The pros (and cons) of "Green" golf courses

Chambers Bay golf course exemplifies one of the new, green approaches to golf course design and maintenance.A mini-debate has been running recently among the small community of entomologists who work with insect pests of turf and ornamental landscapes.  It has to do with the growing emergence of green golf courses and a recent story/video at on the Chambers Bay links golf course on Puget Sound in Washington.  The discussion was interesting and reveals some of the subtleties of varying opinions on the green movement.

Chamber’s Bay is a sustainable, all-fescue, Scottish-links-style course that was built on a reclaimed gravel pit.  The course uses almost no irrigation, chemical fertilizers, or pesticides. It is a showcase for cultural control and how “brown can become the new green.”  This course does not look like most of the lush, immaculate courses you see around Houston, Dallas or San Antonio, or for that matter any of the PGA tournament courses you see on television.

Not every one is ready to stand up and cheer for these new courses, however.  Not that I know anyone who doesn’t support a golf course that uses less water, fertilizer and pesticides; but it’s the fear that Chamber’s Bay and other courses like it, are being set up as examples for the golfing community, with the implication, “See they can do it.  Why can’t all courses be like that?”

According to entomologist Dave Shetlar, Ohio State University, “Climate makes all the difference when it comes to having diseases, weeds and insects.”  Just because a course can be successful using a low-input approach along Puget Sound, it doesn’t mean that acceptable course conditions can be maintained in Houston, Texas or Augusta, Georgia, where disease, weed and insect pressure is many times higher.

Shetlar worries that folks who are eager to jump on the “green wagon” will cause trouble for other courses trying to maintain tournament-grade turf.  He points to the eastern Canadian provinces, whose governments have recently banned “cosmetic” pesticide and fertilizer use in urban landscapes.  The one exception so far has been golf courses. “Now that a couple of courses have claimed that they don’t need fertilizer and pesticides, the government regulators are looking again at the exemption that they gave golf courses [and consider eliminating the exemption].”  If this happens, he said, there will be a lot of unhappy golf players and grief among golf course managers.  He cites pressure from the PGA, which has stated that they won’t allow play on “sub-standard” courses.

Dr. Dan Potter, Professor of Entomology from the University of  Kentucky, has a different perspective.  While acknowledging that golf course settings vary widely in climate, soils, water requirements, golfer expectations and pest pressure, the idea that golf courses need not approach visual perfection is the significant issue with Chamber’s Bay.  Quoting professional golfer Bo van Pelt at the British Open, he said: “St. Andrews [arguably, the premier golf links course in the world] shows that every course doesn’t have to be immaculate, green, watered, manicured. There are different ways to play golf. And this way is great.”

According to Potter, “American golfers have traditionally preferred to play on velvet-green, immaculately-groomed courses. Watching the Masters at Augusta National on a high-definition color TV sure sets the bar high. But socio-cultural perceptions can change… Marketing and consumer education can speed that change.”

Potter also notes that today’s turf insecticides are much less toxic than many of the older ones, and that insecticides are necessary to prevent turf destruction in some settings.

“[Research has shown that] “organic golf” does not work in many, perhaps most settings.  Clearly insecticides are needed in many circumstances. But all over the world there is recognition that water use and other golf course inputs can be reduced without compromising quality of play. The USGA has invested $30 million in environmental research. About 2700 US courses have earned Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary status. GCSAA’s Environmental Institute for Golf and USGA/PGA/Audubon International’s ‘Golf and the Environment’ promote sustainable resource management. …I’m encouraged that USGA has selected a less-than-aesthetically perfect course committed to sustainable management for its signature tournament.”

Potter’s point is that if people’s perception of what is meant by an attractive golf course can change, then golf course superintendents will feel the freedom to cut back on some of the intensive management practices in use at many courses today.  We should cheer, not fear, courses like Chamber’s Bay, for leading the PR charge towards a different ideal on the links.

So why blog here about golf courses?  The golf course experience, whether we realize it or not, affects the way we manage urban landscapes.  Until there were immaculate greens and emerald fairways in north Texas, many Texans were happy with a basic grass/weeds mix, or even (before that) the traditional raked dirt front lawn.  I don’t think we’ll ever go back to black dirt lawns in my community, but I know from seeing them that urban landscapes designed with native trees and prairie plants can be just as, if not more, attractive than the bermudagrass/crape myrtle/holly formal landscapes so common in north Texas cities.  On the other hand legislators should be aware that management practices that work in Canada or Washington state or Maine, may not work or be acceptable in the sun belt, home of the thousand plagues.

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