Clearcutting the U.S. Open: Oakmont Cuts 15,000 Trees

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By Larry Weil

I was watching the U.S. Open on Fox this past weekend when I heard Joe Buck, the lead announcer, repeatedly tell the audience about how Oakmont Country Club had removed 15,000 trees since the last U.S. Open was held there in 1983. I was stunned. Why would they do that? I went online the next day to do some fact-checking. Here is what I found.

As the Wall Street Journal reported last week: “During the mid-1990s, a dozen groundskeepers would set out at 4 a.m. most days and take aim at a tree. Guided only by the headlights of a cart, they would cut the tree down, grind the stump, conceal the area with sod and remove all evidence of what they had just done.”

Today there is only one tree on the entire course. Apparently this is a trend to move back toward “links style” courses. The WSJ article went on to say that this didn’t happen without a lot of heated discussions and disagreements, but ultimately the “chainsaw group” won.

Is golf that out of touch with the issue of climate change? Do golfers really believe that a perceived improvement in the form of eliminating trees isn’t, at least symbolically, the wrong way to approach improving the game?

Golf has been shrinking for some time. “The nation now has just fewer than 15,000 courses,” said Rick Lucas, director of Clemson University’s PGA golf management program. “Industry figures show more courses have closed than opened for eight straight years with an average of 137 closing annually since 2011.” Lucas said another 500 to 1,000 courses will have to close within the next decade without “new growth in golf’s popularity.”

Will creating landscapes that look more like moonscapes bring more people to golf? The biggest dip in golfers is among 18- to 34-year-olds. Maybe golf doesn’t know that the environment and climate change are especially important to those who will be around to deal with the consequences.

There are plenty of issues for golf to address if they want to lessen environmental impacts. Writing for the nonprofit Decoded Everything under the headline, “Why the Decline of Golf is Good News for the Environment,” Elisabeth Klusinske itemized daily mowing, runoff, erosion, removal of native species, extreme water usage and reliance on pesticides as just some of the issues.

I can’t help but think of the irony. America is clearcutting golf courses to “improve” them, while we wring our hands over the destruction of the South American and Asian rainforests for timber and palm oil. It would be hypocritical to criticize these offenders in poor countries while we tinker with our golf courses.  

The United States Golf Association website has a section on environmental planning with links to three articles from the Green Section Record (USGA publication) written by the same three or four people, published in 2007. The group also provides a page on Environmental Principles for Golf Courses in the United States, published in 1996. Time for an update.

I’ve been engaged on the topic of sports and the environment for about seven years. During that time, I have seen a lot of progress. I fully realize that there are plenty of places to focus on for environmental bad actors and that in the total picture this isn’t the worst by a long shot. But here is the big problem: When you go on TV in front of millions of people proclaiming the greatness of the golf course you have just scalped, you don’t seem to understand your importance as an influencer.

Other sports seem to get it. I attended the Green Sports Alliance Summit for the past four years and have seen amazing progress by teams, leagues and venues. The Alliance is made up of 15 leagues, 184 venues and 175 teams — and zero are from golf. This group didn’t even exist until 2011. It started with a few people who thought it would be a good idea to at least exchange information and learn from each other. It is impossible to be perfect or to please everyone, but there is so much golf could do beyond what it does now. Here are my suggestions to make more progress faster:

  1. Participate in the broader ‘sports and the environment’ community. This is where you will learn from others who have been there.
  2. Recognize that virtually every major corporate sponsor has a corporate social responsibility platform and is highly in tune with environmental issues. They will support your progress.
  3. You want millennials back in the game. Show them you care about what they care about, particularly the environment.
  4. If you are going to chop down trees, purchase carbon offsets to at least balance out the impact. The NFL has been offsetting the Super Bowl for years.

Look, I get it; no one wants to get called out. But in this case, you asked for it by repeatedly and unapologetically proclaiming on national TV that cutting down 15,000 trees improved the course.

Update: There will be one break-out session at the Green Sports Alliance Summit: Golf’s Sustainability Agenda: The Power of Collaboration. Here is the description:

Golf is a sport and industry with deep traditions and global reach, that is beginning to embrace sustainability around the world. The golf industry plays a critical role in enhancing natural green spaces within communities and providing an outdoor activity for millions, and it is also responsible for driving more than $70 billion in revenue into the global economy. This interactive panel discussion incorporates the expertise of golf, sustainability, and marketing industry professionals, translating individual knowledge and experience into useful insights on the power of partnership. The panelists have firsthand, compelling insights on the power of partnership, on topics including diversity challenges within golf, marketing and corporate social responsibility opportunities, natural resource management and waste reduction, sustainable events, private/public golf club management, and the industry’s global (positive) impact opportunity. The goal of this panel conversation is to enlighten the audience as to the benefits of the golf industry and its partners/supporters working together toward a common goal rooted in sustainability.              

Larry Weil is a veteran sponsorship executive who has worked extensively with brands, venues and teams to create successful partnerships. Through his companies, The Sponsorship Guy and Sponsorship Green, he helps his clients navigate the complexities in the world of buying and selling sponsorships.

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6 responses

  1. I was shocked when I heard that they cut 1500 trees down. Trees help clean our air. I think their should be a penalty for what they did. It would be great if they were made to replace at least half of the trees. Should have a petition to sign for that to happen.

  2. You obviously have zero knowledge of golf or golf courses. Tree removal is the single biggest cultural practice that can be done to improve the health of the turf. Removing trees reduces the amount of water, fertilizer, pesticides and labor that goes into managing a golf course. Trees compete for water and nutrients therefore creating the need to increase those inputs to sustain both plants.
    Per square foot turf will release more oxygen than a tree so forget the carbon offsets. Comparing tree removal on a golf course to the destruction of South American and Asian forests is totally absurd. Those areas comprise thousands upon thousands of acres vs. a typical golf course of 80-100 acres. If every course in the US were to clear cut, which shouldn’t and wont happen, it would not begin to add up the the devastation that is occurring in those and other areas of the world.
    The reason for the decline from the 18-34 age group is due to the fact that they have the attention span of a gnat. That group wants instant everything and cannot keep a thought for 4 hours, let alone the time it takes to learn the game.
    You should really do a little research before making claims and accusations.

  3. First, the US Open has been played at Oakmont, Country Club in 1994, 2007, and many other times. The US Open has been played there more than any other golf course in the world going back to 1927.

    Second, the course was originally designed to have no trees. Trees were added in the mid 1950s and 1960s to try to make the course look like Augusta National Golf Club on orders of the club president at the time. By the mid ’90s the trees has grown so large that they were hurting the grass on the course from growing. Tree roots were also damaging parts of the course.

    The decision of the club to remove the trees was highly contested among the club members, but was mostly done to help the course to save it and get back to an original state. If you looked at the course on google maps you will see millions of trees around the course, so removing them on the course hardly made any impact on the surrounding area.

    I wish the author had further researched the tree removal and the reasons behind it before he wrote the article.

  4. Did you check any other facts? or just the facts that support your story? Oakmont was originally pasture land. As late as 1949, Oakmont was virtually treeless. Trees were planted because that is the look golf courses were going to. The tree removal program was set forth to take Oakmont back to the look of the original property. I bet you won’t revise your story to reflect Oakmont originally was treeless pastureland!

  5. Hi Larry,

    My name is Travis, and I am one of many people working toward making golf a more environmentally friendly industry. In fact, one of the members of the panel discussion you reference at next week’s Green Sports Summit is the figure head of this movement. Things are going in the right direction, but we are still a great deal behind other sports. If you are going to Houston next week for the Summit, I would love to connect. Please email me at travis@springmillsolutions.com

    Thanks,
    Travis

  6. Author’s Comment: Actually there was too much data and information about the impact of golf and golf courses to include it all here. Some of those things include the constant mowing, up to 3x per day of greens by gas powered engines, soil erosion, wildlife habitat etc. If you read the WSJ article link, they had the space to go into much more detail. Golf is a land intensive, maintenance intensive activity. There is a lot of legitimate conversation about the environmental impact, and the point of this article is that if you are going to cut down that many trees for any reason, you should expect to defend that activity with something more than making it like the good old days. Yes, trees do need to be trimmed and can become overgrown. At Augusta National when an ancient tree was felled by a storm, they took grafts and made a seedling because of their appreciation. Clearly there was a huge dispute even within the membership of Oakmont. I believe that there are folks in every form of business who see taking the environment into consideration as some kind of infringement to their rights. Nobody is perfect. I’m just asking golf to get involved in having a more open conversation about how these kinds of actions are perceived and what their actual impact will be. I know that there are plenty of people in golf that know they can do more and want to do more.

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