A grandfather and his grandson are playing golf, when the kid’s shot lands behind a giant tree. The boy asks his grandfather: “How would you play this shot?”
The grandfather replies: “When I was your age, I’d play right over the tree.”
The boy hits the ball, but not high enough. It bounces off the tree and lands out of bounds. The boy asks his grandfather how he ever hit a ball over that tree.
The grandfather replied: “Well, when I was your age, that tree was only four feet tall.”

While this old joke (and its many variations) often gets a chuckle at the 19th Hole, it also highlights a severe problem that affects many courses these days: maintaining a course’s integrity.

First, let’s all assume that, by and large, most top-level golf course architects/designers know exactly what they are doing. They lay out a course which is challenging and fun, while also taking the natural topography into account. Their intent is often to develop a layout that will stand the test of time.

Once the course is built, it is generally up to the club to maintain the course according to the way it was designed. Not just mowing and turf maintenance; you also need to ensure that the trees, bushes, bunkers, hazards, rough, etc, are all maintained in the best interests of the original design (barring, of course, some occasional “growing-in” adjustments at a brand-new course, if needed.)

Now, many courses spend a lot of time and money on mowing and maintenance, etc. But few courses, it seems, will consult with, say, an Arborist or other specialists to ensure not only the ongoing playability of a course, but the safety to the players as well.

For example, I frequent a course here in Melbourne that, for the most part, is lovely and challenging. The problem is that, over the decades, the members, committees, Boards, etc, have effectively made many parts of the course almost unplayable.

These people were probably well intentioned. 20 years ago, someone may have suggested “Why not plant a pretty tree or two over here?” or “Why not add a bunker or two over there” or “what if we grew the rough really long,” or “how about a forced carry off the tee to add some challenge?”

While many of these changes/suggestions are doubtless a result of trying to emulate the tricky/challenging venues seen on the US Tour (i.e. see my online article about “The Augusta Effect”), these changes (if not thought-out for the long-term) can fundamentally alter the playability of a hole. Trees, as we all know, tend to grow. Not just up, but out (with branches that encroach into the “air space” of the fairway). In time, they can effectively “choke” your playable area into a small window, or completely eliminate the preferred line of play that the designer intended.

One hole that I regularly play has a severe sloping fairway from right to left, with a treeline on the right and a hazard on the left. The ONLY play off the tee is to hit it as far right as possible (along the treeline), and hope for a good bounce and roll into a generous fairway beyond.

In the past (like the grandfather joke above), the trees on the right were sparse and short, giving golfers a good margin for error. However, over the decades, more trees have been planted (or have grown naturally, without any culling/clearing) on the right-hand side. Their branches have encroached out into the fairway area, thus eliminating the ability to play any decent, safe shot to the right.  In essence, most middle-handicap golfers now have really no chance at playing the hole the way it was designed.  They either get stuck in the trees on the right, or in the hazard on the left.

That hole is but one example of many throughout golf. And trees are only one bit of the equation. Ill-placed “added” bunkers are equally hole-destroying, as they can take out the architect’s “bail-out area”. Or creating 150m forced-carries over rough/obstacles (which will affect the short-hitting seniors/women/juniors more than anyone else).

Over time (as the trees get thicker, the rough gets deeper and the forced carries longer), more golfers will avoid playing this course (and courses like it). Eventually, it may either close, or the current Board may decide it needs a redesign.

And if a redesign in chosen, there is no doubt that the new designer will start the proposal similarly to the countless other proposals we read about almost every month: “The redesign will begin with the clearing of 75 percent of the trees throughout the course,” and include lines like “…which will bring the course back to the way the original architect envisioned.”

If and when all that happens, maybe our grandchildren could have a chance to experience the “same” wonderful course that we all enjoyed “back in the day”.

As always, we welcome your feedback.



About Richard Fellner

A four-time winner of the Australian Golf Media Awards, including Best Photojournalism, Best Opinion, Best Column and Best Photographic Presentation, Inside Golf Group Editor Richard Fellner is the quintessential Golf Tragic, having played the game for over 50 years (but has never gotten any better!) He has played and reviewed courses all over the world, and has interviewed many of the great players of the game (including Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Greg Norman). Richard is a member of both the Australian Golf Media Association and the Golf Society of Australia, and has been a featured guest on many Australian "sports talk" radio shows and networks, including ABC Grandstand, SEN 1116, Melbourne Talk Radio 1377, 2GB and others. Follow Richard Fellner on Quora


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