Entering the 2023 Masters, I was eager to reevaluate my stance on the par-5 eighth hole. I’ve never been a huge fan of that hole. It’s not the most interesting green at Augusta National, and I’ve never been compelled by the tee shot. After watching a bunch of shots this past week, I’ve gained some appreciation for No. 8.

A fairway bunker down the right side prevents players who find the bunker from reaching the green in two. Trees line the entire left side of the hole. The architecture works because the farther left you hit your tee shot to avoid the fairway bunker, the more you must hook your uphill long iron (or wood) approach shot around the trees lining the left side. Drives pulled left of the fairway into the trees must punch out down the right side of the hole, leaving a longer third shot into a hole you normally consider a birdie opportunity. It’s a demanding, strategic test.

Testing professional golfers architecturally is difficult.

The modern PGA Tour player has speed, strength, finesse, and discipline. He also has an optimized diet, customized workout regimens, a fargiving driver, and a Trackman. He knows how far he’s going to hit the ball, and he can stop his shot on a dime.

If your favorite part of watching golf is seeing scoring records shatter, the factors above are all working in your favor. If you enjoy a strategic mental test…not so much.

Today’s game is aerial. When players plan out a recovery shot, they look to the sky. Think about the second shots you’ve seen when players miss the fairway at Bay Hill or Torrey Pines. The shots are airborne. In elite professional golf, wind is one of the only reliable defenses against the Air Raid offense. Last summer at the Open Championship, we saw what it looks like when a distance-overwhelmed golf course doesn’t have much wind. That was St. Andrews. The logical conclusion is that without wind, the best defense in modern professional golf is a course that impedes the airspace. That is Augusta National.

I’ll stop beating around the bush: Augusta National is such a brilliant strategic test in large part due to the strategic placement of trees. Well-placed trees provide immense strategic value in professional golf. The eighth hole only works because trees impede players’ airspace down the left side of the hole. Forcing players to hook their second shot around the trees is the appeal of No. 8.

Many architects may have an aversion to the logic I just laid out. After all, trees can be an environmental concern and a maintenance nightmare. To be clear, I’d never advocate for shot value at the expense of environmental and maintenance considerations. Nor do I think golf course architects should build golf courses exclusively, or primarily, with the professional golf landscape in mind. However, when used cleverly, trees are an effective method of testing the world’s best professional golfers. Take it from Alister MacKenzie.

From The Spirit of St. Andrews:

“Playing down fairways bordered by straight lines of trees is not only unartistic but makes tedious and uninteresting golf…Alternatively, groups of trees, planted irregularly, create most fascinating golf, and give players many opportunities of showing their skill and judgment in slicing, pulling round, or attempting to loft over them. Some of the most spectacular shots I have ever seen have been around, over or through narrow gaps in trees.”

I won’t claim to understand the trade-off between challenging elite professional golfers and promoting responsible architectural practices. I will claim that both technological and skill advancement has made it extremely difficult to challenge the best golfers in the world. Strategically-placed trees, even if sparse, are an effective way of testing championship golfers. And unsurprisingly, some of the most impressive shots of my lifetime have involved trees:

Rest in peace, Doctor MacKenzie. You would have loved Jon Rahm’s spectacular peel-fade around the trees into the 14th hole on Sunday.