By Tod Leonard
How do you like the sound of the U.S. Open being played at Eucalyptus Grove? Not very sexy, we’d all admit. And the logo would sure look different. Hard to make a small artistic rendering of what Aussies call “gum trees,” unless there’s a koala clinging to it.
In realty, though, the municipal golf courses on the edge of the Pacific Ocean are fairly spare on actual Torrey pines as this week’s U.S. Open arrives, with far more eucalyptus on the grounds. Between drought, bark beetle disease, age and some shifting around for design purposes, the North and South courses have, conservatively, lost dozens of trees of all types since the 2008 U.S. Open was played on the South. Go back several decades and that number is in the hundreds.
“There’s a huge difference from when I first came here,” said Joe DeBock, the head professional at Torrey Pines who has worked at the course for more than 30 years. “The course plays like a links now, and it’s getting more that way all of the time.”
There’s a massive mural in the San Diego airport of the uphill fairway of the North Course’s par-4 16th hole. At the top of the ridge is a majestic lineup of Torrey pines. The photo might as well be in black and white because it’s so nostalgic. Those trees are all gone now.
On the South Course, the most iconic Torrey was the massive tree to the right of the No. 4 green. For years, fans crawled up on its twisted trunk to get a better view during tournaments. Artist Lee Wybranski definitely used it for his 2008 U.S. Open poster, and it could have been the model for the U.S. Open logo, though no one with the city or the pro shop can quite confirm that. Sadly, in the years after the ’08 Open, it was deemed necessary by the city to remove the tree.
Among the other Torrey losses on the South Course are several along the first fairway, right of the seventh fairway, to the left of the 10th fairway, behind the 13th green, to the right of the 15th fairway, and behind the par-3 16th green.
The most significant losses in recent years have come via storms. The most damaging hit during the 2016 Farmers Insurance Open, when a 75-foot-tall eucalyptus tree on the 15th hole blew over in 60 mph winds. The crater created by the roots coming up was massive. For 50 years of tournament golf, the tree served as an obstacle to those who drove too far to the left on the par 4.
“It’s never going to be the same,” Brandt Snedeker, who won the Farmers that year, said at the time. “That tree on 15 was an integral part of the golf course. … They lost some other trees that are an integral part of the golf course.”
Dennis Paulson, the broadcaster who played on the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines, said on Monday that his brother, Carl, was stunned to see the course this week after not being on the property since 2008.
“He just goes, ‘I can’t believe it!’ ” Paulson said.
“For this week, the golf course is protected by the rough, so it doesn’t matter whether the trees are there or not. The only tree that’s going to get in people’s way is that little bastard on 15 in the right rough. That little tree is going to cause some problems. Tiger used to get past that tree until they moved the tee back. I watched Phil [Mickelson] tee off with his 2-wood today, and he was 20 to 30 yards behind it, just in case he pulled it over there.”
The South Course is seeded with tree lore. In 1987, Craig Stadler kneeled on a towel under a Leland Cypress tree on the 14th hole and was eventually disqualified for not penalizing himself for “building a stance.” Eight years, later, in a publicity stunt for the tournament, Stadler took a chainsaw to the tree.
That would have been sacrilege—and probably illegal—if it was a Torrey pine. San Diegans have always taken great pride in the trees because it is unique to them. First identified in 1850 and named for John Torrey, an American botanist, the species is the rarest pine in the U.S., extremely endangered, and only grows in San Diego in the Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve that is adjacent to the courses, and on a couple of islands off the coast of Santa Barbara.
The pines can live to be 100, but they’ve been hit hard in Southern California by drought and bark beetles. They can also be hard to grow. In a course design move, the city tried to replant some Torreys to the right of the South’s fourth fairway to prevent players from blowing their drives into the fifth and playing in from there to the green. But DeBock said the trees withered and didn’t last.
For those who have been around Torrey Pines for years, there are mixed feelings about the loss of the trees. They have definitely made playing the courses easier, and some of the views of the canyons and nearby coastline are more spectacular than ever.
“The evolution of the course has been so slow over the years you almost don't notice it until you look at 30 years ago and today,” said lifelong San Diegan Phil Mickelson. “But the views seem to be more open.”
One tree lost is another golfer's gain.
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