Root of all Evil Getting a 130,000-pound laurel oak out of the ground proves to be a devilish task

June 11, 2001
June 11, 2001

Table of Contents
June 11, 2001

Root of all Evil Getting a 130,000-pound laurel oak out of the ground proves to be a devilish task

Nothing should be simpler than moving one of these trees. You
look for a tree with a pink ribbon tied around its trunk. You
check the number written on the ribbon. You look for a little
stake in the ground with the same number on it. You dig a big
hole there. You dig up the tree, carry it to the new hole and
plant it.

This is an article from the June 11, 2001 issue Original Layout

It's this tree that's a problem. This tree, a 65-foot-high,
130,000-pound laurel oak with a trunk 30 inches in diameter and
a root ball 20 feet in diameter, doesn't want to leave its home
on the left side of the 13th fairway at the University of
Florida Golf Course. I have roots here, the tree seems to be
saying. So far, those roots have broken two 5/8-inch steel
cables that a crew from Capital Tree Relocators of Austin,
threaded under the oak's root ball. The cable, strung between a
big excavator and its shovel and maneuvered by a machine
operator with the dexterity of a vascular surgeon, usually cuts
like a band saw through the taproots of a tree. To this tree,
it's just dental floss; the cables lie in the red dirt, their
steel strands unraveled and split. "This has me stumped," says
Shaun Welborn, scratching his head.

Welborn, a 34-year-old Texan with thick brown hair and the build
of a linebacker, is president of Capital Tree, the company hired
by Weed Golf Course Design to transplant a dozen large oaks. It's
a hot May afternoon, and clouds of red dust drift across the
course, launched by roaring and beeping earthmovers and lumbering
dump trucks. Two weeks into the reconstruction of the course, the
drought-ravaged property needs only Henry Fonda and a
furniture-laden Model A to stage a revival of The Grapes of

The tree-moving has gone well until now. This morning Welborn had
watched a crew of six move a tree with a 20-inch trunk and
16-foot root ball from the vicinity of the new 14th green to a
spot 150 feet away. A few days earlier, the crew had dug a trench
around the tree with a backhoe, cutting the outermost roots.
After that the workers had begun to wrap the root ball in two
layers of burlap and secured it with wire. "There's an equation
you use to get the right size root ball," Welborn says. "You
don't want to cut too many roots."

Then a platform had been positioned under the tree by sliding
about 30 three-inch steel pipes beneath the root ball. "The
tricky thing on this site is the dry soil," Welborn says. "It's
like powder." To tighten the soil and comfort the wounded trees,
Welborn prescribed 750 gallons of water per day per tree for two
weeks, delivered by an 850-gallon tank affixed to a tractor. The
cost to move each of the 12 trees is about $8,000--a bargain,
given that a 50-year-old oak sells for about $50,000.

When it came time to move a tree this morning, the crew ran a
5/8-inch cable under the root ball and the excavator operator
made the undercut. All that remained was to pick up the big plant
and move it to the new hole--an easy task if you've got a 230-ton
Manitowoc crawler crane like the one Capital Tree rented for this
job. While workmen in hard hats steadied the tree with ropes, the
140-foot tall crane slowly lifted the tree out of its hole, swung
it around to the west and then crept on giant treads to the
tree's new home. The trip took about 20 minutes. "There's a lot
of pressure on us," says Welborn. "When a tree's 50 or 60 years
old and worth $50,000, you don't have any margin for error."

So you can imagine how Welborn feels this afternoon, wrestling
with an oak that is holding on like a crying toddler. "We're
going to try a one-inch cable," he says, "which almost triples
your strength capacity." Unfortunately, Welborn's crew doesn't
have a one-inch cable, and that pretty much shuts down work on
the tree for the day.

From the second-floor windows of the clubhouse, members of the
renovation committee can see that the crane isn't moving. They
aren't particularly worried, though, because the work has been
going well (aside from a mishap in which an excavator tore into a
buried effluent line, soaking the 7th fairway). Already, eight
holes have been tilled, four greens have undergone rough shaping,
and workers are installing 18-inch-circular PVC drain tiles in
trenches in the 1st fairway. "I'm pretty much ahead of schedule
on every line item," says Tom Weber, project superintendent for
MacCurrach Golf, which is handling the construction. "It's a good
sign to have this many things going in Week 2."

The next morning, under a sky darkened by smoke from
out-of-control brush fires across Florida, Welborn's men repeat
their flossing antics with a one-inch cable. This time the cable
saws through the roots, and the crane lifts out the big oak with
no difficulty. Standing at the edge of the pit, Welborn stares
with fascination at the top of the severed taproot, which
resembles a polished disc of petrified wood smeared with artistic
dabs of red clay and pulverized white root. Near the center of
the hole is the splintered trunk of a dead pine, buried for 100
years or so and hard as stone. "You can see how tough this was,"
Welborn says, referring to the removal. "It's the first time I've
ever had to use one-inch, and we work with clay everywhere."

Forty minutes later, dangling from the crane, the tree arrives
at its new address between the practice range and the 13th
fairway--tall, poised and with not a leaf out of place.

Next time, we'll pile into the Florida golf team's van for a trip
to the farm at Pike Creek Turf in Adel, Ga. We'll meet Jimmy
Allen, bermuda-grass merchant extraordinaire, and tour his fields
of "fumigated, certified" TifSport and Tifdwarf--the grasses that
will soon cover This Old Course.

For previous installments of This Old Course go to

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG A steel platform was used to move the tree to its new home.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG

Getting in Shape

He doesn't look like a sculptor, this amiable 50-year-old in
work shorts and safari shirt, but when George Ross (above)
climbs into the cab of his John Deere 750C and straps on his
goggles, he's Brancusi with a bulldozer. Ross is a shaper, a
dozer operator who pushes soil into the shapes of greens,
bunkers, mounds and tees under the direction of the architect.
"It's a creative thing," says Ross, the on-site rep for Palmetto
Shaping Inc. of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. "I've seen expert dozer
operators who can't shape."

On a recent morning Ross huddled with Scot Sherman of Weed Golf
Course Design and looked over a freehand sketch of the new 1st
green at the Florida course. With no other direction, Ross
started pushing dirt around. To make room for four inches of
gravel and 12 inches of greens mix, the shaper has to cut the
green at subgrade, leaving a 16-inch-high lip. "It takes me half
a day to three days to get a green ready for the architect to
look at and start tweaking," says Ross. "Some greens are easier
than others." The problem on this job is the parched soil, which
has so little cohesion that it's hard to shape. On the other
hand, "the topography here is about perfect. It's not too
extreme, but it has a lot of movement to it."

Spoken like an artist.