The Rise and Fall of Oakmont's trees
Fred Brand Jnr, a prominent Oakmont member, was behind the ‘beautification of Oakmont’ in the 1960s. “Why can’t it be a beautiful old brute?” he wondered. Brand asked Robert Trent Jones to plant over 3,500 trees including pin oak, crab apple, flowering cherry, and blue spruce, transforming Oakmont into more of a parkland than the exposed original.
By 1990, however, a chunk of the membership weren’t keen on the trees, thinking they negatively impacted the course’s shot values and the quality of its turf, which suffered from tree roots sucking moisture and canopies providing shade. Tree removal began when superintendent Larry Napora took out 104 pin oaks in 1990. It was a start, but the process began in earnest in 1992 when grounds chairman Banks Smith had Napora’s successor Mark Kuhns remove trees at 4.30am so members wouldn’t know. It caused a rift, and several members threatened legal action. “It was actually an exciting time for most of us,” says Bob Ford. “Some members were angry we took down 1,000 trees before we got caught.”
Shortly before the 1994 US Open, by which time more of the naysayers had come on board, the club hired architect Arthur Hills to oversee a more extensive project. In 1999 John Zimmers was made head superintendent, and more or less completed the job. Eight years later, all but a handful of trees remained, and competitors at the 2007 US Open played an unfamiliar-looking track. The course received rave reviews, and now you’d have a hard time finding a single member hankering for the old trees. “It was a long and gradual process,” says Ford. “But it was worth every cut. It is breathtaking now.”