Augusta National’s new look: A tree assessment

The new-look 17th hole is just one of many visible changes to the tree lines at Augusta National.

As an amateur landscaper and arborist, I’ve just spent two days walking around Augusta National Golf Club, assessing its new look.

Everyone knows about the loss of the Eisenhower Tree on the 17th hole. It came down after a vicious ice storm ravaged the region on Feb. 12. But the storm also wreaked havoc on trees across the entire golf course, dramatically changing the look of the place. And weather’s impact on the tournament isn’t limited to storm damage. An unusually cold winter has left the normal palette of colored, flowered-out shrubbery still crawling out of dormancy.

Here’s my assessment of what this means for what you’ll be seeing this week on TV (and in person).

1. Eisenhower Tree: At 65 feet tall, this loblolly pine dominated the view of the hole from the tee, though at 210 yards out on the left side it was only in play for contestants who badly pulled their drive on a low trajectory. The club could have replaced it after ice damage hurt it badly, but that would have diverted time, money and crews from the more important labor of recovery across the entire 345-acre parcel.

Tournament officials will study how and whether the hole plays differently before deciding on replacing the tree. My bet is, not much. Its loss opens up the landing area, but it also encourages a rather smart option of laying up with a 3-wood or rescue to a spot left of center for an ideal line into the green. And with the tree gone, you can bet more players will go at their drives more aggressively, which could mean more balls into the left trees. We’ll see. For now, you can simply gape in awe at the recovery work, which has resulted in a nearly imperceptible 1/3-acre swath of resodded area on the upslope.

2. The storm clobbered the entire golf course. It’s an impressive showing of the crew and management that they were able to tend to all of the damaged trees. The day after the storm, virtually all employees were out there cleaning up debris. The club commanded several tree crews fulltime for the recovery – no easy feat in a region badly damaged and in need of recovery. Some 250 trees were removed, several thousand had to be cleaned up, scaled up by crews for inspection, removing limbs and dangling “widow makers.” It took an amazing amount of labor and skill to do so – many of those trees are nearly inaccessible except by bucket lift. As you go around the course you’ll have a hard time finding a tree that doesn’t bear evidence of cutting. The 165-year old oak tree behind the clubhouse, near the first tee, shows evidence of massive damage to its crown – just another revealing example of how devastating the storm was.

3. It’s no secret that Augusta National was heavily planted. Actually overplanted. The selective thinning is actually a good thing for air movement across the site and for views across the land. You can now look out across and through to far corners of the property. It’s not like the golf course has been shaved bare. But it does look a little more open, and that’s actually (if inadvertently in this case) a good thing. That means more wind, even healthier turf grass (if that’s possible), more incredible views and more elements for the golfers to do battle with all week.

4. Alas, one thing is missing; though perhaps as the favorably warm weather takes hold (as anticipated, as each day unfolds) the shrubbery will bloom out and the legendary color of the holes comes through. For now, the place lacks its customary color. Due to the long, unusually cold winter, there’s not the customary evidence of dense coloring, what with the azalea (red), yellow jasmine, wisteria vines (purple) and magnolia (white) still coming out of their sleep.

Perhaps things will pop, botanically, by the weekend. They always seem to at Augusta National.

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