Oakmont is on the cutting edge

As a perk of possessing one of the best club-professional jobs in the country, Bob Ford and his wife, Nancy, lived in a two-story home along the 18th fairway at Oakmont CC, a white, wooden-framed structure known affectionately as the "Pro's Cottage." There were a lot of mornings when Nancy would be up at 4:30 a.m., feeding the couple's baby, and hear a strange whirring sound coming from the golf course. When she asked her husband about the noise, Bob would dismiss the question and go back to sleep. Finally, he confessed: "Banks is at it again."

Nancy began hearing those chainsaws in the middle of the night nearly 15 years ago, and the cutting and shredding at Oakmont didn't stop until a small pocket of members, led by grounds chairman Banks Smith, accomplished their mission. What began as a clandestine attempt to restore Oakmont to its original design has wrought the most shocking shearing this side of Britney Spears'.

Oakmont, a club with a logo that features a squirrel, no longer has any trees -- at least not on the interior of the course. They're gone, all but a few, anywhere between 5,000 and 8,000 trees, depending on who is doing the counting and how many were removed surreptitiously by the light of a maintenance cart before anyone at the prestigious club even noticed.

When the 107th U.S. Open comes to Oakmont this week, most of the players and nearly all the spectators won't recognize the place.

"Everybody kept telling me, 'You need to see it, you need to see it,' " says Larry Napora, a former course superintendent at Oakmont in the late 1980s. "The first time I went to see it, I was like, 'Wow. Wow!'"

Even Tiger Woods, who had never been to Oakmont until he played the course several weeks ago, said the course sure didn't look like the one he watched on television in 1994 when the Open was last there.

"I just remember seeing all these trees everywhere," Woods says. "Then I got here and -- there's nothing here. You can see all the holes from the clubhouse. It's very different than what I envisioned."

Trees are an integral part of the American golf fabric. About one in 10 courses has some type of tree reference in its name. Even the name "Oakmont" carries a reference to an oak tree, whose fruit is a nut called an acorn. Hence, the club's logo of a squirrel holding a golf ball.

The logo remains, but the trees don't. They were removed as part of a 14-year program that has restored the course to the original appearance desired by founder Henry C. Fownes, a Pittsburgh industrialist who built Oakmont in 1903 on barren farmland near the Allegheny River because the property reminded him of the windswept landscape of Scotland.

More than 3,500 trees were removed from the areas around the tees, greens and fairways -- the same trees that were planted about 35 years earlier by Fred Brand Jr., Oakmont's longtime club president and a man who sought to replicate the beauty of another club at which he was a member, Augusta National. Another couple of thousand trees were taken out to expand the teeing areas at Nos. 4 and 7 and create an added feature: more grandstand space for the U.S. Open, which will allow Oakmont to accommodate anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 more fans per day than it did in 1994.

"I think most of the people are thrilled with the look of the place," says Smith, a former club president.

That wasn't always the case. The decision to get rid of all the trees created one of the most contentious periods in club history, pitting members who liked shaded, tree-lined fairways against those who sought to restore Oakmont to its original design (and, by doing so, improve turf conditions). It didn't help that some of the trees were removed secretly, without the consent of the membership. But with the U.S. Open returning for the first time in 13 years, most of the members apparently have embraced the new look, even if some are reluctant to say so publicly. Trees have been replaced with high fescue grass that sways in the wind, creating the Scottish look Fownes desired.

"If [the support is] not 100 percent, I don't know who is on the other side," says Ford, Oakmont's pro since 1979. "There is no grumbling at all. Everybody is very upbeat about it."

To be sure, the new-look Oakmont has received rave reviews from just about everyone in golf. What's more, the restoration, which began shortly after the club hosted the 1992 U.S. Women's Open, has helped restore some luster to the Oakmont tradition. Because of the changes, Oakmont has moved up to No. 5 on Golf Digest's America's 100 Greatest Courses, behind only Pine Valley, Shinnecock Hills, Augusta National and Cypress Point. Even the USGA is pleased with the new look, advising other clubs seeking to undergo similar restoration to form a committee and visit Oakmont.

"In all my years of doing championships, I have never seen a course look better," says Tom Meeks, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions until he retired at the end of 2005.

Curiously, Oakmont's decision to remove trees coincided with just the opposite approach at Augusta National. As part of an ongoing attempt to make holes more difficult, the Masters venue added more than 250 trees, the most noticeable being a small forest of pines on the right side of the fairway at No. 11, a 505-yard par 4 that serves as the entrance to Amen Corner.

But Augusta National is the exception. Many courses have started to eliminate trees from their landscape, citing increased sunlight and airflow as necessary ingredients for improved turf quality. Some of the other notable examples: Merion, Winged Foot, the Olympic Club, Oak Hill and Baltusrol.

"For any golf course, fewer trees are better for turf conditions," Oakmont superintendent John Zimmers says. "Shade is a very bad thing. [Tree removal] is catching on at other courses, though I don't know if it's catching on like it did at Oakmont."

Oakmont's decision to remove trees was not widely embraced, even outside the membership. Environmentalists wrote letters and e-mails, protesting the wide-ranging elimination of trees and citing the ecological problems created by their loss. A local church even offered prayers, asking for the trees' survival. Internally, some club members threatened lawsuits, claiming trees were removed without their knowledge. At the center of the storm was Smith, an attorney himself.

"First of all, the trees that were removed were not indigenous to the site," says Tom Fazio, the architect retained by Oakmont to lengthen and reconfigure the course in 2001. "They were not historical trees. I think that's important for the club's reputation. And other vegetation has been planted in other places to create all the necessary things that are part of the environment."

Before it was founded in 1903, Oakmont was a farm, a bleak, treeless piece of property split by the Pennsylvania Railroad -- the perfect site for links-style golf. Bobby Jones once said of Oakmont that a golfer standing at the rear of the clubhouse could look over the course and see 17 of the 18 flagsticks. (It's a sign of how much Oakmont has returned to its original design that that's about the same thing Woods said when he visited last month.)

But that look began to change in the 1960s when Brand, one of Oakmont's most revered members, took umbrage with a comment by writer Herbert Warren Wind in The New Yorker magazine before the 1962 Open. Wind referred to the course as "that ugly, old brute." Brand was offended.

"I got to thinking, why can't it be a beautiful old brute," Brand said years later.

And so it began, a makeover in which Brand commissioned architect Robert Trent Jones to plant more than 3,500 trees (mostly pin oak, crab apple, flowering cherry and blue spruce) around the property. It was known as the beautification of Oakmont, but over the years, it boiled into perhaps the most unsettling era in the club's rich history. Under Brand's program, "that ugly, old brute" had morphed into a parkland-style course that more resembled the tree-lined fairways at Winged Foot and Merion, a look that likely would have had Fownes spinning in his grave.

"They were beautiful trees," Smith says. "But it went from a links-type course to a very pretty, shaded Western Pennsylvania-type of course. It wasn't unique."

Three decades later, Oakmont decided the trees had to go. And the person leading the charge was Smith, the club's grounds chairman between 1991 and 1996. He believed the trees had become overgrown and unfairly caused golfers to alter their shots, taking away from how Fownes originally intended his course to play. What's more, the roots, which suck moisture from the soil, were adversely affecting turf quality.

Actually, the tree-removal program began in 1990, before Smith even became grounds chairman, and it had a modest beginning. Napora, who had replaced iconic Paul Latshaw as course superintendent in 1985, removed 104 pin oaks from the property.

But even Napora, who now works at Treesdale G&CC in nearby Gibsonia, concedes, "That was a drop in the bucket to what happened after that."

Shortly before the 1994 U.S. Open, the club brought in another architect, Arthur Hills, to oversee an extensive tree-removal program. But that was only after some surreptitious work had been going on for quite some time, literally under the cover of darkness.

Unbeknownst to just about everyone at the club, Smith authorized Mark Kuhns, the club's new superintendent, to remove trees early in the day, before any of the members would notice. Kuhns would take a crew of approximately 12 workers and begin cutting trees at 4:30 a.m., using the headlights of maintenance carts to illuminate the area. When done for the day, the crew even piled the logs from the felled trees far from the clubhouse, out of sight of unsuspecting members. According to Kuhn, nobody really knows how many trees actually were removed because no record was kept during the clandestine proceedings. But by his estimate, the number is closer to 8,000 than 5,000.

"We'd take out three, four, five trees at a time," explains Kuhns, who left Oakmont in 1999 and is superintendent at another frequent major-championship venue, Baltusrol GC in Springfield, N.J. "We had all the equipment loaded the night before. Everyone knew their job. We'd spread out tarps so we didn't get a lot of sawdust on the ground. We had two sweepers who would sweep up all the leaves.We'd cut the trees, grind the stumps down to nothing, throw down some soil and plant sod. We would even fluff the grass back up. We would be cleaned up before the players got out there."

And that's what Nancy Ford heard just about every morning in the Pro's Cottage: the sound of chain saws felling another tree.

Eventually, the subterfuge was exposed. One day, one of the members noticed that a group of 13 trees between the 12th and 13th holes had suddenly dwindled to three. He wanted to know what had happened and went right to the club president.

"We were nailed," Smith says.

Like the course, the anti-tree movement was now out in the open. Smith's secret project led to great division among the membership, which threatened to divide the club like the famous cross bunker in the 18th fairway. As trees fell, talk of lawsuits sprouted. Smith, a small man, stood tall, determined to convince the membership that his plan was the right plan. Besides, he said, members would have a tough time distinguishing legally between cutting grass and taking down trees.

"The trees lined the fairways like a picket fence," Smith says. "They had grown out over bunkers and were impinging on some shots to the green from the fairway. It took away the shot making for which the course was designed."

Now, the only trees still standing on the interior of the course are five giant oaks in the area behind the 10th tee and 18th green (a sixth tree in the group, a sycamore, was removed only weeks ago, which allowed Open organizers to add another 1,000 seats to the 18th-green grandstand). For the record, there is also an elm tree near the third tee and another between the fourth and fifth holes ("The only tree that really comes into play," says current club president Bill Griffin). But like all the others, even those two elms could be gone by the time the U.S. Open arrives.

Maybe even removed in the middle of the night.

"A lot of people who play golf are suburbanites; they respect trees -- trees are beautiful," says Oakmont member Mickey Pohl, general chairman of the 2007 U.S. Open. "There was a minority who thought it was a big mistake to remove them. But now people have seen it has improved the course and made it a tremendous course."

Even if it's a course many people no longer can recognize, 1994 U.S. Open champion Ernie Els among them.

"It's hard to imagine we're going to go there and there are not going to be any trees," Els told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently. "I want to go there for a day or two and check it out before the championship starts."