The Greening of GOLF
How green is a golf course? Well, it depends on your definition of green. You could be referring to the hue…the combination of the primary colors of blue and yellow. Or, you could use the word “green” as a reference to sustainability, environmental sensitivity, and resource management. You may be surprised that with either definition, today’s golf courses are pretty darn green. The old perception that golf courses dump needless chemicals on hundreds of acres of lush turf with no regard to the environment is just that – the old perception. Golf’s roots are deep in the history of conservation and caring for open green spaces, and the industry has spent the last 20+ years educating the public about its efforts along those lines.
Since 1995 when representatives from all the major golfing bodies and leading environmental groups got together to discuss what could be done to make golf more eco-friendly, the reality of golf as a “green” industry has been thrust into the forefront. One would think that a meeting between environmental groups and the golf industry – long thought to be on opposite ends of the environmental spectrum – would result in nothing more than name-calling, accusations, and deadlock. That is exactly the perception that the groups wanted to prove was wrong. Both sides soon realized that they were much closer in ideology than many assumed and, as a result of this meeting of minds, some important steps were taken toward a comprehensive understanding in what came to be known as “The Golf & the Environment Initiative.”
Since that time, groups such as the Golf Course Superintendents’ Association of America, the United States Golf Association, Audubon International, and others have formed an alliance to not only strengthen the environmental foothold in golf, but also demonstrate how a properly designed, constructed, and operated golf course is in fact beneficial to the environment.
As the planet’s population grows and the demand for water increases not only for drinking, but also for agricultural purposes to grow the food to sustain the earth’s inhabitants, many constraints have been put on farms, private homeowners, and golf courses – especially in parts of the American Southwest. Keeping large tracts of recreational turf like golf courses lush and green for aesthetics seems like an easy target as the proverbial “poster boy” for water conservation. However, many courses today have drastically cut back on water usage through the installation of native areas that are not irrigated, drought tolerant strains of turf grass, “smarter” irrigation systems, and the use of effluent water for irrigation.
Technological advances in irrigation now allow superintendents to “spot treat” dry areas and hot spots while not wasting water on areas that may not need water. These systems are also tied into weather stations that can automatically adjust the output of water or shut it off completely if it rains at night – when golf courses typically irrigate and when no one is at the course to manually shut the water off. Additionally, many courses now use treated effluent water to irrigate the turf instead of well water, and new varieties of turf can thrive with less water and/or use water with more saline (or even salt water) without compromising the quality of the turf. The practice of over seeding fairways in the South with cool-season grasses in the winter is becoming less common due to the expense associated with it, and more and more courses are actually painting their dormant greens with specially-formulated turf paint to give golfers the green look they want without the expense and water needed to care for over seeded greens through the winter months. All of these steps and more are being increasingly utilized to cut dependence on water.
The Pesticide Challenge
Pesticides are used on golf courses to protect the considerable investment from invading pests, and golf courses have probably taken more than their fair share of blame whenever there is a pesticide mishap or the banning of a pesticide makes the headlines. But golf courses are not evil. While golf courses do use pesticides to treat and prevent infestations, their usage is actually only a tiny portion of the amount of treated turf grass (not even counting agricultural use) compared to the overall use nationwide.
Consider these enlightening facts:
1. Of the 27.6 million acres of turf grass in the United States, 21 million acres are home lawns! The remaining 6.6 million are commercial areas, parks, ball fields, turf farms, roadsides and rights-of-way, and other cultivated and maintained areas of turf. If the roughly 16,000 golf courses in the United States average 75 acres of maintained turf each (some are 9 holes, some are 18 holes, etc.), then some simple math reveals that only about 1.6 million acres of the total number of treated acres is attributable to golf courses – a number dwarfed by private homes.
2. Nearly all golf courses are operated by trained professionals with college degrees in their field of work and current laws dictate that a member of the staff be a registered and licensed certified pesticide applicator to apply pesticides to the course while keeping stringent records of each application.
3. Now consider this example: The chemical Diazinon was banned for all golf course and turf farm use after a misapplication in the early 1980’s on one golf course in New York killed a few hundred geese. Yet your next door neighbor can still go to the local garden supply store and buy all the Diazinon he wants and put it out on his lawn (and he or she more than likely does not have a degree in turf grass management or a state-issued pesticide applicator’s license).
Even with their training and strict regulations, golf course managers and superintendents are using more and more biological, cultural, physical, mechanical and chemical pest control strategies so they can suppress pest populations with continued minimal environmental impact. Besides being sensitive to the environment, the reduction in the use of expensive chemical pesticides is also economically prudent. Golf courses have to make profits like any other business and balance budgets like any American family.
The Changing “Face” of Golf.
A “green” golf industry is growing each and every year, but Americans might have to get used to less-than-perfect emerald green turf and that’s simply a matter of educating golfers. Courses in Scotland – the birthplace of golf – have long been known and loved for “natural” and less-than-lush looks. Notwithstanding the fact that most Scottish courses are built on well-drained sandy soils and more and more American courses are being built on more challenging sites with poorer soils, a fast and firm golf course can be just as fun – if not more so – than a lush green course. Additionally, as water becomes increasingly scarcer in parts of the country, as organic management practices increase, and proactive conservation grows, we can expect to see the golf industry take an even greater stake in the future of sustainability and environmental awareness.
Many courses have installed native areas to reduce maintenance practices and attract wildlife, and have reduced fertilizer outputs where possible without sacrificing turf quality. One local course, The Refuge in Flowood, MS, converted all gasoline-powered maintenance equipment to cleaner-burning propane to fight increases in gasoline costs while cutting carbon emissions by 75%! These are the types of small steps that golf courses nationwide can and are taking to continue the industry’s legacy of commitment to conservation and the environment.
Golf has long been an inherently “green” industry and over the past two decades superintendents and course managers across America have become valuable partners in the fight for conservation and a greener planet. Well-planned recreational green spaces like golf courses help to filter runoff, trap pollutants, encourage wildlife habitat, and act as natural “air conditioners” by efficiently capturing carbon dioxide emissions and transforming them naturally into fresh oxygen. It’s a win-win situation, and even greater proof that proponents of golf and the environment can work together hand in hand to take the industry in the direction of an even greener tomorrow.