Olympic Gets A Fresh Look

Old Olympic Club Aerial

A classic aerial shot of The Olympic Club's Lake Course that can be found in the USGA's Architectural Archive. (USGA Museum)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

By Dunlop White

The Olympic Club has acquired a fresh new look. When the 112th U.S. Open is contested on their historic Lake Course, the golf world will hardly recognize the venue, which has hosted eight USGA national championships. Evergreens and dense underbrush no longer dominate the landscape.

As a crucial part of a nine-year tree management program, Olympic has removed hundreds of trees and acres of shrubs that once threatened turf quality, hole strategy, recovery play, and desirable vistas, both on and off the golf course.

In the Beginning

In 1922, the Olympic Club’s Lake Course resembled the rolling sand hills of the surrounding topography. Positioned between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Merced, the terrain was naturally hilly, windswept and devoid of trees.

Over the next three decades, The Olympic Club, along with hundreds of clubs across the country, began an ornamental tree-planting program to help beautify the golf course. The USGA Museum’s Architecture Archive currently showcases a 1940 aerial photo on its home page, which reveals a massive number of newly planted saplings alongside every fairway. The Monterey cypress and the Monterey pine turned out to be the species of choice.

At the 1955 U.S. Open, the Lake Course emerged as a tree-lined, parkland layout despite its sandy terrain and proximity to the ocean. By the time Olympic hosted its second U.S. Open in 1966, the once barren Lake Course had become known for its graceful trees.

Through the years, the Monterey cypresses and pines grew at a rapid rate in San Francisco’s mild Mediterranean climate. Countless eucalyptus trees also invaded the property. Over time, these trees outgrew their welcome. They not only encroached on the golf course, they also impinged upon each other. In addition, heavy overgrowth of blackberry and acacia shrubs inundated their understory, which effectively negated recovery play.

At the 1998 U.S. Open, Olympic bore little resemblance to its original identity. Due to a dense framework of vegetation, golfers could no longer see from one fairway to the next. The trees and their shadows totally camouflaged the undulating character of the property and served as a buffer to the swirling ocean breezes. Worst yet, tree shade also promoted wet and spongy turf conditions.

Developing a Tree Management Program

In 2003, Steve Meeker, green chairman, and Pat Finlen, director of golf maintenance operations, jumpstarted Olympic’s much needed tree management program. Tree management is the process of evaluating how various tree species, their positions and their structures interact with their course surroundings in the following four contexts:

  1.  Agronomy: How do trees impact surrounding turf quality?
  2.  Strategy: How do trees impact the strategic width and playability of golf holes?
  3.  Aesthetic Landscaping: How are trees situated to enhance or camouflage views?
  4.  Health & Disease: Do trees need tender loving care or do they need to be removed?

Olympic’s program started with the clearing of acres of eucalyptus trees and underbrush between holes 2 and 4, holes 4 and 5, and holes 6 and 11. Within months, it became evident that the additional sunlight and air movement produced drier playing conditions.

“The best result can be seen in our new turf conditions,” says Finlen. “The additional sunlight and wind has resulted in firmer, faster and healthier playing surfaces.’’

Meanwhile, many Monterey pines were showing signs of age and stress, since they were approaching the end of their estimated lifespan of 80 years. A leading arborist determined that many of Olympic’s pines had also contracted a deadly fungus, called pitch canker disease. With most of the eucalyptus trees gone, Finlen immediately shifted emphasis toward removing more than 200 pines infected with the disease.

The most enduring evergreen on the Lake Course is the Monterey cypress, which possesses a life span of 120-plus years. In order to protect this majestic-looking species, Finlen initiated a meticulous pruning program of lifting their lower branches, exposing their trunks, and shaping their canopies. Again, underbrush was cleared from beneath, which helps expose these grand specimens more prominently throughout the course.

Tree management isn’t always about tree care and tree removal. Over the last five years, Olympic has also initiated a selective tree-replacement program. Here, Monterey cypresses have been used to replace many of the lost Monterey pines in key locations, such as at turning points on doglegs and in conspicuous gaps of open space throughout the property.

In 2007, under the supervision of course architect Bill Love, Olympic replaced its aging Poa annua greens with bentgrass due to a nematode problem prevalent along coastal California. Growing bentgrass in the Bay Area requires as much unfettered sunlight as possible. In order to maximize their greens’ sun profile, Olympic continued removing Monterey pines located near their new putting surfaces.

Love indicated that Olympic’s tree management efforts have produced wider hole corridors, which will offer different strategies and angles into the greens.

“Olympic doesn’t have all those branches hanging over the fairways like before,” says Love. “It won’t be as claustrophobic, so golfers will no longer feel like they’re playing through a chute.”

Olympic’s tree management program has also uncovered long lost sight lines throughout the interior of the Lake Course. “The character of the topography can now be seen,” says Finlen, who describes the elevation changes from Holes 2 and 3 to the lower end of the property as the most dramatic. Olympic has also recaptured attractive perspectives of nearby Lake Merced. After all, the Lake Course was originally named after it.

Over the last decade, The Olympic Club has worked diligently to simplify its tree plan and has played a crucial role, probably more than any other course, to stand as an example of judicious tree management.

Dunlop White is a member of the USGA Museum & Library Committee, who has been developing the USGA Architecture Archive, the world's first and only central web repository of historically significant materials on golf course architecture.


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