How Phila. Cricket Club found its roots through tree removal

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Golfers and spectators walk the approach to the fourth hole at the Philadelphia Cricket Club on Wednesday.

Trees - how and where they're placed, how they grow, how many there are - can shape a golf course as powerfully as any architect. And few things at private clubs are more contentious.

Are the trees essential to the golfing experience or unnecessary impediments? Do they enhance the course's original design or transform it? Are they aesthetic assets or maintenance nightmares?

Nearly a decade ago at Philadelphia Cricket Club, where the 2016 Constellation Senior Players Championship will be played this weekend on its 94-year-old Wissahickon course, members planning a restoration wrestled with all those questions.

"It was," said one club official who didn't want to comment on the topic, "a very, very sensitive issue."

Some there argued that a careful tree-removal project would bring the A.W. Tillinghast design closer to its 1922 roots. Others, concerned about the environment, disagreed, unable to see the forest for the trees.

Eventually, 2,500 trees were removed from the 135-acre layout. Many of those that remain were there when Tillinghast, a member himself, laid out the handsome Whitemarsh Township property.

Now, as the world's best aged golfers gather there for what will be its biggest professional showcase, many believe the old Wissahickon course is looking and playing surprisingly fresh.

"I think the course had lost its scale. Now it feels big again, like the championship course it is," said Tom Sheridan, the club's grounds chairman. "We've got its greater majesty back."

The tree-removal and restoration was supervised by Philadelphia-born architect Keith Foster, one of the leading proponents of the "treeless movement". The goal of the slightly misnamed movement, which took off when Oakmont eliminated 8,000 trees a few decades ago, isn't to remove all trees, just those that are unnecessary.

"If you look at aerials from when the [Wissahickon] course was conceived, it was a place of great scale and beauty," said Foster. "There were key trees scattered throughout the property. Then from the '30s through the '60s, tree-planting started to come into vogue."

Foster put some of the blame for that trend on a fellow architect, Robert Trent Jones.

"Jones was a master marketer," said Foster. "He started creating these holes that had backdrops, that had frames left and right. To do that, so many wonderful golf courses started planting trees.

"What's happened on many great courses is that too many trees, and often the wrong kind of trees, were planted. No one seemed to realize that when they got up to 50 feet tall and their canopies spread out, the original lines of play would be altered."

At Philadelphia Cricket, decades of unchecked tree-planting had created some obvious problems.

A U.S. Golf Association agronomist told members that troubles with five greens were caused by surrounding trees. Since most grass has difficulty growing in the shade, it was difficult to maintain consistent rough. And some of the course's signature features were being obscured or eradicated.

While fairway-spanning bunkers are a Tillinghast trademark, trees had virtually eliminated them on the seventh hole. A trestle bridge that touched two holes had been overtaken by hundreds of trees that arose naturally

"They'd changed the whole complexion of those holes," said Foster.

Once the decision to remove the trees was made, a representative from nearby Morris Arboretum was summoned to identify those that were expendable and to assuage the concerns of some members.

"I think the membership was a little more comfortable when they understood that experts would be guiding the process," said Sheridan.

Hundreds of willows and silver maples were taken down while black walnuts and an old elm that somehow had survived the Dutch Elm scourge were carefully preserved. Trees around greens and too close to fairways were removed, while those serving as boundaries tended to survive.

"At Philly Cricket, I took down trees that were superfluous but left other trees," said Foster. "I love trees and I love keeping and having trees. But what I don't like are silver maples and white pines that were quickly planted to try to fill in space."

Golfer Colin Montgomerie, one of the favorites in this Champions Tour major, mentioned the Wissahickon course's makeover after a practice round Tuesday.

"This is a good golf course. I've heard a lot about this golf course," he said. "You know, it's got a feel of Oakmont to it in many ways now with the trees being cut down."

And for those not overly concerned with aesthetics or golf design, tree-removal has another benefit. Foster said clubs can save considerable money since it's costly to prune thousands of trees annually, to trim around them each week, and to gather their leaves in the fall.

"No doubt trees can add great value to golf courses. But a lot of them had started to resemble bowling alleys," said Foster. "What we try to do is return a course to its original lines of play. We try to create a golf course within its natural landscape as opposed to an arboretum."

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz