options

Whether it’s a truck purchase, health care issue, staffing need or turf-pest-control product, it’s good to have options. The same is true for offending ornamental plants. Fortunately, there are always options for lessening the problems that trees, shrubs and vines can cause. 

Pruning. Pruning is most beneficial for broken limbs, cankered stems and wayward growth. It’s especially appropriate for new trees that develop co-dominant leaders or crossing/rubbing branches; removal of one or two limbs here and there can make a big difference. 

Thinning. When a tree casts too much shade on a playable surface or a tree is so thick that foliar diseases such as apple scab or anthracnose commonly develop, thinning might help. For thinning to be effective, quite a few limbs — up to a third or a fourth of the limbs — must be removed. Arborists usually cringe at the thought of this, as the fundamental guidance of pruning dosage is important to consider with thinning. 

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
A little thinning might solve the line-of-sight problem in some cases; in others, the entire tree might need to be removed.

To minimize the negative effects that thinning creates, such as reduction of photosynthesis and the creation of lots of wounds, the preferred number of limbs to be removed is in the 15%-25% range. Certainly, fewer is better, but then, of course, a lesser number of removals means fewer benefits for the turf. With these considerations in mind, as well as the amount of time and number of hours it takes to accomplish it, thinning is a viable option, but probably only when others are not good choices.

Elevation. Elevation is usually thought of quite simply as cutting many of the lower limbs off a tree to allow more sunlight to hit the turf below. While this helps increase the number of hours of increased sunlight intensity, it’s not nearly as effective as removing the upper branches, as they intercept the majority of the sunlight. 

Elevation can be helpful in terms of increasing the ease of punch or recovery shots and reducing conflicts with mower operators. However, another fundamental guidance issue is compromised in that the desired crown-to-trunk ratio is 3 to 1, where the total volume of branches/leaves is three-fourths of the height of the tree. 

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Late winter is a good time to prune unwanted branches.

In many situations, implementing an elevation procedure results in a 1-to-1 ratio, which structurally and physiologically weakens a tree to the point of greatly increasing the odds of tree failure. Overall, elevation is considered to be a questionable arboricultural practice.

Transplanting. Recently planted trees and small-to-medium-sized shrubs are good candidates for transplanting. Vines on trellises or walls often are well suited as well. The big plus here is that the moving of these plants takes advantage of a larger root system than a new installation. A second benefit is that the physical removal commonly results in root pruning and subsequent proliferation of new roots, which most woody plants recover from quite well. As in turf, more roots equals bigger and more robust plants. The biggest detractor from this option is the time and equipment required to accomplish transplanting.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
While trees can certainly cast unwanted shade on tees, greens and fairways, they can be valuable in protecting the adjacent properties in terms of harm to people and valuable property.

Removal. Getting rid of trees on a golf course is a necessary but challenging option. It is often politically charged, creates wood waste, can generate negative comments from golfers and members, and costs money to accomplish. These resulting occurrences must be minimized by generating a sensical, well-thought-out plan involving many factors such as location, purpose, cost, loss of tree benefits and future maintenance needs. The benefits of increased turf health and decreased tree maintenance costs can be influential in countering the negatives of removal.

Each remediation/intervention action has an optimal timing associated with it. If possible, choose the best timing for each action step to reduce damage to the tree or nearby course elements. Generally, pruning, elevation and thinning are best done in early spring to encourage closing of pruning cuts. Transplanting is best done in mid-spring or early fall to facilitate establishment in the new location. For the most part, removal is best accomplished in winter, especially in northern climes, where the soil is frozen and damage from heavy equipment is minimized. However, if the green light is given for removal, it may be best to do it sooner rather than later, before the decision-makers change their minds.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
In some cases, tree and golfer interactions are up close and personal.

Replanting after removal

The phrase “right plant, right place” is a standard in the horticulture industry for a good reason. Well-sited trees and shrubs are a benefit; poorly-sited ones are a detriment. After removal, there may be no need for replacement plants. In some cases, however, smaller plants, or at least different plants may be needed. The key action step is to validate the benefits of removal and reconsider which ones could be realized if new plants were installed in their place. Golf course architects, landscape designers and well-prepared horticulturists are good resources in this endeavor. 

In many other situations, that kind of outside guidance is required to do the job right. In addition to architects, designers and horticulturists, experienced arborists are a good group to tap for assistance. Tree care providers who are certified by the International Society of Arboriculture are best. When considering pruning and tree removal, especially near people or property of value, ISA arborists with a Tree Risk Assessment Qualification are of great benefit. These professionals have the equipment, experience and overall resources to address the concerns in this article.

Other sources of this type of information are previously published articles in GCM and GCSAA seminars on tree risk assessment or best management practices in woody plant care.

John C. Fech is a horticulturist and Extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is a frequent and award-winning contributor to GCM.