AUGUSTA, Ga. – This is a story about a tree.
But really, it’s about so much more than that.
This is a story about a tree that was born lucky.
One estimation suggests there are more than 400 billion trees in the world. Some stand tall in parks, their limbs teeming with adventurous children on sunny afternoons. Others remain hidden in forests, angling and growing without causing so much as a double-take from human life.
This tree caused plenty of double-takes. And fist-shakes. And even a few knee-quakes and eventual backaches.
A loblolly pine that first grew its roots more than a century ago, this tree happened to be standing on what would become hallowed ground when Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones built their vision of Augusta National Golf Club. Located on the left side of the 17th hole, 180 yards from the tee – later expanded to 210 yards away – it became the most famous tree on the course. Heck, the most famous tree in golf. One of the most famous trees in the world.
This is a story about a tree with a name.
They called it the Eisenhower Tree – in a cruel twist of irony. President Dwight D. Eisenhower hated it. Every time he played the course’s penultimate hole, it seemed, he would hit his tee shot squarely into this tree.
“He didn't like the tree at all,” recalled his friend, Arnold Palmer. “A couple of times he told me, ‘Arnie, if I could hit that tree enough to bring it down, I'd do it.’”
It happened so much that in 1956, Eisenhower proposed during the club’s governors’ meeting that this tree be cut down immediately. According to which ending you’d rather believe, Roberts either overruled the president or, not wanting to offend him, quickly adjourned the meeting.
Either way, this tree remained.
This is a story about a tree with a place in history.
“I played Augusta every year since that tree was a baby and I watched it grow up,” said Palmer, who won four Masters titles. “And, yes, I had encounters with it. I won the Masters one year when I hit it right into the tree and hit a 4‑iron from under the tree on to the 17th green. So it was a problem to everybody.”
Tommy Aaron, who won the Masters in 1973, hit his Pinnacle into this tree one year. All the locals promised him the balls always come down, but his never did. Well, not that day. The next day, though, he was walking by this tree with his caddie and – plop! – down came that Pinnacle, right in front of him.
Three years ago, four-time champion Tiger Woods hit a tee shot under this tree. In attempting to play his next shot, his foot slipped on the pine straw beneath it. Despite still saving par, he injured his Achilles and didn’t compete again for four months.
“I can't say some of the guys are going to miss it,” said Woods, who isn’t here this week, “but we are going to certainly see a difference. There's no doubt about that.”
This is a story about a tree that met its untimely demise.
On Feb. 16, 2014 it was announced that this tree was gone. A furious ice storm had ravaged Augusta, causing unrescuable damage to its limbs. Club officials, on the advice of arborists, had the tree uprooted and removed.
“The loss of the Eisenhower Tree is difficult news to accept,” chairman Billy Payne said via statement. “Unfortunately, we were advised that no recovery was possible.”
The ensuing reaction ranged from sentimental (“It's a shame that it was destroyed,” said Jim Furyk) to rational (“I'm glad to see it go; I've hit it far too many times,” admitted Matt Kuchar) to philosophical (“Anything that lives will eventually die, I guess,” surmised Adam Scott) to existential (“It's a tree,” concluded Rory McIlroy).
This is a story about a tree no longer.
On Monday morning, before severe rains swept through the area and caused a suspension of the Masters practice round, volunteer marshal Franklin Wilson was asked where this tree had been located.
He pointed to a spot about 10 yards inside the left part of the fairway, on a little upslope. The ground was perfect green grass, nothing to show the aftereffect of this year’s storm or the death of one of the world’s most famous trees.
Nothing, that is, except one small pine cone, placed upright on the ground to memorialize this tree.
“Who put that there?” the marshal is asked.
“One of those guys,” he said pointing to some fellow volunteers. “He got tired of answering all the questions.”
There remain other questions about this tree. Where is it right now? What will happen to it? Will it be replaced?
There are rumors that it could be turned into benches, a more fitting memorial than the lone pinecone. There are rumors that another tree could serve as a replacement someday.
These matters either haven’t yet been determined or, like so many decisions at Augusta National, have remained classified until the time officials choose to make them known.
To wit: When the tournament’s media guide was first printed earlier this year, it included a course map showing the tree. When a revised edition was handed out this week, it included mention of the tree, but had removed it from the map.
All we know is that on a spot where history once sprouted from the ground, now stands nothingness. What was previously an old loblolly pine with a century’s worth of stories is now just a patch of grass like so many others on the course.
This is a story about a tree.
But really, it’s about so much more than that.