Ice storm claims pine, but it's rooted in tradition
Masters Tournament patrons come to Augusta each year to see the course, watch the best players in the world and rekindle the spirit of Bobby Jones.
While there’s no denying that Amen Corner is the most popular site at Augusta National Golf Club, another landmark draws considerable attention each year.
The Eisenhower Tree.
The loblolly pine got its name because President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously asked that it be cut down, but his request was denied by Masters and Augusta National chairman Clifford Roberts.
Over time, the tree became a destination in its own right.
Patrons were always searching for the loblolly pine, which was located about 210 yards from the tee on the left side of the 17th hole. It stood 65 feet high and was believed to be more than 100 years old.
With a crosswalk bisecting the 17th fairway in front of the tree, patrons would often stop to take their picture with Ike’s Tree in the background.
“The biggest thing is patrons will come up looking for stuff,” one veteran gallery guard said. “They’ll ask where’s Amen Corner? Where’s Tiger? Where’s Ike’s Tree?
“People might be right on top of it and not know it,” he said.
Now the famous pine is gone, lost in February when a rare ice storm wreaked havoc on Augusta.
Augusta National has not revealed what it will do to replace the tree or to honor it.
Rest assured that the legend of the Eisenhower Tree lives on.
Gen. Eisenhower, who had directed the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II, joined Augusta National in 1948 before he won the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections.
He made frequent trips to Augusta National before, during and after his presidency, but he never attended the Masters.
In November 1956, just a few weeks after his re-election, an uprising in Hungary and a conflict between Syria and Iraq had Eisenhower’s attention as he made his post-Thanksgiving sabbatical to Augusta.
As such, an expanded communications system was installed at Augusta National for the president, and a plane carrying correspondence was dispatched from Washington each day during his visit.
President Eisenhower departed Washington on Nov. 26, 1956, and arrived at Bush Field in Augusta that afternoon. He brought a large party along for his lengthy visit.
Eisenhower’s plane landed in Augusta at 1:02 p.m., and at 2:13 p.m. the president, Roberts, Bill Robinson and club pro Ed Dudley teed off for what turned out to be 13 holes of golf.
Eisenhower would spend the next several days following a similar routine: a morning meeting in his office above the pro shop, then a round of golf.
On Saturday Dec. 8, 1956, he made the short walk from his cabin on the grounds to his office, and conducted business from 8:20 to 9:45 a.m.
The big news of the day was the resignation of Undersecretary of State Herbert Hoover Jr.
At 10:37, according to presidential appointment books, Eisenhower left his office and went to the Trophy Room to attend Augusta National’s annual Board of Governors meeting.
The meeting was a short one – records show Eisenhower left at 11:05 – but it was historic.
Roberts, the club’s autocratic chairman and a close confidant of the president, asked Eisenhower to introduce a resolution eulogizing Col. Bob Jones, who had recently died.
Roberts tells the story in his book The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club:
“The President once again took over by announcing, in a most serious vein, that the chief torment and concern of his life was the big pine tree located in the left center of the seventeenth fairway,” Roberts wrote. “He stated that it acted as a magnet to his drive. No matter where he aimed, he always hit this tree. The President went on to demand that the offending tree be chopped down forthwith. At this point, I decided the only way to protect the club’s property would be to declare the meeting adjourned, which I did.”
If there were any hard feelings, the president didn’t show any. He had lunch in the Trophy Room, then played in a foursome that included Roberts that afternoon.
Eisenhower and his party departed Augusta on Dec. 13.
Tree trouble grew slowly
Before Eisenhower’s death in March 1969, and the release of Roberts’ book on the club’s history in 1976, the tree was rarely mentioned.
Less than two weeks after Eisenhower’s death, Roberts talked about the president’s game at his annual meeting with the press on the eve of the Masters.
Roberts revealed Eisenhower’s problems with the tree, and The Augusta Herald wrote about it the next day.
“He introduced a motion to get rid of that tree at one governors’ meeting,” Roberts said. “We had to adjourn the meeting damn quick to save the club property.”
The former president was a “14 to 18” handicap player who broke 80 four times at Augusta National, Roberts told the assembled writers.
“He had a wide range of scores,” Roberts said. “But he was a good man to have in your foursome while playing a $5 or even a $1 Nassau. He had a strong preference for winning.”
Architect Alister MacKenzie makes no mention of the pine tree in his description of how the course plays in the 1934 tournament program. His accompanying diagram shows a small tree on the left side of the fairway.
Twenty-five years later, and after the president had made his famous request, co-architect Bobby Jones described the course for Sports Illustrated.
“The pine tree in the fairway, although it is only a little more than a hundred yards from the tee, has grown to such proportions that it provides a real menace to the tee shot,” Jones wrote.
Charlie Yates remembered the pine tree on the 17th hole as being “head high” when the first Masters was played in 1934.
Yates, a close friend of Jones and an Augusta National Golf Club member, played in the first 11 Masters and knew how the course played in the early days.
The tree probably came into play mostly for club members such as Eisenhower or for a tournament competitor who hit a really bad shot. Eisenhower made 45 visits to Augusta National and played the course nearly 200 times. But with a White House press corps that had limited access to his on-course exploits, Eisenhower’s tree troubles were never reported.
“The tree thing never held any importance to us back then, but it became important as the years went by,” said golf writer Dan Jenkins, who has covered the Masters since 1951.
Although Eisenhower was quite proficient in a variety of sports and games, an injury to his left knee made golf a challenge. He would often slice the ball, and the tree on the 17th hole would interfere with his left-to-right ball path.
“It was the one game he couldn’t play well,” Roberts said after Eisenhower’s death.
Caddie refused to fell tree
There’s another, less-told story about Eisenhower and the pine tree.
The president would hit the loblolly pine almost every time he played. And with each thud of ball on bark, he would grow increasingly frustrated.
Something had to give.
So Eisenhower called on a 15-year-old caddie, Leon McClatty, to do him a favor, according to Augusta author Peter Cranford’s autobiography.
Dr. Cranford, who died in 2000, is believed to be the first practicing psychologist in Augusta but he also wrote books on golf and the Milledgeville, Ga., hospital where he worked.
“Leon, I’ll give you a hundred dollars to come back here tonight and cut this tree down,” the president said.
Despite the commander-in-chief’s pleas, the young caddie refused.
When golfers arrived for the 1999 Masters, they could empathize with how Eisenhower felt about the 17th hole.
It had played as a 400-yard par-4 hole from the tournament’s inception through the 1990s. The main architectural change during that period occurred in 1951 when a ditch in front of the tee box was removed and filled in.
Then came 1999, and the first round of course changes ordered by then-Chairman Hootie Johnson. The tournament tee was pushed back 25 yards, and new trees were planted right of the fairway to eliminate a bailout area.
The 17th went from the 12th most difficult in 1998 to the third hardest in 1999.
The tree added some final-round drama in Jose Maria Olazabal’s victory that year. His tee shot caught Ike’s Tree, and he was left with a lengthy shot into the bunker-guarded green.
Nursing a two-shot lead, Ola-zabal punched a 5-iron and landed it some 30 yards short of the green. The ball rolled on the green, and he two-putted for par. Another par on the final hole preserved his two-shot win.
“It was a great shot,” Olazabal told the Golf Channel. “I was really very pleased when I saw that ball on the green.”
For the 2000 Masters, three pines were added beyond the Eisenhower Tree to add even more trouble for the wayward golfer. An additional three trees were planted on the right, between the 17th and 15th fairways.
In 2006, the tee was moved back 15 yards, and the hole currently plays 440 yards.
Tree kept ball, golfer says
While modern-era golfers had no problem bombing their tee shot over the Eisenhower Tree or playing a slight draw around it, there were some memorable moments.
In Arnold Palmer’s first Masters win, in 1958, much of the drama of the final round focused on his drop at the 12th and the eagle he made at the 13th.
According to Chronicle accounts of the final round, Palmer came to the 17th hole and wanted to hit a draw around the tree so he could have a better angle to attack the pin.
But Palmer “snipe hooked” the tee shot instead.
“The ball hit the trunk of the tree and kicked right, however, stopping on the slope of the hill, almost dead center of the fairway,” Johnny Hendrix wrote. “Ordinarily, Palmer would have played a seven iron or less to the green after a good tee shot, but after hitting the tree, he had to hit a four, yet still got it on and down in two putts.”
Palmer wound up winning by one shot.
In 2007, Stuart Appleby held the 54-hole lead but could have had a more comfortable margin going into the final round if not for a triple bogey at No. 17.
After a “very poor tee shot” that Appleby hooked over Ike’s Tree, his ball found a bunker on the adjacent seventh hole. It took him three more shots to reach the green, and then he three-putted for his seven.
In 2011, Tiger Woods was sidelined for much of the season by injuries to his left knee and left Achilles tendon. He suffered those injuries while squatting to hit a shot under the Eisenhower Tree in the third round of the Masters.
His left foot got caught in the pine straw as the momentum of the swing carried him backward, he said. Woods’ shot wound up in the front bunker and he saved par.
And then there’s the downright bizarre story of Tommy Aaron and the Eisenhower Tree.
The 1973 Masters champion had a memorable encounter with the tree in the second round of the 1987 tournament.
“I hit a drive there, and it hit in top of the Eisenhower pine and pollen went everywhere,” Aaron said. “And nobody moved. So I said, ‘That ball stayed in the tree.’ The local caddie with us said they don’t stay in the tree. And I said, ‘That ball stayed in the tree.’
“So we couldn’t find it. We looked around, and I go back and I play another under the lost-ball rule. And the next day we’re walking by the tree and a ball drops out of the tree, and I know it’s my ball because it had a marking on it and it was a Pinnacle.
“So I know it was my ball. Someone told Jack Nicklaus that story and he said, ‘I’m not sure I believe it.’ But I’ve got a witness, my caddie, Rhett Sinclair.”
Tree beyond reclamation
It was appropriate that Mother Nature, which produced the Eisenhower Tree in the first place, had the final word.
After living an estimated 100 to 125 years, the loblolly pine was unable to withstand a rare Augusta ice storm in February.
The accumulation of ice caused irreparable damage, which resulted in the loss of most of the tree’s major branches. Photos that surfaced before the tree was taken down the weekend of Feb. 15-16 showed heavy damage.
“The loss of the Eisenhower Tree is difficult news to accept,” Augusta National and Masters Chairman Billy Payne said in a statement. “We obtained opinions from the best arborists available and, unfortunately, were advised that no recovery was possible.”
And while Augusta National has received no shortage of suggestions on how to replace or honor the Eisenhower Tree – or what to do with the leftover wood – the club is taking its time.
“We have begun deliberations of the best way to address the future of the 17th hole and to pay tribute to this iconic symbol of our history – rest assured, we will do both appropriately,” Payne said in February.
The Eisenhower Tree produced plenty of tales during its lifetime, some taller than others.
It might be gone, but it will never be forgotten.
Where was Ike’s tree? The loblolly pine was about 210 yards from the tee on the left side of the 17th hole.
What will you see or hear? Now that the tree is gone, expect plenty of patrons to go see where it once stood. There will be no shortage of suggestions on how to replace it.
Did you know? President Eisenhower’s best score at Augusta National was 78. That’s according to his former caddie, Willie Perteet, who was better known by his nickname of “Cemetery.” That score came in 1958, when Eisenhower played with Arnold Palmer the day after Palmer won his first Masters.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
ARNOLD PALMER: “Well, of course I played Augusta every year since that tree was a baby and I watched it grow up. And I played a lot of golf at Augusta with Ike. And of course he hated that tree. But he was a soft-spoken guy and a president who was very enjoyable. And he didn’t like the tree at all. A couple of times he told me, he said, ‘Arnie, if I could hit that tree enough to bring it down, I’d do it.’ And that’s in fun.”
JACK NICKLAUS: “The Eisenhower Tree is such an iconic fixture and symbol of tradition at Augusta National. It was such an integral part of the game and one that will be sorely missed … I hit it so many times over the years that I don’t care to comment on the names I called myself and the names I might have called the tree. ‘Ike’s Tree’ was a kind choice. But looking back, Ike’s Tree will be greatly missed.”
GARY PLAYER: “(Augusta National should) purchase the biggest replacement known to mankind and replace it. The hole is not the same without Ike’s Tree.”
OTHER PLACES OF NOTE
People can no longer seek out Ike’s Tree, but there are other spots at Augusta National that draw crowds year after year: