PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - A little piece of golf tradition has died.
The majestic pine on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach has succumbed to pitch canker disease, which can claim a tree in less than six months.
The 80-foot tree long has served as a visual landmark and obstacle for golfers playing the 535-yard par-5 hole. It has forced players to aim through a gap - the tree on one side and the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the other.
It still stands, in front of the green and to the right of the hole, but its death is causing a dangerous situation. Branches have been cut from the canopy, about 70 feet up, but more could fall, threatening golfers.
The tree, sadly, must come down.
"Mother nature gave us a beautiful tree there," said Fuzzy Zoeller, who has played Pebble Beach enough to know. "It's a shame."
The loss of the tree causes problems for the folks at Pebble Beach.
The 18th hole is one of the most storied in golf. The pine, although not as famous as the course's Lone Cypress, is nonetheless featured in photographs, posters and other memorabilia celebrating the seaside hole.
Simply removing it would change the hole too much, course officials have decided. So they're looking at plans to replace it.
Among the options is moving a similar-sized pine, located about 50 feet away, or planting a couple cypress trees on the spot.
Either way, it's a logistical nightmare.
Because the hole is bordered on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the other by the Pebble Beach Lodge and various guest rooms, the tree can't simply be chopped down and hauled off.
The operation will involve a 30-foot hole, a crane and possibly railroad tracks to transport a new tree, or trees, and get the old one out.
"It's hard to replace such a signature obstacle," summed up R.J. Harper of Pebble Beach Company Operations.
Regardless of the solution, the pine will be missed.
Mark O'Meara, who won the California Golf Association Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach in 1979 and the National Pro-Am a record five times, noticed last year that the tree was dying. This year, it is merely a trunk with brown tufts of needles at the top.
"It's sad because it's something special you really can't replace," he said.
Zoeller noticed several of the trees on the course had fallen to the same disease. At the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, he pointed to a number of dry, brown pines near the tee on No. 10.
"It's definitely going to change the look of the hole," he said. "It will never be the same."
Pitch canker disease also claimed two pines on the second hole. The removal of the trees changed the 484-yard par 5 into a par 4 for the U.S. Open, much to the chagrin of purists who felt the course should remain a par 72.
Cypress trees were planted in place of the old trees, but it will take time for them to come into their own.
The idea is to keep the 18th hole as close as possible to its current look and configuration. The nearby pine is the ideal replacement, because it has the same high canopy, about 60 feet off the ground, although it is slightly shorter than its neighbor.
But, as Harper said, "when you move a tree, there's no guarantee it will survive."
Harper estimated the whole operation will cost anywhere from $140,000 to $250,000. The renovation will take place some time this year.
It's worth it, Harper said.
"That's one of the most recognizable holes in the world," he said, "if not the most."
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