Designing for sustainable greenkeeping

Sean Dudley
By Austen Sutton

The sustainability of golf is a high profile issue at the moment, and it's not likely to get any less so in the future. Golf courses around the world are under pressure to become more environmentally-friendly, which generally means using less water and chemicals. But they are also facing challenges to their economic sustainability, with greater competition between courses to attract members and green fees. Thus they need to keep the cost of course maintenance as low as possible, and yet find a way to deal with the ever-increasing expectations golfers have for standards of conditioning.

It's a tough job.

In Europe at least, there is a possibility that it's going to get tougher still. The proposed directive on sustainable use of pesticides, currently in discussion at the European Parliament and scheduled to come to a vote during December, could have massive impacts on golf course maintenance, as there has been talk of 'no spray zones' around sports grounds, of which golf courses would be considered examples. If chemicals that have previously been in common use on golf courses are taken out of greenkeepers' hands, they will have to find new ways of achieving the standard of turf that golfers demand.

What relevance does this have to golf architecture? Actually, a great deal. Golf architects cannot just build courses and disappear – they have to understand that sustainability is the byword for golf courses in any shape or form. British architect Howard Swan recently told me that he believes considering turf management at the very early stages of a project is absolutely essential. What fertilisers are going to be used, what pesticides? To what extent do those chemicals linger in water that may run off the maintained turf into natural watercourses? Just to get planning consent for golf courses nowadays, architects and developers have to show they have considered these matters. Take the Askernish project in South Uist, Scotland, which has been covered extensively by GCA. Planning consent for the Askernish restoration was granted on condition that the course should apply for and receive accreditation to the scheme being launched shortly by the Golf Environment Organisation (formerly Golf Environment Europe) within a set period.

Producers of golf course chemicals, such as Syngenta, have a major role to play in helping the game become more sustainable. We are, for example, participating actively in golf 's attempts to ensure the Pesticide Directive is not excessively prescriptive. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge the entirely reasonable concerns people have about excessive use of chemicals, and the potential economic issues that over-use will bring.

That's why we introduced services such as GreenCast, our online tool for greenkeepers that gives them detailed weather projects and clear indications of when they should spray to avoid particular diseases. We see GreenCast, with its early warning and modelling functionality, as a tool for sustability. When might a course in a particular location, given the specific weather conditions it faces, be at risk from fusarium? And when should the greenkeeper take action to avoid it? As Dr Ruth Mann of the STRI says: "GreenCast supports the optimum time for fungicide application, when plants are infected, but before symptoms are seen. The trial has demonstrated that accurate timing has a huge influence on effective control and is an important step in enabling golf course and sports turf managers to be far more proactive and efficient in their turf management. GreenCast will help enormously in getting application timing right to achieve the best results, and provide justification for spraying decisions to achieve the most cost effective results." It can also help clubs by providing better documentation of what has been applied, when – something that is already important, and will become more so.

Our products are expensive and time consuming to develop, so it's in our interests to be sure they are sustainable and not likely to be removed from use in the near future. Product stewardship is a key part of our long-term strategy, and for that it's vital for everyone in the golf industry, on the design and construction as well as the maintenance side, to work closely together. Golf can sustain itself, and become still better at environmental management. But it depends on partnership to do so.