From Scotland’s open meadows to the diverse terrain of courses today, the outdoor experience has always been one of the main draws of golf. In the past century elaborate links have sprung up all across the US, converting large amounts of biologically diverse wooded and wetland areas to managed turf.
But just how “green” are those fairways? Unfortunately, the pitfalls of golf courses go beyond sand traps and water hazards. The hidden environmental costs can include habitat loss, depletion of water and energy, water contamination and bird kill incidents from chemicals applied to turf, and displacement of native or endangered species for new construction.
The good news is that many golf courses are now making strokes for the environment. Newer courses are designed to require less irrigation and chemical maintenance, with an eye for protecting critical wildlife habitat and fragile surface and ground water supplies.
These recent changes are to some extent regulation-driven, says Jim Connolly, a certified agronomist consulting with the golf industry: “Laws on applying pesticides are now very strict and have considerably minimized the risk. Golf courses are required to provide habitat, and all new construction requires a biological survey of the property to protect endangered species.”
“When managed properly, golf courses can be good for the environment,” declares Jeff Bullock, director of communications for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA). However, he notes that a comprehensive study is needed to see how many courses are environmentally friendly. The GCSAA is planning a survey to measure benchmarks such as water consumption, use of native turf grasses and acres of habitat provided.
At The Woods at Cherry Creek in Riverhead, New York, the environment has been a priority from the get-go. “It helps the game because it protects the course,” says superintendent Joseph Ranzie. “We limit pesticide and fungicide spraying to an as-needed basis, and use organic fertilizers where possible on greens and tees. Our preventive measures make the grass healthier so it can fight disease naturally. Last year we kept things under control and didn’t need to use fungicide at all.”
Outreach and education are scoring big at Los Lagos Golf Course in San Jose, California, where signs and brochures highlight environmental efforts. Alan Andreasen, certified golf course superintendent for Los Lagos, describes what made the course winner of the GCSAA’s 2005 Environmental Leaders in Golf Award: “Out-of-play areas of native vegetation provide habitat for critters and a food supply for wildlife including raptors. Our buildings are designed with energy efficient lighting and we use reclaimed water on the turf, saving precious drinking water for the public.” Although this creates more work for the turf managers, Andreasen feels confident that it’s the right thing to do: “We’re showing people we can be sensitive to the environment.”
Are environmental issues on the radar screen for golfers when they hit the links? “I think nature is a big part of it,” says Bob Hornby, an avid golfer from Sergeantsville, New Jersey. He cites improvements such as monitoring water consumption, switching to lower-maintenance types of grasses, providing no-mow “environmental zones” in place of or surrounding water hazards and cutting the rough higher.
Historically at odds, environmental and golf organizations are now joining forces. Audubon International’s Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, sponsored by the US Golf Association, offers resources for course managers and a certification for environmentally friendly courses. Since its start in 1991, 82% of courses in the program have reduced their pesticide use and 92% use less toxic pesticides. An average of 22 acres per course of turf grass has been converted to wildlife habitat, with an average savings of 1.9 million gallons of water per golf course per year.
Program Manager Joellen Zeh recommends that golfers look at height of turf grass and the amount and type of natural habitat at shorelines and out-of-play areas to evaluate a course’s environmental scorecard. “Green speed is a huge issue,” she emphasizes. “The short turf grass expected by players at professional courses requires higher water and chemical use.”
Golfers can also champion the environment during play by respecting no-entry areas that provide habitat for wildlife and by immediately repairing divots to avoid stressing grasses. Apparently many golfers are game for these strategies. An impressive 99% of golfers at Audubon-certified courses reported that their satisfaction with playing quality either remained the same or improved as a result of the Cooperative Sanctuary program.
If you think protecting the environment should be par for the course, take the Audubon GreenGolfer Pledge at www.golfandenvironment.org. This site also highlights Audubon’s “Environ-mental Etiquette for Golf” and a list of Audubon-certified courses. Following these simple strategies, you can tee off without an environmental handicap.