AUGUSTA, Ga. — Dwight Eisenhower stared down Hitler and helped mastermind the grandest, most treacherous war-time invasion in the history of the world. But when it came to golf, there was one obstacle Ike couldn’t topple.
In the winter of 1956, then President Eisenhower, the leader of the free world, arrived at Augusta National Golf Club for the club’s annual governors meeting. Eisenhower, the likable politician from Kansas, had been enraptured with the place since his first visit in 1948.
The tall pines. The blooming, colorful azaleas. Eisenhower would play golf in the morning, deal a round of bridge at night — and leave the grounds only to say his prayers at a local church. But if the traditions of Augusta were the ideal getaway for a sitting president, even Ike had ideas for improvement.
One in particular: There was this sprawling, loblolly pine that jutted out into the left side of the 17th fairway, and Eisenhower kept slicing his drives into the darn thing.
So in December 1956, according to club legend, Eisenhower stood up at the annual club meeting and demanded the 65-foot pine be cut down and destroyed. Clifford Roberts, the sitting chairman of Augusta National — and a titan of Wall Street — listened to the demands of the president.
Then he ignored them.
“Meeting adjourned,” Roberts declared, according to one version of the story.
The loblolly pine — which would soon become known as the Eisenhower Tree — was staying put.
More than 57 years later, a winter storm accomplished something that even a president could not. The Eisenhower Tree no longer dots the edge of the 17th fairway, more than 210 yards from the tee box. It suffered irreparable damage during a February storm, and club officials were advised to remove it.
So as the men in the green jackets prepare for the 78th annual Masters, a spring-time rite of passage at Augusta, a curious question hangs over the course and the men about to play:
How do you act when an iconic tree dies?
“It’s a tree,” Rory McIlroy says.
“I don’t know if any of the players are sad to see it leave,” veteran Steve Stricker says.
“That tree was very intimidating for a lot of guys,” says Jason Dufner, the winner of last year’s PGA Championship.
At Augusta, they clutch to the traditions like a strand of rare pearls. When the gates opened for Tuesday’s practice round, the pimento cheese sandwiches were still going for $1.50, packaged in the customary green wax paper. The club still holds firm to the idea of calling fans “patrons.” And the members will go to great lengths to keep things as is.
If a warmer winter causes the famed azaleas to bloom before the tournament, Augusta National will reportedly dump massive amounts of ice on the roots to slow the blooming process.
And nearly everything gets a name. There’s Rae’s Creek, and Amen Corner, and there was the Eisenhower Tree, estimated to be nearly 120 years old before its ill-timed demise. On the grounds of Augusta National, sometimes a tree isn’t just a tree.
Sometimes it’s a tragedy.
“The loss of the Eisenhower Tree is difficult news to accept,” Augusta chairman Billy Payne said in a statement in February.
OK. So maybe not everyone was broken up about the piney development. Arnold Palmer, 84, won his last major title at the 1964 Masters, nearly eight years after Eisenhower was ruled out of order at the governors meeting. Palmer and Eisenhower were friends in those days, and the tree would sometimes come up in conversations. Jack Nicklaus regularly hit into it while winning six Masters titles. Others did, too.
“I’ve hit that tree so many times I put it in a weakened condition,” two-time Masters champ Ben Crenshaw says.
Finally, Tiger Woods was felled by the tree in 2011, when he attempted to play a shot off the pine straw below and injured his Achilles’ tendon. He wouldn’t play for months.
Woods is missing this week’s tournament because of a back injury, which is too bad. He could have danced on the tree’s grave on his way to the 17th green. In a way, though, he had already weakened the tree’s power.
As Wood ushered in an era of power — and technology improved tenfold — more and more players could simply bomb their drives over the tree.
“I’ve managed to hit over it nicely the last few years,” defending champion Adam Scott says.
So, really, how do you mourn a tree?
It was late on Tuesday afternoon, the twilight starting to gleam around the grounds, and Matt Kuchar stepped to the tee box on the 17th. The hole — a 440-yard par-4 named “Nandina” — has an almost airy feel now, all wide open and welcoming.
Kuchar was playing in a practice-round group that included Kansas grad Gary Woodland, Kansas City’s Tom Watson and rising star Jimmy Walker. One by one, they smashed their drives down the middle of the fairway.
How do you mourn a lost tree? Kuchar did it by smiling and drilling a ball down the center of the fairway, just to the right of where the tree once stood.
“This hole,” he said, “is so much better right now.”