St. Thomas G&CC has long been one of the great hidden gems in Ontario. Partly a creation of Stanley Thompson with some work by Robbie Robinson, the course runs over exceptional ground, with several of the best holes in Canada (#3, #15, for example). Its location, not in the immediate vicinity of a large city, limits its membership, but gives it a blue collar appeal. There’s nothing stiff or uninviting at St. Thomas.
However, in the past few years the course has struggled occasionally with conditioning. At practically every course I go to that has struggles with greens or turf in general, the problem is always the same — too many trees. Such was the case with St. Thomas. Thick forests of trees surrounded holes that were in valleys to start with, stifling all air circulation and obscuring the sun. It came to a head last season when ultra-hot conditions and lack of air flow cooked some of the greens, resulting in one of the biggest struggles for the club in years. It is tough enough to lure members to St. Thomas — but next to impossible if its award-winning course isn’t in top condition.
That led to an appointment with Dave Oatis, the USGA’s agronomist. Otis recommended cutting down huge swaths of trees — those behind the third green, along the left of the fourth green and on the hillside near the 7th and 8th holes. It would be a clear cut concept — reseeding the area with fescue. It would create a different aesthetic for the club, but wouldn’t really be strategic since most of the trees were simply surrounding and not in play. Some members, those who value trees over turf, must have been nervous when the club, under the guidance of GM Rob Mason and superintendent Wade Beaudoin, said they were moving ahead with the plan.
Over the winter thousands of trees were removed. It is a dramatic improvement — turf conditions have been solid all year. Beaudoin says members haven’t complained at all about the tree removal; instead they are more concerned about how fast the fescue will grow to cover hillsides that used to be filled with trees. The most significant impact of the plan in my estimation is that it shows just what could be done if more trees are taken out — holes like 15 are surrounded by trees. How much better would they play if the hills of trees came down?
A couple of years ago I had a conversation with Dave Kuypers, the super at Cutten Club. He’d also led an ambitious tree removal program and the turf was superb. The concern from members prior to the program was that the course would play too easy. That turned out not to be the case — with the trees down the turf improved and green speeds were increased. Kuypers said the score at the club championship actually increased. So much for the notion that we need to play in a forest to make golf an interesting and challenging game.
St. Thomas is planning on going forward with removing thousands more trees — and when it is done the club will be much better for it.