The gradual process of environmental sustainability

Widow’s Walk was way ahead of its time, but efforts to strengthen conservation practices continue at courses across the country.
  • The 15th hole at Widow’s Walk Golf Course in Scituate, Massachusetts
    The 15th hole at Widow’s Walk Golf Course in Scituate, Massachusetts

Like clockwork, when Earth Day rolls around, the golf industry dutifully renews its commitment to water conservation, energy efficiency and other environmentally responsible practices. Skeptics say it’s lip service from the caretakers of a sport that occupies more land than any other.

But golf really is taking steps to protect the health of the planet. Between the mid-2000s and the mid-2010s, according to surveys by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, courses cut their use of water, electricity, fertilizers and pesticides. More owners and operators started to recycle. Nowadays, some courses encourage golfers to walk or put them in solar-powered carts.

The efforts are continuing, but without the data to document them.

“Compared to what we were doing even 10 years ago, we’re clearly being better stewards of the land we maintain,” said Bob Randquist, the association’s chief operating officer. “More and more courses are adopting good environmental practices, but it’s a gradual process.”

Here’s a measure of how gradual: Today, 736 U.S. courses are certified members of Audubon International’s cooperative sanctuary program, which rewards properties that go the extra environmental mile. Although the group reports that the number of members is “trending upward,” the number is still small.

Unquestionably, some golf facilities are managed sustainably without third-party blessings. But Audubon International was founded in 1987, which means that, on average, fewer than two dozen U.S. courses earn certification annually.

The pace is noteworthy because a quarter-century of golf-specific evidence indicates that sustainable operations can be good for business. By using less water and fewer chemicals, owners and operators obviously save money. By demonstrating environmental awareness, they educate their customers and employees, make their communities healthier and potentially give themselves a competitive advantage in their marketplaces. They might even improve golf’s public image.

What matters most to owners and operators, however, is customer satisfaction, and ecological bona fides don’t concern most golfers. The industry has been trying to sell brown as the new green for years, but not many golfers are buying it.

“If you left golf-course conditioning solely up to course owners and superintendents, it would be very different,” said Michael Hurdzan, a longtime evangelist for environmental sustainability. “Golfers are forcing us to use more water and fertilizer than is healthy. If a course isn’t in better condition than their front yards, they call it a goat track.”

Hurdzan is one of only seven Americans who’ve earned the ultimate career honors bestowed by associations of the golf architects, builders and superintendents. He co-designed Erin Hills, the setting for a U.S. Open; and two of Canada’s top layouts, Devil’s Paintbrush and Devil’s Pulpit. But his true claim to fame may be a municipal layout that some people once called a goat track.

The course is Widow’s Walk, which was built on an abandoned, sand-and-gravel mine outside Boston in 1997. The property, known locally as “the pits,” was virtually lifeless. Nonetheless, it became the site of an experiment that Hurdzan hoped would set new standards for design and development.

Widow’s Walk was way ahead of its time. In every aspect of its creation, Hurdzan put only the softest touches on the landscape. He revived the soil with composted sewage sludge. He planted native fescues that could survive on half the water and nutrients used by other grasses. He reinforced bunkers with carpet scraps and laid cart paths using recycled asphalt. To this day, the course is maintained using a catalog of earth-sensitive strategies.

Not all of his experiments were successful. Greens had to be softened, fairways widened. Golfers complained that the grass was brown. Still, Widow’s Walk rings up 32,000 rounds annually.

It also has helped change some hearts and minds. It inspired the creation of a fully organic course at Vineyard Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard, and it laid a groundwork for naturalistic, lower-maintenance courses, such as those at Bandon Dunes.

Clearly, though, the design and construction processes pioneered at Widow’s Walk are only gradually being adopted. Even its management practices with proven results are rarely copied.

In 2014, investors in Northport, Mich., opened America’s first 100% solar-powered golf venue. Northport Creek Golf Course uses two solar arrays, spread over not quite an acre, to electrify its clubhouse, golf carts and irrigation pumps. In some years, it produces more electricity than it uses.

Northport Creek’s solar system cost $210,000, and the owners expect it to pay for itself by 2024. And yet, it’s hard to find other courses that have gone solar.

Maybe Northport Creek is an exception because it doesn’t have the energy needs of larger venues. Its clubhouse doesn’t have a kitchen. The course has only nine holes, and sites for solar panels were incorporated into its design. Developers looking to build 18-hole courses may not want to allocate the space.

“Our situation is unique,” said Chris McCann, the course’s pro. “There’s an investment that has to be made, and people might not want to take the risk.”

The risks can be substantial, because attaining long-term environmental sustainability is difficult to do on an à la carte basis. Often, it requires courses to be largely re-invented.

For example, this year Anne Arundel County, Md., completed a $5 million overhaul of The Preserve at Eisenhower Golf Course, which, like other municipal tracks, is often played by seniors and other money-conscious customers. To reduce operating costs, the county replaced all 56 of the course’s bunkers with bumps and mounds, re-grassed the entire layout, established no-mow areas that are only minimally maintained and installed a moisture-sensitive irrigation system. In addition, to ensure that the course drains efficiently, it spent $6 million to create wetlands and remove sediment from a stream that runs through the property.

For its $11 million investment, the county believes, The Preserve will offer what increasing numbers of golfers are looking for: faster paced, more thought-provoking rounds on firmer, less predictable playing surfaces.

“It’s a good, sustainable model,” said Damian Cosby, who supervised the overhaul before he became director of golf operations for Cleveland Metroparks. “Anne Arundel County operates affordable, accessible facilities, and it cares about the environment. Hopefully, The Preserve will be there forever.”

The Preserve and Widow’s Walk are both Audubon International-certified tracks, and it’s no surprise that environmental concerns are often paramount at venues that closely mind their balance sheets. But they’re not alone. A slew of America’s elite golf properties have also earned certification. Congressional Country Club, Firestone Country Club, Harbour Town Golf Links and Pebble Beach Golf Links are among them.

As for the rest of America’s courses, some people worry they will not embrace environmental sustainability until golfers demand that they do.

“We’ve learned to do more with less, but we’re still using more than we need to,” Hurdzan said. “We’re finding new and better ways to maintain golf courses. Now we need to manage the expectations of golfers.”

It’s a gradual process.

 

Robert J. Vasilak, one of Golf Inc.’s contributing editors, blogs at @RJVasilakGolf.com.

 

 

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