In the lead up to the 2023 PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club, the lore of the Oak Tree intrigued me. It was the first major championship I attended, and up until this point, my tournament experience consisted exclusively of the Canadian Open 100 miles north. The PGA at Oak Hill represented a more significant tournament at a venue with a more storied history than most Canadian Opens, and the gravity of the event was significant. As someone with an affinity for trees, I was excited to see the great trees of Oak Hill first hand.
Oak Hill Club History
The oak trees of Oak Hill Country Club have stood witness to more than nine decades of golfing excellence. Throughout the years, these towering sentinels have become an integral part of Oak Hill’s legacy and synonymous with the club’s identity. At some point in the club’s history, you could argue the oak tree enjoyed a higher profile than that of the original architect Donald Ross.
The Oak planting efforts of Dr. John Ralston Williams are well documented and form an important component of the club’s long history. The process of cultivating acorns from around the globe, raising the saplings and subsequently planting upwards of 75,000 trees across the 355 acres of former barren farmland is an effort deserving of this recognition.
I would say these efforts are common to other horticultural norms of the early 20th century, displaying the overwhelming skills and ability of the horticulturalist by propagating plant species in new and revolutionary ways.
Through the renovations of Robert Trent Jones, and George & Tom Fazio, the oaks provided a serene backdrop and challenging obstacles for golfers. In 2020, the renovation led by Andrew Green was underscored by its significant tree removal efforts. Quite the remarkable task when considering how endeared trees are to the history of Oak Hill.
Visiting Oak Hill
Once I set foot on Oak Hill, I was less impressed by the trees than I expected. Yes, there are no doubt some majestic oak trees, but something just seemed a little off. I do have to point out, the walk alongside the 4th fairway down towards the lowest point of the property and the site of the new 5th hole featured some very beautiful and soaring oak trees.
As I continued to traverse the property, it was evident how common all the trees appeared. Common not only in species but in shape, size and appearance. This lack of diversity gives the trees that line the fairway a manufactured appearance.
The 12th and 13th hole feature a very regular distribution of oak trees. Not much variety here.
There is some variety to be found at Oak Hill, however it is mostly found along the periphery of the neighbouring properties. This can be seen in the distance beyond the 10th hole for example. Some variety goes a long way to create a more natural and visually pleasing aesthetic.
Perhaps I have a Carolinian Forest bias, living and playing my club golf within the most biodiverse and ecologically sensitive region in Canada. One characteristic of this region are the incredible natural landscapes highlighted by oak savannah and old growth forests.
Don’t let this option of the trees be overly reflective of the architecture. The overall experience of walking the grounds was very pleasant. I can only imagine what playing this very challenging course would be like, even if from a more reasonable set of tees.
What became evident through this experience is the contrast between uniform and mixed planting of vegetation. A more naturalized approach is essential in any project where the objective is to create a natural golf experience. This approach is also the most responsible from an ecological perspective as avoiding a monoculture will improve biodiversity.
The Beam Tree
One tree above all confirmed my general malaise about the oaks of Oak Hill. I’m calling it the Beam Tree. I came across this interesting oak tree while walking along a cart path, no less. The oak in question, pitched at nearly a 45-degree angle, is an odd sight. In an effort that I can only imagine was done with the best intentions, this challenged oak is supported by a structural steel beam. Only on a golf course. It is without doubt the oddest sighting of a tree I’ve ever had the misfortune of witnessing.
I’m all for saving a tree, but when the net impact is carbon negative, there needs to be some greater rationalization. (How many logs would be required to stoke the stove of the iron foundry that manufactured that steel beam?). Could there be a genuine reason behind why this tree was preserved in such a peculiar way? I would love to know the story.
Yes, I do understand people form lifelong associations with trees, sometimes with trees that predate the individual. The idea that a tree might have stood for over 100 years before your own very existence is rather humbling.
If Oak Hill Was Created Today
If the efforts of Dr. Williams were to take place in today’s age, I would have to believe the landscape would be created in such a way to have a deeper connection to the natural environment. Sourcing Oak species from around the world is not a practice aligned to modern conservation best practices. Rather, tree species common to Western New York would be the ideal pick.
Ironically, the club’s origin along the Genesee River is where the eastern portion for the Niagara Escarpment commences, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve featuring one of the oldest forest ecosystems in North America.
So, as it appears, the connection of the tree with Oak Hill goes beyond that of Dr. Williams.