The Science of Sustainability

Improving Golf’s Environmental Scorecard

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North Carolina's Pinehurst Resort, home to the 2014 U.S. Open golf tournament, has reduced it's irrigated acreage by nearly 50 percent.  All photos by David Huppert

North Carolina's Pinehurst Resort, home to the 2014 U.S. Open golf tournament, has reduced it's irrigated acreage by nearly 50 percent. All photos by David Huppert

Golf is a game of opposites.

To hit the ball farther, relax. To send the ball higher, hit down on it.

These kinds of antithetical actions can work when it comes to golf course stewardship, too: to improve a course,  superintendents should consider managing less,  not more.

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Retention ponds are used to irrigate the golf course at NC State University.

Golf represents an easy target for environmentalists who call attention to the vast amounts of water, fertilizer, and chemicals used to maintain manicured courses.

“Unfortunately, that’s the perception,” says David Hueber, onetime CEO of the National Golf Foundation, who says his doctorate from Clemson University might be “the first Ph.D. in sustainable golf development and management.” According to Hueber, "When it comes to an issue of sustainability, it kind of fits that perception that [golf courses] are not going to be good stewards. They use too much water, fertilizer, chemicals. It makes golf the pariah.”

The reality is that golf-course managers have long sought to reduce irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticide use, if only for economic reasons. Modern superintendents are often among the first to say that sustainable course management could be a win/win for the environment and the club’s bottom line.

For example, take North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort, which will be the home of the  U.S. Open in 2014. Over the past three years the resort’s famed Pinehurst No. 2 course has been restored to what golfers call its “midcentury glory,” and what environmentalists call sustainable land management.

Pinehurst No. 2 eliminated its manicured rough areas and is now a member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Safe Harbor Program.

Pinehurst No. 2 eliminated its manicured rough areas and is now a member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Safe Harbor Program.

When restoring Pinehurst No. 2, the club made environmentally sound decisions based on economic principles. Cutting the irrigated acreage back from 90 to 50 acres saved mowing, irrigation, pesticide, and maintenance costs. Restoring maintained turf back to natural areas — “no mow zones” as they are sometimes called — provided habitat for species like the red-cockaded woodpecker. “We were the first private landowner to sign up for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Safe Harbor Program,” says Bob Farren, director of golf course and grounds management for the Pinehurst Resort.

The water coming off NC State University's golf course is cleaner than the water that runs onto it.  Photo by David Huppert

Danesha Seth Carley, a plant pathologist with NC State University, says native species like the longleaf pine thrive at Lonnie Poole.

Danesha Seth Carley, a plant pathologist and director of sustainability development at North Carolina State University, was initially suspicious of claims of environmentally sustainable courses. “I was that person looking in at golf courses saying they are so unsustainable, it is a joke to consider a golf course sustainable,” said Seth Carley. But she changed her tune after working with the designers of the university’s Lonnie Poole golf course. The university course uses reclaimed water for fairway irrigation and water from rainwater retention ponds for green irrigation, eliminating the need to use potable water. The course also boasts 50-foot buffers along all waterways, enabling Lonnie Poole to do something golf courses have long done but people do not necessarily appreciate: filter runoff water. “The water coming off the course is cleaner than the water running onto the course,” Seth Carley said.

And some courses offer more than just cleaner water. NCSU’s Lonnie Poole is a certified Audubon International Signature Golf Course Sanctuary, and Seth Carley said she’s seen the wildlife to prove it — foxes, herons, raccoons, and beaver. “The deer don’t care whether the fairways are manicured,” she says. “They go out and forage.”

The "rough" areas at Pinehurst No. 2 just got a lot spikier. A field guide describing all the course's native species will be distributed at the 2014 U.S. Open.

The "rough" areas at Pinehurst No. 2 just got a lot spikier. A field guide describing all the course's native species will be distributed at the 2014 U.S. Open.

Although a golf course is still a far cry from being the untouched wild area that it once was, bear in mind that many golf courses are built on abandoned agricultural land. “I tell people we’ve increased biodiversity,” said Seth Carley. “We have broomsedge and bluestem, warm season native grasses. The concept of the area is sort of old field progression.” Ironically, Seth Carley was criticized for reintroducing longleaf pine, the area’s original inhabitant, because post-agricultural North Carolina no longer supports that ecosystem.

Course superintendents and environmentalists may come at the issue from different angles, but they all seem to advocate the same thing: more natural areas, more responsible use of water, fertilizer, and pesticides, and greater community access. “I say ‘wildlife habitat,’” said Seth Carley, “they don’t say that. They’re just thinking ‘I don’t want to mow, I don’t want to feed, I don’t want to manage that much grass.’”

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Category: Blog, Climate, Engineering, Environment, Water

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Scott Huler

About the Author ()

Scott Huler's most recent book of nonfiction was "On the Grid," about the infrastructure systems that make our lives possible. He contributes to "Plugged In on the Scientific American Blog Network. He lives in Raleigh, NC, with his family.