Ed. I’ve contributed dozens of stories to GOLF Magazine through the years (I’ve served on the mag’s world top 100 course-rating panel since 1997). But none landed with such a thud as this one, published in the March 1999 edition. In 24 years, I had heard nothing re. the ill-health or subsequent removal of diseased loblolly pines at Augusta National GC — until April 7, 2023, when a massive tree fell during the second round of Masters Tournament play. See comments below… Of course, trees are removed, tees are added, and greens are thoroughly renovated at ANGC and we hear nothing about those events, either — not until the club issues an official statement, or we see it on television the second weekend in April. The place is leak-proof. For the record, The Eisenhower Tree pictured above was a loblolly pine. It was taken down in 2014, because it was hit by lightening. Or so reads the party line.


AUGUSTA, Ga. — Overlooking each fairway like a glowering gallery of green giants, the stately Georgia pines here at Augusta National Golf Club represent arguably the most recognizable feature at a course replete with recognizable features. Because The Masters is the lone major championship played at the same venue year after year, competitors, spectators and television viewers have established an unrivaled connection with and affection for Augusta National. Where else could a slow-moving stream and a few magnolia beds take on such mythic, eye-moistening qualities? Of course, fabled Rae’s Creek comes into play on just three holes whereas the towering pines frame nearly every shot. Their lower limbs pruned up to 100 feet, these majestic loblollies stand silent, like so many Doric columns, quietly lining the verdant corridors of America’s foremost golfing shrine.

Okay, reality check: Nothing lives forever. The patrician powers-that-be at Augusta National may have kept commercialism at relative bay and held the price of a chicken salad sandwich under $3, but they can’t fight Mother Nature. Trees are organic. They die, and a number of Augusta’s trademark loblolly pine are doing just that; some allege before their time.

Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), which comprise 90 percent of the trees at the National, can be felled by myriad “stress factors,” as arborists like to call them: lightning strikes, disease, root pathogens, even the dreaded southern pine beetle. They can also whither and die following long, healthy lives of some 300 years in their natural, forest environment. Yet some of Augusta’s prized loblolly aren’t so healthy and may not witness their second century of shot-making — or so say certain tree-savvy visitors to Augusta who have noticed a change. Robust loblollies sport needles so darkly green they appear almost black from a distance. However, a disturbing jaundice has afflicted the relatively young pines that stand hard along Augusta’s 18th fairway — a clear sign of ill health, the experts say. Last year, during his first trip back to Augusta in a quarter century, architect Desmond Muirhead was floored by their lack of vitality. Other veteran observers of Augusta, most of whom insist on anonymity, believe there is a problem in paradise.

In his forthcoming book, “The Masters: Golf, Money and Power in Augusta, Georgia” (published by Villard, a division of Random House), author Curt Sampson isn’t nearly so discrete. He alleges that many more loblolly pine, especially those positioned along Augusta’s fairways, are suffering from poor health — a matter not unrelated, he says, to the club’s obsession with Edenic course conditions. Tipped off to the pine problem by his friend Muirhead, Sampson maintains misplaced fertilizer and overzealous irrigation practices have wrought considerable havoc with the loblollies, which are xerophytes — a fancy word for plants accustomed to dryer conditions. Further, for many years Augusta National maintained turfgrass well into wooded areas off the fairways. Today, this practice is an acknowledged horticultural no-no, as experts agree that trees and grass compete for the same nutrients.

Sampson — who claims to have consulted “an arborist who worked with Augusta National” but won’t name him — asserts the ailing loblollies, overfed for too long, have been living too fast and will die young. “If you stand on a promontory like the 10th tee,” Sampson says, “you can see the difference between the interior trees and those along the fairway; it’s like new denim compared to faded blue jeans. The pine lining certain fairways are saggy and yellowish. The difference is striking.”

There are significant factors to ponder when considering anything at Augusta National Golf Club, especially an unauthorized book alleging what amounts to horticultural malpractice. First, only Chairman Jack Stephens can speak for the club, meaning horticulturist Tom Crenshaw and consulting arborist Ken Knox cannot publicly address Sampson’s assertions. Second, while Augusta employees are allowed to share pertinent research information with colleagues, few people in the golf industry care to speak “on the record” regarding the National, so extensive and powerful is the club’s reach. Arborists enthusiastic about discussing golf courses issues tend to become quite concerned with anonymity when the course is Augusta National.

That said, there are some meaningful distinctions to draw when discussing the health and life expectancy of trees on any golf course. First and foremost, experts agree they simply don’t live as long on golf courses as they might in a natural forested environment. Indeed, trees don’t live as long in any man-made setting, as it’s impossible to duplicate the complexity of any tree’s natural ecosystem — the ecosystem most conducive to maximum life expectancy.

“A tree living outside its natural environment — on a golf course, a city street or a suburban lawn — is far more likely to encounter stress factors incited by humans,” explains Dr. Jay Stipes, a plant pathologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. “For example, soil compaction: Feet and tires compact the soil, reducing pore space for oxygen. Too much compaction and roots get oxygen deprivation, and they begin to die.”

“Golf course trees simply do not live as long as forest trees, all things being equal,” said one arborist who is familiar with the situation at Augusta National but requested anonymity. “Only a fool would say no trees are unhealthy at Augusta. It’s not a magical place. God isn’t treating Augusta any differently. But it would be very unfair to say they’re dying prematurely… Of the 20, 30 or 40 things that play a role in tree health, water and fertilization play relatively minor roles. Augusta isn’t different from any other golf course; they have problems. But, if anything, the life span of these trees has been enhanced by the work being done there. That’s for sure.”

As with most issues at Augusta — ranging from arbor practices to television contracts to dinner menus — Chairman Stephens would just as soon handle the tree matter privately, meaning internally. Shrewdly timed to hit the streets sometime prior to this year’s Masters, Sampson’s book has made that next to impossible. In answering the author’s assertions, the club chose not to confirm them; neither did the club justify them with hard-and-fast denials.

In a written statement, Chairman Stephens — speaking on behalf of Augusta’s horticultural brain trust — maintains that any problems with Pinus taeda are merely “scattered,” and that excessive irrigation has not been identified as a causal agent for any weak loblolly pines. The current irrigation system, Stephens writes, is designed so that very few heads actually water the pine stands. He added that extensive soil and tissue sampling of the plant material, conducted four times annually, has yielded no indication of excessive fertility due to turf applications of fertilizer.

A cynic would argue that no golf club would take soil samples four times a year if all were right with the world. That’s not soil testing; that’s soil monitoring (undertaken because something might be amiss). Further, Sampson doesn’t have a problem with Augusta’s existing irrigation system, which is state of the art and capable of watering any square yard on the property with precision; past irrigation systems are another story. Likewise, the current arbor practices at Augusta, many of them instituted by Knox, are sound. But has this always been the case?

“The trees, I believe, were an afterthought for too long,” claims Sampson, who has attended the last five Masters tournaments and visited the property on two more occasions. “I don’t think we should look at Augusta National too harshly. They finally got religion a few years ago, but it may be too late for some of the loblolly. Skin cancer may be analogous here. You start to get skin cancer 20 years before anything actually shows up on your skin.”

To complete the metaphor, two decades in a cave won’t erase 30 years in the sun.

Augusta’s arbor practices have evolved over time. For example, the club didn’t start mulching around trees until 1982. “Trees don’t like turf growing around their trunks; trees don’t want anything growing around them,” explains Pat O’Brien, a U.S. Golf Association agronomist for the Southeastern Region, who has discussed the tree situation with Ken Knox. “The folks at Augusta have made great strides in this area. Underneath the pine needles you see on TV is a 4- to 5-inch layer of mulch and shredded bark. That’s just one of the measures they’ve instituted down there.”

Defenders of Augusta’s arbor practices would argue Sampson has mistaken neglect for the realities of life expectancy in man-made environments; they would argue it’s not accurate to claim the oak in your front yard has been neglected because it won’t live as long as a comparable oak in the forest. Augusta is a hefty target, but how could Sampson have glossed over or simply missed this distinction? Skeptics might also wonder whether Sampson has endeavored to spice up his book or simply gathered flawed information. The author says he consulted “several tree experts and an arborist who worked with Augusta National.” Yet he doesn’t necessarily give his own sources much intellectual authority: “If you can spell ‘dendrology’ and sat through a couple of courses, you’re an arborist,” Sampson says.

There’s no question some of the loblolly at Augusta National have been jaundiced by disease of some kind. Georgia’s red clay makes the likelihood quite high, if we’re to believe George Hepting, late chief pathologist of the U.S. Forest Service. In his book, “Diseases of Forest and Shade Trees of the United States” — which Dr. Stipes calls “a Bible in our business” — Hepting wrote: “The loblolly pine thrives in soils with a deep permeable surface layer and firm subsoil; on heavy piedmont clays with little [topsoil] and poor internal drainage, it is subject to diseases.”

“At Augusta you don’t have very good soil,” agrees the USGA’s O’Brien. “It’s a very dense, red clay. No doubt about that — not at all conducive to root health. Ken [Knox] says some of these trees there are 150, 160 years old. It’s like dealing with old folks in a rest home. The people are only going to live so long.”

How many of Augusta’s loblolly pine are diseased? Sampson doesn’t know and declines to guess. According to the anonymous arborist, “The number is quite small in relation to the overall number of trees. Very small. Extremely small in relation to those on other golf courses, I can tell you that. It is less of an issue at Augusta than anywhere else in the South because they’ve done such a great job keeping those trees alive.”

Has Augusta’s long-standing preoccupation with lush playing conditions shortened loblolly lives, or is Curt Sampson an alarmist trying to sell a book? With Augusta doing its best Politburo imitation, straight answers are difficult to come by. One Augusta insider — another who asked that his name not be used — summed it up this way: “I’m not sure anybody at Augusta really knows what’s wrong those pine.”

This much appears certain: Mr. Sampson won’t be invited to stay in the Crow’s Nest any time soon. Here’s another certainty: Gary McCord won’t mention the tree situation during this year’s telecast. And here’s another one: Augusta will eventually lose some if its trademark loblolly pine. Trees die. It’s a simple matter of when.

For the sake of argument, suppose a few trees do expire before their time. Considering Augusta’s peerless replanting program and its Kremlinesque approach to public relations, how would we ever know? If a tree falls (or falls ill) at Augusta National, does it even make a sound?