Timber!: St. Thomas and the debate over trees

Bunker work and tree removal are ongoing at St. Thomas G&CC, one of the country’s truly great golf courses.

It always fascinates me to see how industry rumors spread. This summer one of the discussions was how some courses struggled with the seemingly never-ending heat. Some of these courses were quite prestigious – heck, even Magna had its stumbles this year when it came to conditioning, something that was extremely surprising given the club’s resources. Summit had its early issues as well – with the timing coming just as the club was preparing for its 100th anniversary celebrations. And Jasper had a horrible spring complicated by ice damage and endless rain.

But few were more discussed than St. Thomas Golf and Country Club. The club’s greens, many of which are surrounded by dense outcroppings of trees, literally cooked in the hot July sun. And everyone had their own perspective on why that happened.

Many clubs are reluctant to deal with their tree troubles until disaster strikes. For some reason many golfers connect trees with great golf. I link great golf with great turf – or at least the two often go hand-in-hand. Nonetheless, almost every club has some tree hugger on their board that thinks the club’s superintendent should be able to grow grass without sun or air flow. I, on the other

Ongoing bunker work is part of the renovation of St. Thomas, which will take place over five years.

hand, would rather have far fewer trees and better grass.

St. Thomas has struggled with this for years. As I pointed out in my review of the club in 2011, St. Thomas has numerous holes being obscured by the canopies of trees. Dense forest lines holes or surround greens on #2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16 and 17. That led to the problems the club had this summer – a difficulty as new management and a new head pro are attempting to correct. It is hard, after all, to market a club where numerous greens are struggling, even if it is regarded as a great golf course.

New GM Rob Mason is leading an ambitious program to put resources and energy into the club’s key asset – its Stanley Thompson/Robbie Robinson designed golf course. A few years ago the club floated the notion of redoing its clubhouse. Given the timing, it would surely have been a disaster. At the same time, St. Thomas has struggled economically, making it more of a challenge for a private golf club. Mason, who took the GM position last year, made the decision that the golf course should be the club’s focus.

So Mason, and superintendent Wade Beaudoin, are going to slowly transform St. Thomas. It has started with bunker work at the 10th and 7th holes, and will continue. As well, huge areas of trees will be removed – especially around 6 green and 7 tee and between 2 and 3 – to improve air circulation and sun access to the putting surfaces and tees.

Interestingly, apparently a small, but vocal minority have opposed tree removal in recent years. That’s common at basically every club that takes out trees. The problems St. Thomas experienced this past summer were a direct result of that. Often members seem to think trees were always there and blame the problems on the super. Frankly, the super can’t grow grass in a cave – and that’s what areas of St. Thomas had become, with leaves obscuring sunlight and limiting air flow.

St. Thomas will be a better club for it. I’ve yet to see a course that wasn’t improved by tree removal (Oakmont being the best example, but Cutten Club in Guelph is also worth noting). Hopefully, once St. Thomas is finished its tree removal and bunker work, it’s standing amongst great Canadian courses will rise. That would be the greatest indication the club is on the correct path.



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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

20 CommentsLeave a comment

  • St Thomas is a fantastic course and can only get better with this work being done.

    I was a member at Lookout Point when they decided to close the course down for a few days to burn the fairways and plant with new grass. The uproar was so big that some members actually took the club to court to get an injunction to stop the reseeding of the fairways. After that, all the bunkers on the course were redone.

    This dramatically improved the golf course, and was basically like playing a brand new course.

    I look forward to the renos at St Thomas, I am still comtemplating joining there as it is such a challenge.

    Thanks for the info RT.

  • I recall having a conversation with a board member at a private Toronto club with trees obstructing the best lines on the course throughout. He was convinced that the trees added strategic value. I attempted to explain that they had encroached on the original lines of charm in several places and he thought I did not know what I was talking about. He liked the idea that they made at least 2 holes much more difficult. One reachable par 5 was tempting except the only way to reach the green in two was to play a extreme draw on the second shot. Most members played driver, wedge, wedge to reach the green. And he thought that was good!
    Late one season a severe storm took out two offending trees and within weeks players were talking about how improved two of the holes were because you could now use the lines which gave the best approach the the angled greens. But their was no further talk of tree removal because several on the board considered them sacred.
    Today the course still struggles and many offending trees still stand. But it is beautiful…..

  • John Zimmers (superintendent at Oakmont) spoke at a superintendent conference in Waterloo 2 weeks ago discussing the extensive tree removal program. Members there to the Board of Directors to court to stop the work. The photos were remarkable and the course looks fantastic now that it is back into its “original state”.

    Most members at all courses love their trees, resist the removal, resent you for one year following, and finally admit the second year that it was the correct thing to do.

    They do not understand that the trees grow every year, and what was not a problem 10-20 years ago is now causing the problem, not the ability of the superintendent.

    Golf courses require healthy turf and are not an arboretum. Keeping turf healthy should be paramount. Good too see Wade is being allowed to do his job after all the struggles he has year in and year out.

    • Andy Vergeer is the contractor. Vergeer Golf.
      He also did the renos to the irrigation pond and practice range. Did a very good job.

  • St Thomas is one of most under rated courses in Ontario and the tree removel will produce better conditions and in turn enhance the experience. Another club that as benefited from a ‘tree program’ is Rosedale. Better vistas and much improved fairwasy and greens.
    I agree RT. I have never seen a course suffer from the removal of trees.

  • One super that I worked with had two chainsaws, one called Thunder and the other was called Lightning. He used to say it was the only way to get rid of a tree cause if the members heard it was caused by thunder and lightning they didn’t mind. Amazingly they never caught on that there wasn’t any thunder and lightning during the winter when the trees were removed!

    St Thomas is a great course, I can recall 17 holes that I liked and one that seemed out of place, must have been newer than the rest.

  • A forward thinking Board, Management with a vision and Members who strongly support the future of the Club are building on a long history of golfing excellence in St Thomas. Check us out!

  • Imagine what a great hole number two would be if the green was moved back across the creek? I know the club doesn’t own that property but IF it did that relatively simple change would make arguably the weakest hole into perhaps the hardest (if the back tees stayed the same). With a false front, it could become an “all or nothing” heroic second shot hole and by extension a far more complete golf hole. This would also allow for a new back tee on #3, turning what some think is St. Thomas’ signature hole, into an all world par 4. Oh to dream…

    • Creating # 2 green on the other side of Beaver Creek would be an excellent way to enhance the hole, however the costs alone for the retaining walls would be enormous.

  • As a member of STG&CC, and a member of the Greens Committee I will say it has been a struggle in the past to have trees removed from the course. Some members are greatly opposed to the removal of trees.

    One new member made a comment to me as we played a round one day that really made sense. He said “Do they want a golf course or a park?”

    The course had become overgrown with trees that were planted 40-50 years ago. The time had come to thin out some of those trees.

    A prime example of the good that tree removal can do for turf is the back tee deck on the 12th hole. Since I have been at the club as an employee and a member (2007) that tee deck always suffered from the shade of four big maple trees that were right beside it. The trees have been removed, the turf has recovered.

    I for one look forward to the improvement in the greens that were effected by the shade of many trees. I can tell you that I was on the course and on greens when temperatures where being taken just below the surface of the greens. I was shocked when I saw temperature readings of 38-40 C just below the surface of a green at 11 AM.

    Not only will the greens improve, but the scenic views on the course will be greatly improved.

    The bunker work on hole 10 and 7 is awesome. The new front left bunker on 10 really adds to that hole. When the pin is tucked on the left front portion of the green behind that bunker it will be a challenge to get close to it.

    I can not wait for the 2013 golf season to begin so I can get back on the fairways of one of the greatest courses in south west Ontario.

  • St. Thomas is great course, tree removal is required, and is good to see it is getting done! Sales guru just so you know the course does own the land behind the second green the problem is the bridge that would be needed to cross beaver creek, apparently it would be very hard to obtain permits to cross the stream (at least that is what I have been told by the greens keeper)

    • Otis and Vargas are turf experts, their reports gave credibility to the Superintendent who has advocated tree removal for years to improve turf health. To have done nothing after this years conditioning would have put the club membership at risk, now that the work is progressing there’s great optimism for the 2013 season. Members must be patient as the turf will need time to readjust to the revised growing conditions.

  • I am a tree lover (not hugger)…but the evidence can not be denied. The offending trees or stands of trees must go because as golfers, great turf and great greens are far more important.
    ps….we will still have thousands of trees on our property to marvel at.

  • As a new member at St Thomas last year I can attest that the course is spectacular. The tree removal was essential and coming from North Halton I can tell you very necessary. We had the same problem there and many members opposed the removal of trees. I can tell you the removal of the offending trees much improved the enjoyment of playing the course and did not take away from the beauty of the course in any way.

    This is a necessary evil to provide exceptional playing conditions for all members. People will get over it in time and be proud of their course. I look forward to playing this summer with better conditions. Keep it up Wade you are doing a great job in a very tough situation.

  • Here we are almost 5 years after this article was written. I can tell you this much, the greens have greatly improved at the STG&CC. The turf is healthier, not only on the greens but the tee decks as well.

    Are there more trees that could be removed? Yes there is, and most of those that should be removed are simply due to the age of the trees.

    I for one would like to see more of the pines, spruce trees removed. Roots above the ground, no turf underneath them all adds up to a nasty situation and areas that just look plain ugly around the course.

    The 5 year tree removal plan has come to an end. So the remaining trees that need to be removed will now become part of the daily upkeep of the course.

    And trust me, there are still plenty of trees to cause problems for golfers if they stray off the fairways!

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