There has been a lot of discussion, like every Spring, regarding our Tree Management Plan. Some of you like the work that we have done, some of you don’t. I want to make sure that everyone understands the “why” of what the Greens Committee and Board of Directors have done and will continue to do at Midland with our trees. Educating everyone on the goals of the Management Plan is very important in attempting to get everyone on the same level of understanding. I originally made this post below in 2015 and am reposting it now because it outlines the foundation of our plan and gives insight on the decisions we’ve made regarding our trees. As always, if you have questions regarding the plan, please feel free to contact me at any time.
Golf Course Trees. They are often a hot topic of debate across the country at golf courses. Do they belong, where do they belong? Are they fair? Do they add value/strategy or take away from the original Golf Course Architect’s design intent? Are they safe? Do they outcompete fine turfgrasses from which golf shots are played from? Do they block vistas that show off the lay of the land? Are they the right variety? How did they get planted in their location? The list of questions is much longer than this and is unique to each golf course.
I will attempt to explain our Tree Management Plan at Midland, our Tree History, how we make decisions on managing them and their role in the future of Midland.
First, click on the photo below. This is the earliest aerial of Midland Hills, 1927. It’s interesting to examine each hole, to see if/how they’ve changed over 88 years. At the time of this picture, the golf course was only 6 years old, so it’s doubtful that any changes had been made to Seth Raynor’s original design. When the driving range moved from the west side of Highway 280 to its current location and the clubhouse moved from its old location where the 4th Tee box is now, several holes were changed, but for the most part, Midland Hills is as it was on opening day in 1920.
From this photo, you can decipher what Seth Raynor’s architectural intentions were given prior knowledge of his architectural beliefs and study of his other designs. The first thing to notice is the width of the fairways, and specifically the landing areas. Classic golf course architects wanted players to have many different angles to play each hole. This created endless variety and challenged players to hit shots into greens from multiple angles, testing their ability to work the golf ball from both sides. The intent was to allow the golfer to advance the ball to the hole while being challenged by the design of the green and the deep bunkers guarding them. Take into account weather and turf conditions, and you were presented golf course conditions that played differently day to day.
What’s missing from this photo? Trees. Midland Hills was built on old farm land, a common theme in the Classic Golf Course era. You can see where Raynor specifically left trees in key locations. These key locations were a theme with his other original designs. If you look at the map, think about where you hit the ball off line and into the rough. More than likely, there is only 1 or 2 trees on an entire hole and that very likely is where your ball lands today. Some holes were designed to have no trees but the trees that were left were to create strategy and ball placement management for the player.
Seth Raynor along with other Classic Golf Course Architects like Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie, George C. Thomas, William Flynn, A.W. Tillinghast, etc. viewed trees as having a place on a golf course but only in very select areas. They left native trees to highlight land forms which didn’t block views of the vistas golf courses offered but highlighted their natural flowing land characteristics. When Seth Raynor first visited Midland’s property he named it “one of the best flowing properties he’d ever seen for a golf course.” I imagine the main reason Midland Hills received it’s name because of it’s flowing hills. Midland is very fortunate in having it’s best assest be it’s piece of property it sits upon, not many golf courses can claim that. Some courses have more strategic designs, some have an abundance of pretty white sand bunkers but few have the quality of land that can match Midland. It truly is a “Hidden Gem” and Seth Raynor squeezed the most out of it when designing it as he was a great engineer and artist.
How does this tie into our Tree Management Plan? First of all, it’s of most importance to realize that Midland was an inland-links golf course when designed. It’s a big question if we would ever again look like the photo above because American golf has shifted it’s importance of trees on golf courses, much different than the original intent of the Architecture. Some “Top 100 Clubs” have gone through complete restorations which involved removal of 1000’s of trees all at once to get back to the “Day 1” look but at Midland we have taken a different approach. Our approach combines the difference in distance the average player hits the ball combined with what caliper player should be penalized with navigating around a tree when a shot is hit off line from a tee. Does the player that only hits it 200 yards off the tee box deserve to be behind a tree, as well as hitting from the rough, 180 yards to the pin? That’s not the player that needs more punishment hitting it off line.
So how did we go from the photo above to where we are today? In the 1950’s, America went through the “Beautification Movement” stage in which it became very popular to plant trees. Trees in your neighborhood, parks as well as golf courses. This is what some people call the largest demise in Classic Golf Course Architecture. Trees were cheap, plentiful and planted by the 1000’s. Unfortunately, Midland disregarded their appreciation for having a Classic Golf Course designed by one of the greatest Architects of all time and bought into the idea of mass plantings to “fill voids” around Greens, Tees and in between Fairways. The letter below is from 1951 which shows where Midland changed their future of the look and feel of the golf course.
Now I apologize if you were on this Committee in 1951 but unfortunately this is where Midland made some major mistakes in it’s planning. Unfortunately, the biggest mistake was that there was no plan. No plan for variety/native origin of tree, location of planting, overall diversity, proximity to fine turfgrass areas, future shading issues, canopy height diversity, root competition for nutrients and water, strategy changes to playability, or regards to how it would change the look as to what Seth Raynor designed 30 years prior. Members were able to buy trees and were even given the opportunity to plant them where they desired. There is no doubt that the Midland Tree Committee had nothing but the best intentions but unfortunately the importance of what was designed by a Professional Architect was disregarded and sadly lost over time as these trees matured. Lost in an unorganized and over-done planting of every hole with several non-native species of trees. The “tunnel effect” of having every hole lined with trees was a very popular theme to accomplish to create a false sense of privacy. What it did in reality was eliminated many things that Seth Raynor designed in the strategy of his golf course.
Over time the trees encroached the Greens, Tees, Fairways and even Bunkers. The contours of the Fairways shrunk as the canopy matured and encroached, the Fairway mowers had to move inward as the trees grew wider. The quality of the turf on Greens started to suffer with root competition and increased shade. Divot recovery on Tees became almost non-existent. The rough became incredibly inconsistent and sparse often with tree roots exposed. Winter kill became more prevalent as the quality of turf declined. The vistas of Midland Hills disappeared as the trees engulfed each hole. It became evident to Midland Hills in the early 2000’s that something had to change.
Tree removals took place throughout the 2000’s around Greens and Tees as the main goal being improved turf quality. The impact was immediately noticeable. In 2008, a professional aroborist company, StrataPoint Inc. was hired and instituted a Strategic Management Plan for Midland’s tree inventory and was put into place in 2009. This Plan along with appreciating the study of Classic Golf Course Architecture gives us direction for today and into the future.
Every tree on the inside of the property was inventoried, rated on several accounts and an action plan was created as it related to the intended architecture of each hole. The Greens Committee has since used this 225 page extensive manual as a guideline to manage our Tree Inventory. This plan gives clear direction and takes into account current aspects as well as managing the tree inventory for the next generations of members at Midland. The approach Midland has taken in managing trees has been fairly gradual, each Fall the Greens Committee meets and discusses where to prioritize removals and plantings.
Our current Tree Plan is based the following aspects:
- Seth Raynor’s Architectural Intentions
- Diversity-Species and Canopy Height
- Native Species Stand of Trees
- Short/Long-Term Goals
- When the StrataPoint Plan was created, several trees were deemed unsafe because of structural issues from trunk cracks and heavy loaded limbs. Trees are living organisms that grow and age like us, they become unsafe when they are no longer structurally sound whether from age or storm and/or insect damage/disease. This aspect is reviewed each year and trees that are deemed unsafe to members and staff of Midland are removed as soon as possible. Unfortunately we have lost many American Elm trees that created fantastic texture to the skyline of our tree canopy. Their towering growth habits made them ideal golf course trees but left untreated, Dutch Elm Disease has taken all but 12 that remain today. Those remaining Elms are preventively treated on an aggressive plan but are still not 100% safe from succumbing to the attack of the disease. The picture below shows our Assistant Superintendent Mark Ries removing a Scots Pine that has been infected with Diplodia Shoot Blight and Canker (Notice the brown needles). This disease, once it reaches the main trunk of the tree, is deadly. Removing the tree before it causes a safety hazard to players/staff takes the highest priority. Insects and diseases are evolving management challenges, thus an importance to stay up to date with the scientific side of managing our Tree Inventory.
- This is where I believe Midland has made the most strides in the past 10 years. If you’ve been a member long enough you can attest to the vast improvements in turf quality with removals of trees close to Greens, Tees and edges of Fairways. I’ve been told that it was common to have dirt on certain areas of Fairways, Tees and even Greens before the close proximity trees were removed. Turf will never out compete trees for sunlight, nutrients and water. Once this correlation was realized and adopted, Midland’s turf has made significant strides in a better playable, consistently firmer and more survivable stand of turf. Each fall the Greens Committee addresses any areas that seek improvements in regards to improved playability with tree competition.
- Seth Raynor’s Architectural Intentions
- This aspect of the Tree Management Plan is often the most debatable and difficult to manage. Several holes have changed over time, angles of Fairways have shifted and non-native trees have now been considered part of the strategy of certain holes. The Greens Committee takes all of these aspects into consideration when making decisions regarding tree management. Several of our members are very keen to Seth Raynor’s design intentions and are huge assets in teaching others the importance and reasons behind certain tree removals as they relate to “restoring” what was lost when trees were planted in incorrect places. The 2 pictures below show a common example of restoring architectural intentions. Midland’s 4th Green is considered a Template Hole of Seth Raynor, The Short. His main design intention for this short Par 3 was to make it seem like an island Green perched up which created fear in the players mind. Part of that intent was lost when the Spruce trees were planted behind the Green to create a “backdrop.” The backdrop look was the exact opposite of what Seth Raynor wanted because it gave you depth perception. The Greens Committee has slowly been removing these Spruce to restore the original aspects of the hole, embracing the challenge of the intended architecture. Classic Golf Course Architecture also put a large value into the lay of the topography and embracing the vistas it offered. Slowly, the Greens Committee has been restoring these views with selected removals so that you can see and appreciate the “Hills of Midland.”
- Diversity-Species and Canopy Height
- During the mass plantings of the 1950’s, Midland mostly planted 3 varieties of tree: Green Ash, Spruce and Pine. From what I’ve read, a Midland member at the time owned a tree nursery. I imagine that these 3 variety of trees were in abundance as was common during this period. Green Ash were fast growing, Spruce and Pine were considered valuable for their year round dark green color. I approximate that over 750 of these 3 varieties were planted. That has made us vulnerable to current diseases and insects. Our Pines are falling to Diplodia and the Green Ash at some point will succumb to Emerald Ash Borer. These diseases spread very rapidly once a certain threshold is met which means that potentially hundreds of trees will have to be removed at once. Large scale preventative treatments are extremely costly and not financially sustainable or wise. The Greens Committee has used our Tree Management Plan to make a plan to increase our diversity of species of trees, slowly remove numbers of susceptible trees to decrease our risks of a large removal event. Canopy height gives texture and increased visual appeal to the landscape. Unfortunately the majority of the Ash, Spruce and Pine create a monotone of height, there is nothing in the landscape that stands out amongst it. This is the reason we are planting varieties of trees that will eventually create this visual improvement for the next generations of players at Midland.
- Native Species Stand of Trees
- Part of the Tree Management Plan is to restore more native trees to the landscape of Midland Hills. Elms, Oaks, Maples, Honey Locust and Hackberry are all native forest trees to our area of Minnesota. Unfortunately some Ash, most Spruce and Pine are not native to this area. Restoring the trees to a more native stand is a difficult balance and is a long-term goal to be achieved. Hard wood trees such as Elms, Oaks and Maples were left in key locations by Classic Golf Course Architects also because they provided the correct type of canopy. These trees have high canopies that still allow advancement of the golf ball if a player found themselves in the rough. Ash and Pine have lower growing canopy characteristics. Spruce trees do not allow any advancement from the ground which is the opposite of the Architect’s intentions. Seth Raynor wanted players the opportunity to advance the ball and be challenged by the Green complex and Bunkers. Unfortunately several of Midland’s Fairway bunkers were removed and trees were planted in their place because it was thought of as a cost savings to not have to maintain the bunkers. Trees are very costly in trimming, debris raking, string trimming trunks, mulching and eventual removals. The Greens Committee has the difficult task of placing new trees in locations near trees that are scheduled for future removals. Often times the Committee determines that a certain tree should be kept in place until the new planting reaches a certain maturity. The realization of not being able to fully appreciate the tree now but to improve the golf course for the next generation of Midland members is something the Committee and current membership should be extremely proud of.
- Short/Long-Term Goals
- The Greens Committee uses the Tree Management Plan to propose to the Board of Directors different levels of management each year. Certain areas of the golf course see more management each year than others. The right side of 18 Fairway is a good example of an area that has seen almost yearly removals and plantings to correct issues of safety, playability and diversity. Areas that have been deemed strategically sensitive to a certain golf hole is a much slower process. Using short and long-term goals gives the Committee immediate improvements without losing sight of correcting problems that could occur for the next generation of members at Midland. The path Midland has taken for tree management is proactive, organized and with the clear goal of making the golf course the best it can be today as well as tomorrow. It’s not an easy task for the Committee and Board of Directors, everyone has learned from mistakes made in the past and also to put an emphasis on balancing doing what’s right for all levels of players.
Managing trees is a long-term plan. A golf course is a living, breathing and evolving piece of art. Midland was created by one of the greatest Classic Golf Course Architects of all time. At some point along Midland’s history, I like to say we unknowingly and unintentionally colored over our art with Crayola Crayons. With our current Management Plan we are slowly removing some of that Crayola Crayon and ensuring that we look at managing our trees by looking at several aspects to ensure that we minimize mistakes and maximize the vitality of our golf course.