Only at Masters: Pining over a lost tree

To mourn the loss of one tree at Augusta National seems silly, like holding a wake for a broken seashell at the shore. Who can miss one tree in this 18-hole arboretum?

But this is April and this is the Masters, a time and place for revering monuments, be they animal, vegetable or mineral.

The tree in question had a name and an obvious political leaning, an assuredly Democrat loblolly pine that tormented Dwight Eisenhower so much more than Adlai Stevenson ever did. Of course, it favored the left side of the 17th fairway and stood a little more than 200 yards downrange.

More than 100 years old it was and it was as gnarled and contrary as any centenarian ever.

The “Eisenhower Tree” was a victim of February’s ice storm here, one that thinned the tops of younger, healthier trees and outright culled the aged. This one had stood against the ire of a sitting president, whose demands that it be cut down were rejected by a higher authority — then-club chairman Clifford Roberts. But it could not resist the ice.

Monday, before storms clattered through town and the course was closed, fans of the practice round migrated to the 17th fairway to pay respects to the fallen. They found not a clue that it had ever existed, not a stump, not a limb, not so much as a pine needle. Finally, a gallery guard, weary of trying to describe to the curious where the tree once stood, set a pine cone atop the approximate spot. That would have to do for a headstone.

Successful capitalists — and they are easy to spot here in their distinctive green jackets — have taken note. This year’s Masters commemorative coin, a mostly silver number, features Ike’s Tree and sells for $125.

Today’s chairman, Billy Payne, has said that the legend of the tree will be preserved. Perhaps more information will come when he does his state-of-the-Masters address Wednesday. But in the meantime, the 17th fairway just got a little more inviting. One of the footnotes of this tournament will be how the hole, usually ranked in the middle of the pack in difficulty, will play without its guardian pine. The 440-yard par-4 is not exactly naked and defenseless.

So, this is the price one must pay for not having Tiger Woods at the Masters: Everybody has been talking about a tree.

“I played Augusta every year since that tree was a baby and I watched it grow up,” venerable Arnold Palmer said with a chuckle.

Being one of the few fellows who played a round or two with the tree’s namesake, Palmer understood firsthand Ike’s intense dislike of the ball-eating pine.

“A couple of times he told me, ‘Arnie, if I could hit that tree enough to bring it down, I’d do it,’” Palmer said.

Joyce Kilmer — “I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree” — obviously never tried to carry his tee shot over this 65-foot monster.

The fuss made over one tree with a history also is part of the unique charm of Augusta National and the Masters. As the only major played at the same course every year, familiarity is one of the Masters greatest selling points. Every year is a reunion of sorts, when catching up with the sights and sounds of the place is like flipping through the pages of a family photo album.

With year after year after year of carefully managed exposure, Augusta National’s landmarks became ingrained in the collective cortex of golf, that part where the best memories are stored.

Rae’s Creek and the stone Hogan Bridge that spans it. The Butler Cabin. The Palmer and Jack Nicklaus plaques that decorate gathering areas around Nos. 16 and 17. The living relics that hit the first tee shots on Thursday (no, Woods will not be joining Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player this year). The Sarazen Bridge at No. 15, which is really more of a walkway, but Sarazen Sidewalk does not sound nearly so important. None of those would be lost without much wailing from the choir.

The very land itself is a treasure.

“One of the coolest things you can do is get there very early and go down and walk 10, 11, 12 and 13 before the people get there,” former U.S. Open champion and ESPN analyst Andy North said. “People go to the redwoods and talk about a religious experience. Well, it’s a little bit that way walking down through those holes.”

So no tree of note here will die without a proper send-off. A moment of silence, please, for a darn good hazard.

The late, lamented pine on No. 17 is not even the most famous tree on the lot. The magnolias on the lane leading from Washington Road to the clubhouse constitute signature growth.

“I like the drive down Magnolia Lane. The thing I probably love the most is driving out with the championship trophy under my arm,” Palmer, a four-time winner, said.

The huge spreading oak at the rear of the clubhouse is older than the Eisenhower Tree and still serves as the gathering spot for players, guests and media.

“Some say go down to Amen Corner and look at the azaleas on 13, but just put me behind that clubhouse,” Paul Azinger, another pro doing analysis for ESPN, said.

In eulogizing the Eisenhower Tree, some remembered it as being not quite massive enough.

“When I think of that tree, I wish to hell it was twice the size,” Player said. Palmer birdied 17 after hitting the tree in 1962, and went on to beat Player and Dow Finsterwald in a playoff.

Others seemed to give quiet thanks to the ice storm. Said Jim Furyk, who is approaching his 18th Masters, “I hit that darned thing a lot.”

As the hole was lengthened and the tree grew, the relatively short-hitting Furyk had more and more difficulty navigating that fairway.

“The history of the tree will be missed and there’s a lot of lore there, but my game definitely won’t miss it that much,” he said.

The future of that little crook of Augusta National is not yet clear, although some fear the worst. “I don’t know if any of the players are sad to see it leave,” Steve Stricker said. “I’m surprised that there isn’t a bigger one in place there already. I’m sure over the next year or two, there will be something there.”

“They’ll bring some big sucker in there and put it right in — they might put it on stilts,” Player joked.

Whatever the ultimate response is, it is sure to be made with the utmost respect for the dearly departed.