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The Hurricane Tree

Life, death and legacy among the live oaks of Kiawah’s Ocean Course
Looking up at hanging moss hanging from a live oak tree, St. Augustine, Florida.

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Maybe Rory McIlroy, then a 23-year-old still discovering the extent of his powers, wanted to show off for the swelling gallery. Maybe he smelled blood. At the time, he was just one stroke off the lead after consecutive birdies in a championship where a victory would make him the youngest player since Seve Ballesteros to own two major titles. Maybe, and perhaps most likely, the 71-yard change of distance from Thursday to Friday proved to be irresistible bait for one of the game’s longest hitters. Sitting 317 yards away, the green beckoned. He pulled driver. 

The ball, somehow, disappeared about 280 yards into its flight.

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island leapfrogs between seas of waste bunkers and forced salt-marsh carries—typically sadistic Pete Dye additions to a strip of coastal land where average wind speeds already hover somewhere in the 25 mph range. The ocean is built into the course and its name, and the water generates the majority of the awe. Live oak trees—Southern standbys noted for their warped limbs and proclivity for Spanish moss—barely make an appearance in the reviews of amateur golf bloggers, much less the attack strategies of Tour pros, despite being designed right into the Kiawah Resort logo. 

Going into the 2012 PGA Championship, even the staunchest of MacKenzie conservatives could embrace the cavernous bunker greenside left at No. 16, or how the wind played with No. 14’s redan green. But if the lone live oak in the middle of No. 3’s fairway drew any emotion at all, it was scorn. 

“Pete can’t escape adding some amount of spectacle,” said one observer, who works at a separate Dye course and obviously preferred to remain anonymous. “And among all his great holes, you get eyesores like that tree.”

Yet this lowly live oak had an opportunity for its 15 minutes of fame and seized it, snatching McIlroy’s ball from the air and the golf world’s attention along with it.

As McIlroy and PGA of America officials scoured the wood chips and seagrass, broadcasters Nick Faldo and Gary McCord no doubt mimicked those viewing at home, yelling “Look up!” to the wandering souls on the ground. 

Eventually, McIlroy reached up to retrieve his ball. Undaunted, he took a drop 25 feet back from his newfound foe, launched a majestic lob over its outstretched arms and made the 7-foot putt to save par. 

Looking back on what would become a historic performance, the whole series of events seems like a mere speed bump for a future Hall of Famer who couldn’t be fazed on his way to an eight-stroke rout, breaking Jack Nicklaus’ previous PGA Championship record for margin of victory. Still, Dye might have smirked as McIlroy flashed a bit of frustration walking down to No. 4 tee from the hole’s plateau green. He wanted no part of that tree ball, launching it into the salt marsh behind the hole. 

McIlroy plans to be there again when the Ocean Course hosts the 2021 PGA Championship. 

The tree will not.

*

Like the European explorers who landed on America’s Southern coast centuries ago, Pete Dye stepped off a boat in 1989 with no idea what he might find there. He had already spent countless hours on the east end of the island preparing for the 1991 Ryder Cup, but this was his first return following Hurricane Hugo, a storm that had strengthened to a Category 4 when it made its assault on Charleston, South Carolina. The sea had encroached upon what would become the Ocean Course, leveling dunes and rearranging the sandy soil base. Flooded roads prevented Dye’s crew from driving in. 

The local flora also felt the storm’s wrath. Just up Bohicket Road on Johns Island sits the famous Angel Oak, an iconic live oak with branches that cast shade across 17,000 square feet. It had lived here for more than 500 years, but Hugo delivered a brutal enough lashing that some believed it might perish. Angel survived, but none of the oaks on Kiawah had root systems to match hers, and most of them were leveled when the storm made landfall. 

“The live oaks really took a beating,” Dye recounted during an interview preceding the 2012 PGA Championship. “I thought we had lost all of them. We brought people down here and they worked on ’em, worked on ’em, worked on ’em. They were unusual, to have them out here on the point, so we worked to save as many of them as we could.”

Those efforts are evident for those walking the course today. The gnarled arms of arboreal spectators line the final four holes on the way back toward the clubhouse, particularly the par-5 seventh.

Two stood out to Dye while designing Ocean, because he planned to build the third fairway around them. One was Rory’s Oak—a name used affectionately, if unofficially, throughout the correspondence for this story. (The other—a shorter, partnering live oak—was removed prior to the 2012 PGA Championship.) 

It shocks non-Southerners to consider that Rory’s Oak, roughly 50 years old (dating live oaks has proven notoriously difficult), withstood a direct blast from one of the most intense storms in South Carolina history, alone, unprotected, in the open. Its survival, as well as the survival of the majority of the island’s oaks, still stands as a testament to the species’ perseverance. Wide root structures and deep taproots gave them the well-earned nickname “hurricane trees.” Even forest fires seem to skirt around live oaks, because their wide reach prevents the tinder of underbrush from growing beneath. The bark itself is remarkably rugged; the “iron” of the USS Constitution, the legendary ship launched in 1797 and nicknamed “Old Ironsides,” was actually a hull and frame constructed from live oak. 

The Eisenhower Tree at Augusta National, a loblolly pine, was eventually defeated by a Georgia ice storm. The fairway cypress at Pebble Beach collapsed standing down a Pacific squall. Rory’s Oak did not perish in an epic storm, but eventually shared a similar fate.

“Just a solo tree in a wide-open space—with the amount of salt spray and stuff that we get off the ocean—it just took its toll on it,” explained Jeff Stone, head superintendent at the Ocean Course.

An ironic end, perhaps, for one of golf’s toughest trees. Rather than succumbing to a grand, headline-grabbing struggle like its famous cousins, Rory’s Oak simply rotted away. 

*

Augusta National removed the Eisenhower Tree on Feb. 15, 2014. The fairway cypress at Pebble Beach’s 18th fell on Dec. 11 that same year. The New York Times compiled a pseudo-obituary when the famed elm at Winged Foot East’s 10th green succumbed to Dutch elm disease in February 1993. 

Stone couldn’t even recall when the live oak on No. 3 came down. 

“Boy, a date?” he said, racking his memory. “We just left the tree there and then, gosh, over the years it started to fall apart and rot, so it got to the point where it became a liability.”

Forgive him: On a course famous for its coastal character, Rory’s Oak rarely made the short list of memorable design details, even after its run-in with McIlroy. Nearly every fairway directs tee shots to move from one side to the other before heading in reverse upon approach to the green (also a favorite tactic of Donald Ross). Constant winds shape the break of putts on exposed greens. The waste areas—nary a true sand bunker appears on the course—offer an inimitable flavor of hazard. 

One could argue that the live oak at No. 3 didn’t make a real difference to the hole’s true challenge: a raised green smaller than any other putting surface at the course. 

“I really don’t think the tree was as much of a hindrance as you might think it was,” said Ryan Bocchino, a senior caddie at the Ocean Course. “I mean, visually it could be. But the green on that hole is the whole thing. I’ve seen numerous people go back and forth [across the green], and I’m sure I’ve done it if I’m being honest. Pete gives you room to miss long, but it’s a very difficult shot coming back.”

Kiawah head professional Stephen Youngner tried to provide the proper tone when speaking of the deceased. Still, he struggled to find a reason why the tree would challenge a player of McIlroy’s caliber. 

“Your best chance is to take a 7-iron or less into the green, as opposed to a 5-iron,” he said. “It’s a hard green to hit. If you’re sitting at 100 yards, that tree wasn’t in play, but it’s still a hard shot from 100 yards.”

Chris Lutzke worked alongside Dye during the harried construction leading up to the 1991 Ryder Cup that would come to be known as “The War by the Shore.” He recalls Dye laying out the short par 4 with a designed waste bunker that would ultimately cozy up to the tree. No. 3 presents one of the widest fairways on the course, with Rory’s Oak hovering on its left side. It was designed to be one of Dye’s patented visual tricks: Many would bail out right to avoid it, not realizing until the next shot that the green plays left to right, favoring an approach from the plateau on the left side of the fairway. Duped by a tree, golfers would look at the narrower end of the green, and from a lower lie, to boot. It was already the toughest green on the course to stick. As Youngner noted, actually carrying the tree was never a concern. He acknowledged Rory’s Oak instead as a prime example of Dye’s mind games. 

“That tree was more of a hindrance for the average player from a visual perspective,” he said. “It’s just one of those characteristics of Pete Dye’s designs, where he likes to put those visual things out there that you think about every time you hit a shot.”

Visual intimidation rings true for a designer who dotted the Lake Michigan shore with 967 bunkers—including a few that could actually catch your shot—at Whistling Straits. But considering whether Rory’s Oak provided similar sweaty palms might be overthinking it, Lutzke suggests. 

It was mostly just a sweet tree. 

“I think it gave the hole a lot more identity…a lot of character, because it’s different,” he said. “You don’t do that on four holes, or six holes, or three holes. You do it on that hole. That’s what kind of gave it a pulse, so to speak. I always liked it; I thought it was cool.”

A dash of local color in an arena frequently awash in international lights. 

*

Coleen Landry is the chairwoman of the Live Oak Society, an organization featuring more than 8,500 members across 14 states. 

She is the only human. 

The other members are live oaks with girths of at least 8 feet, which have been registered with the society since its founding in 1934. The current president is the Seven Sisters Oak in Louisiana (member No. 200), a grande dame flaunting a trunk circumference of 38 feet and a crown spanning 139, while the vice president is another Charleston legend, the Middleton Oak (No. 1,994). The Angel Oak was an early inductee (No. 210).

Landry has overseen the registry of more than 5,000 society members. They haven’t begun to run together yet. 

“If you plant a cypress tree, it’s straight up, with limbs coming aside,” she explains, probably not taking a sly dig at West Coast golf courses. “Every cypress tree is that way. Not the live oak. The live oak has its own personality. Some branches go up, some branches just go down, some branches go all the way down where people can sit on them. Brides can have their pictures taken on them. The live oak, I think, is live.” 

She means beyond the process of undergoing photosynthesis. 

“One of the things I like about the live oak,” she continues, “is you can almost think of it as a human sometimes. Different oaks are more human than others. I can look at a live oak and tell you if it’s feminine or masculine. The president now is definitely feminine. Seven Sisters, very feminine. Very graceful, with the limbs coming down, touching the ground. The first president had the very thick trunk, very sturdy solid oak. They each have their own personality.”

She smiles at her musing, as if to assure your correspondent that she’s not crazy. It’s easy to get lost in the lore, listening to Landry’s Louisiana drawl weave the kind of mystique that would build up the notion of “Southern Gothic” across two centuries. There may be more than fantasy built into the South’s fascination with its foremost plant, however. 

No region in the United States seems to put more stock, or set deeper roots, in its culture than the South. As Timothy Jacobson wrote in The Heritage of the South, “It is a loyalty to a place where habits are strong and memories are long.” Trouble arises when outsiders suggest that these characteristics were built on the back, sometimes literally, of our nation’s darkest stain. The beautiful plantation homes, the statues of 19th-century figureheads, almost the entirety of Charleston’s scenic historic districts—all require an uncomfortable asterisk if the tour guide is being truly honest.

Live oaks offer Southerners an escape from that narrative. Where man-made constructs lie in the shadow of slavery, live oaks have grown for hundreds of years, nearly unblemished by the remorse of past eras. Southerners can look at a centenarian live oak and embrace the strength it represents and its uniqueness to their homeland.

Southern pride, guilt-free.

According to Coleen Landry, the chairwoman of the Live Oak Society, each tree has its own unique personality, including being either masculine or feminine. Their fierce individualism and long life-spans have endeared them to Southern culture, where they still occupy a special place. For the record, Landry confirms that Rory’s Oak was masculine. Photo by: Alexander/National Geographic Creative
According to Coleen Landry, the chairwoman of the Live Oak Society, each tree has its own unique personality, including being either masculine or feminine. Their fierce individualism and long life-spans have endeared them to Southern culture, where they still occupy a special place. For the record, Landry confirms that Rory’s Oak was masculine. Photo by: Alexander/National Geographic Creative

*

Landry knows that finding a replacement with the same personality as Rory’s Oak (“masculine,” she confirms after seeing images) would be a tall order. And golf experts could make a strong case that the hole doesn’t need a new tree at all.

The tournament saw its highest average scores ever, above 78, on that fateful Friday in 2012. No. 3 was among the holes with the highest increase in score. Jason Day carded a double. Sergio García made triple. Miguel Ángel Jiménez lost four strokes (but bounced back on Sunday with one of the hole’s two eagles). Ocean is not a links course, nor has Dye ever sold it as one. Players hoping to run a ball up to the green were disappointed by the slope, as well as by the paspalum turf. It handles the region’s salinity well, but doesn’t provide the same bounce as fescue. Strategic issues coupled with the tiny green and a vicious wind caused the damage. Rory’s Tree was more spectator than culprit.

Still, whether it was nostalgia or strict adherence to Dye’s vision, the resort has decided to find a new live oak to replace it. Lutzke is 100 percent for bringing in a new tree, suggesting that the hole might play harder come 2021 without one providing a target.

“The tree gave that hole some identity and character…but it wasn’t a make-or-break strategy element. It was probably more aesthetic than anything,” he noted before advocating for the devil. “People have used those trees in the past as an aiming point.…It could be harder without the trees there. Is that possible?”

Quite. The most famous trees in golf have always existed as antagonists. Eisenhower’s name emerged from its harassment of the very president of the United States. Rory’s Oak, however, may have been a more benevolent being, in the everyday duffer’s corner. Your correspondent, while lamenting its absence, imagined the tree’s ghost to craft the loft of his 110-yard approach. The first GIR, and resultant par, of the day. 

Maybe the tree hadn’t spent 25 years as an arboreal Dikembe Mutombo, swatting balls and mocking shooters. Maybe it was pointing the whole time, prodding amateurs in the right direction.

A cool tree, indeed.

*

South Carolina may be the Palmetto State, but the Kiawah Resort has a different allegiance. Its ultimate goal is to replace Rory’s Oak and restore Dye’s original vision. But there is no official timetable, and administrators plan to check every box, from researching replacement trees throughout the state to discussing its selection and placement with numerous experts including Alice Dye, Pete’s wife and most trusted collaborator. 

The task will be a challenge, both logistically and emotionally. 

“Live oaks are part of the golf course.…We always knew we wanted to replace the tree,” said Brian Gerard, Kiawah’s director of golf.

The only safe bet is that the new tree will be in place by 2021, and it will offer players the same gnarled aiming point that they would have targeted in 1991 or 2012. And the course will be better for it. The 1980s ushered in a wave of scorecard shredders, many of which have since fallen out of fashion, some out of business. A Category 5 resurgence in playability has come through the golf design world in the last decade, blowing down the more soulless among them. Personality is once again king. 

*

Landry notes that the most popular image of the live oak is a plantation allée lined with the trees, but that anyone could acquire a live oak for their yard with the hopes that it would become the next Seven Sisters (given a few hundred years). 

Pete Dye has a gift of integrating the game of the elite with that of the enthusiastic. It’s clear he does not believe in suffering fools. He built Ocean, TPC Sawgrass, Whistling Straits and others with the intention of punishing pros. And yet each has an unmistakable character that draws people into its jaws. That hobbyists would shrink from a course that had visibly shaken Ryder Cup participants never crossed his mind. 

“The thing about the golfing world is that the golfers who love to play golf, shoot 80, 90, 100, and ardent golfers, they’ll stand in line to play Pine Valley; they go over to Scotland and play golf for three weeks in the rain.…Pros can’t play it, but those people that some people call average—you won’t hear me call them average—shoot 90 and play it. And go back.…They not only play it once…[but] they go back,” Dye explained before the 2012 PGA Championship. “I love those people.” 

A designer has only so much control over who ultimately plays his creations. Dye certainly has notable privates on his résumé: Crooked Stick, The Honors Course and Ohio’s The Golf Club, which takes exclusivity to a higher level. It is worth noting, however, how many of his most acclaimed layouts are available to “those people”—us people. The aforementioned trio of Ocean, Sawgrass and Straits joins Teeth of the Dog as arguably his four best. All have times available for Golfer X. 

There are notable exceptions for MacKenzie, Tillinghast and Raynor—Pasatiempo, Bethpage Black and Yale, respectively (if you know an alum)—but the majority of great golden-age architecture remains in private hands, and will likely remain so. This is neither a complaint against the clubs nor the logistic reality of keeping such gems in condition. But conversations on course architecture can take a turn for the snobbish when comparing the previous greats with Dye. The “spectacle” of something like Sawgrass has often been too much for conservative, traditional sensibilities. Indeed, the appeal of an island green is less subtle than bunker placement on a redan. 

Likewise, an experienced arborist can better explain the subtler appeals of a loblolly pine or a cypress, and may even prefer those details over the sprawling live oak. But they will not deny the latter’s beauty. 

*

In February of this year, reports confirmed that Dye—who was known to venture onto design sites into his 10th decade with his dog in tow—was struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. There will be no more memorable facets, features or hazards from modern golf’s most influential architect. No more island greens, railroad ties or fairway live oaks.

Landry likes to say that if you stand beneath a live oak at night, you’ll hear its voice. Rory’s tree no longer speaks at the Ocean Course, but Dye’s voice is unmistakable. 

This shot of No. 3—taken before Rory’s Oak was removed—shows the character of the hole that Kiawah Island executives are trying to recreate. Rather than rush the process, they’re looking for the perfect replacement to greet Rory McIlroy when he tees it up at the 2021 PGA Championship. Photo: Stephen Szurlej
This shot of No. 3—taken before Rory’s Oak was removed—shows the character of the hole that Kiawah Island executives are trying to recreate. Rather than rush the process, they’re looking for the perfect replacement to greet Rory McIlroy when he tees it up at the 2021 PGA Championship. Photo: Stephen Szurlej