Golf, a game played in nature, has for years been lambasted by tree-huggers as a despoiler of the environment. Some of the criticism was deserved, but the industry overall has self-corrected since the millennium, pioneering cost-effective ways to become better stewards of the environment. In honor of Earth Day on April 22, here are what golf courses nationwide are doing to preserve the game’s natural heritage.
As golf courses in drought-stricken California are discovering, water is a very precious commodity. Throughout the nation, water conservation is no longer an option for golf courses. It’s an imperative. In addition to maintaining irrigation equipment to maximize efficiency and minimize waste, superintendents use recycled or reclaimed “gray” water, devise efficient storm water retention systems to capture runoff, allow out-of-play areas to go native during dry periods, and hand-water dry spots to avoid running the entire irrigation system.
Hand-in-glove with water conversation is efficient management of water resources. Initiatives include mitigating erosion to water bodies (streams, lakes, and ponds); using environmentally sensitive plant management techniques near water hazards; designating “no spray” zones near all water bodies; and maintaining soils and turfgrass to maximize water absorption. “Bio-controls” like algae-eating fish (white amurs) are used by Westchester County Club (N.Y.) and other facilities to replace heavy chemicals previously used to control pond algae.
Seamlessly integrated into 235 acres in Edgartown, Mass. on Martha’s Vineyard, Vineyard Golf Club is the nation’s only all-organic golf course. No synthetic pesticides are allowed. Only composted fertilizers are used. In place of herbicides, weeds are killed with boiling water and a natural foam cocktail. Moss is removed with kitchen dish detergent. Microscopic worms are used to attack turf-ruining grubs. The mating cycle of Oriental beetles is disrupted with a strategically-placed scent. The club’s goal is course playability, not visual perfection a la Augusta National. Expect to see more courses following Vineyard’s example in the years ahead.
A closed landfill is useless acreage. It cannot support or sustain a shopping center or a housing development. But it can accommodate a golf course. The example du jour is Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point in the Bronx, N.Y., a Jack Nicklaus-designed municipal facility opened earlier this month on a treeless 192-acre landfill dotted with methane gas vents that closed in 1963. Ironically, landfills and other degraded sites are barren, infertile land parcels that closely simulate the playing characteristics of a genuine Scottish links, especially in windy areas like Ferry Point.
Several new drought-tolerant, disease-resistant grass varietals have been developed that require a fraction of the fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides of normal grasses. A prime example is paspalum, a cultivar that tolerates seawater and can be irrigated with brackish or recycled water. Vibrant green, stiff-leafed, and waxy, a golf ball perches nicely on it. Paspalum is driving golf growth in tropical regions where fresh water is in short supply. On many Caribbean islands, golf development would not be possible without it.
Optimizing energy efficiency has become a primary goal at facilities seeking to reduce the size of their carbon footprint. Energy audits enable courses to identify short-term needs and create long-term plans to save energy. High-efficiency lighting is an obvious improvement—“When not in use, cut the juice” is posted in many a maintenance building. Solar panels (and solar-powered golf carts) are increasingly common in the Sun Belt, while geothermal heating and cooling systems are beginning to make advances at clubs and resorts.
Recycling & Pollution Prevention
From products used to waste materials generated in cooking, cleaning, and building operations, golf facilities nationwide are leaders in recycling and waste reduction. Pebble Beach Resorts, for example, annually recycles more than 6.5 million pounds of plastic, glass, and cardboard. Its restaurants compost food scraps year round. The parent company’s forestry and ecology department composts all of its green waste for reuse around Del Monte Forest. Other facilities go further: Chambers Bay, this year’s U.S. Open venue, converts bio-solid waste from a nearby waste-treatment facility into fertilizer.
Wildlife and Habitat Management
Best management practices enhance existing natural habitats on the golf course and also promote wildlife and biodiversity conservation. These practices start with connecting small and large natural areas (woods, meadows, stream corridors, ponds, etc.) to improve wildlife movement within the course and to natural areas outside it. Maintaining nesting boxes for birds or bats and selecting flowers that provide nectar for hummingbirds or butterflies enhances a layout’s habitat. So does using landscape plants from locally-grown sources to support the genetic integrity of native plant communities.
Chemical Use Reduction
To preserve both human and environmental health, golf course superintendents employ best management practices and integrated pest management techniques to ensure safe storage, application, and handling of all chemicals. Properly applied, most chemicals are filtered by the turfgrass root system and typically will not damage or compromise aquifers and ground water. Overall, superintendents take a “less is more” approach to chemical application while striving to establish functional thresholds for insects, fungal diseases, and weeds for all managed areas.
Defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” sustainability isn’t just a feel-good trend. It’s critical for success in satisfying the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. Golf facilities are small businesses. The typical business model revolves around costs and revenues. Successful environmental initiatives must incorporate tangible results due to rising economic pressures and limited resources including time, manpower, equipment, materials, and funding. Bottom line: while benefitting the environment, sustainability makes good financial sense for golf courses.