Brown or green?


Sean Dudley

Environmental sustainability is right at the top of golf's priority list. But are there other aspects of sustainability that need considering, asks Adam Lawrence?

Golf gets a poor rap from a wide variety of sources. The game is often criticised for being elitist, and its venues are blamed for a range of environmental failures.

Many of these complaints are entirely without justification – outside extreme climate regions, a golf course built on agricultural land will use less water, less chemicals and offer far greater biodiversity than the farm it replaced – but there is more to golf 's environmental problems than poor PR.

The problem with golf is one of expectations. The 'Augusta effect', by which golfers at courses around the world come to identify a certain look with perfection, and to believe that they should get that look wherever and whenever they play, is real without doubt. One need only discuss courses with a selection of regular golfers: it is a sobering experience for those of us who care about golf architecture. For many – perhaps most – golfers, the quality of a course is measured almost entirely through conditioning and quality of service.

Water is the biggest single issue for golf courses wherever they are located. In virtually every jurisdiction, getting a permit to build a new course involves providing highly detailed documentation on how water is to be obtained, collected, stored and used. In dry environments such as Arizona, the Middle East or southern Europe, water issues literally make the difference between getting or being refused planning consent. Spanish golf environmental consultant Alejandro Rodriguez Nagy echoes this point. "In Spain, adequate water management is the single most important issue," he says. "More than 200 of Spain's 350 golf courses are on the Mediterranean coastline – almost 60 per cent of them. This is a very dry area, in danger of desertification, and water is a scarce resource which must be well managed. Golf developers and course managers have to work with ecologist pressure groups and also local government.

"Legislation passed recently by the regional governments of Valencia and Andalucia puts special emphasis on environmental issues like landscape protection, flora and fauna preservation, old productive land recovery, soil regeneration, water management optimisation and environmental management system promotion. In terms of water use, the environmental impact statement usually indicates that treated waste water or desalinated water – or both – must be used for irrigation."

Nagy says research shows a population of 20,000 people is needed to generate enough effluent water to irrigate an 18-hole golf course. In some areas, this can be an issue: where golf is growing especially rapidly, even securing access to effluent water is difficult. Desalination plants are a possible alternative, but the capital cost of such plants is huge, a real problem for golf courses which are rarely the cash cows their developers might hope.

American architect Tim Liddy, whose work with Pete Dye and under his own flag has taken him around the world, reckons golfers in his country (and elsewhere) simply need to adjust their thinking. "It seems rather ironic, but being 'green' in golf is not the same as being green in other aspects of the environment," he says. "In America, dormant bermuda grass is the closet playing condition to links turf than any other grass in the southern United States, and yet while we continually profess to want to emulate Scottish or Irish links golf we consistently overseed dormant bermuda to achieve soft, green conditions for the winter golfer. It's an expensive and grotesquely wasteful use of resources." 

Dormant bermuda is a fantastic playing surface, tight, firm and bouncy, with great rollout. One of the most fun experiences I have had playing golf in recent years was at Pine Needles in North Carolina in March of two years ago. I'm not sure whether there was no overseed in the fairways because the course was preparing to host the 2007 US Women's Open or whether the powers that be at Pine Needles had bought into the fast and firm ethos – I would have expected such a high-end resort in the US to overseed without a second thought – but either way, I was delighted.

There is, though, a genuine downside to dormant bermuda, beyond the foolishness of colour. Golf courses in warm-weather destinations such as Florida, Dubai and the like do the majority of their business during the winter as golfers seek to escape to the sun. If there is heavy traffic on a course and the grass is not growing, or hardly growing at best, then the result will be poor turf conditions as wear from divots and golfer traffic will not be repaired by new growth.

This is why many authorities who otherwise abhor overseeding accept that it is necessary for high stress areas such as tees. Elsewhere on the golf course, though, the line is fine. In resorts where the use of golf carts is the norm, then, again, overseeding might be judged necessary, if carts are not to be confined to paths. But then, of course, the solution is simple. Get golfers walking the course again, and the problems caused by cart traffic will be eliminated!

To their credit, suppliers to the golf industry are aware of the problem. Chemicals giant Syngenta, for example, has introduced its GreenCast service, which, by giving greenkeepers detailed information about the disease risk on particular days, can help them restrict spraying to periods when it is genuinely needed.

Tim Liddy reckons the way forward lies in looking backwards. "Sustainability should be the new buzzword for golf in the United States," he says. "For lessons in sustainability we need to look to the origins of the game. Links golf courses have been sustainable for centuries, requiring little or no water, low fertilisation and low maintenance costs. This explains why Scotland still enjoys inexpensive golf. Golf would not be the national passtime it is in Scotland if it were expensive."

The question of price is an interesting one. Economists are well aware of the odd phenonmenon by which the demand for some goods reduces if the price is cut: called the luxury effect, it relates to the perception among buyers that a product is valuable and exclusive because it is expensive. Golf, one might well argue, falls into this category, at least at the top end. Golfers complain about the outrageous cost of a game at Wentworth or Pebble Beach, but if those courses cut their green fee in half, would they retain the same cachet?

Yet the expense of golf relates directly to its sustainability. Environmental sustainability is not the game's only issue, as architect Howard Swan argued in these pages recently (GCA issue 9, page 30). Social sustainability is an important issue for the prosperity of the game, especially in the context of the ageing population in key golf markets such as the USA and Europe.

Membership rolls are falling at golf clubs the world over: access to top clubs has never been easier (this writer was recently asked if he would be interested in joining a very well-known British club as a country member for a fee far lower than one might have expected). It isn't just a question of there being low-cost options available, although that's clearly important. It is also crucial that golf is not perceived by young people of varying backgrounds as stuffy, old and elitist. Why would kids want to take up such a game? Social sustainability also has a role to play in the management of the golf course.

Aside from senior roles, the grounds crew at a typical golf club will probably be comprised of people who don't see the job as a long-term career, and whose level of emotional buy-in to the business is low. Employee turnover is generally high, as low wages don't promote staff loyalty.

Yet golf, like any other industry, depends on the quality of its workforce for the quality of its product, and presenting a course that is sustainable in the environmental sense of the word – that is focused on playability rather than turf colour, that is hard and bouncy and that uses a minimum of water and chemicals – is simply more difficult than watering, feeding and spraying daily.

But if the game is under financial pressure – which is clearly true – then the financial wherewithal to increase salaries and pay for better conditions of employment of greens staff is not going to happen. If grounds crews are to be sustainable, then a reduction in their size and a contiguous effort to upskill (and increase the pay of) the staff that remain is the only solution.

It shouldn't be thought that the picture is all black. There are people in golf that 'get it', and those people are devoting time and effort to increasing their number. At golf conferences nowadays, organisations like the Environmental Institute for Golf (see Greg Norman's interview elsewhere in this issue) and Golf Environment Europe are well represented, and the message of sustainability is being picked up. But the battle remains in its early phases.

Even in the UK, the home of sustainable golf, there is a perception among many golfers – and even within the golf industry – that the over-watered, over-fertilised, overly green mindset is the way to go. Too few turf managers, in the UK and elsewhere, understand that traditional golfing grasses, not the highly engineered hybrids that promise ever lower mowing heights, present the best surface for golf.

"The ability to play golf more on the ground and less in the air adds greatly to the enjoyment of the game for the average player, while offering more options for the better player. It also encourages an improvement in skill levels," says Tim Liddy. Too many people, though, believe that a well-struck mid iron should always stick on a green surface. It is the job of those who have seen the light to help the rest realise that if they too come onboard their golf course will be more enjoyable, better value for money and more likely still to be around in 20 years time.

This article appeared in issue 12 of GCA, published April 2008.