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. I’ve heard nothing since re. the ill-health or subsequent removal of diseased loblolly pines at Augusta National GC. But then, trees are removed, tees are added, and greens thoroughly renovated at ANGC and we are none the wiser — 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.”