Old Tom Morris, basically the founder of the greenkeeping profession, put it best. “Maur saind, Honeyman, maur saind”, he famously told his loyal assistant, as they strove to improve the conditions on the St Andrews links. Tom and David Honeyman basically invented the idea of topdressing the playing surfaces with sand to improve their smoothness.
Golf was born of sand. Sand underpins all the classic links, and a remarkably high percentage of the courses rated as the world’s best. Of Golf magazine’s most recent list of the top ten courses on the planet, only two, Oakmont and Augusta National, are not built on sandy soil.
Sand remains central to the continued existence of golf. When courses are constructed or reconstructed, sand is used to build the putting greens, and sometimes the tees. When soils are heavy and drainage is poor, a popular, though expensive, response is to cap the playing surfaces with imported sand before seeding. Greenkeepers, following on from Old Tom, continue to topdress courses with sand to improve the smoothness of the turf. And, of course, sand bunkers exist on the overwhelming majority of courses, whether or not the sites on which they sit are sandy.
So sand is necessary for virtually every course, every year. But the fact is that sand usage across the world (overall, not just in golf) is way exceeding output, and this seems unlikely to change in the near future. Dr Louise Gallagher, formerly of the Global Sand Observatory Institute, and the lead author of a recent United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on sand and sustainability, told GCA: “Sand is the second most consumed resource in the world, after only water. Fifty billion tonnes of sand and gravel are consumed on an annual basis. We have no idea of where that comes from, or where it is produced. Country-by-country basis information is available but it isn’t uniform. Knowing where sand is, is one thing, but knowing what sort of sand and for what it is used is much harder, as is knowing how much we can take and use safely.”
“River sand is what people love to work with, because it’s already sorted and is highly desirable,” Dr Gallagher continues. “It is becoming more scarce in certain parts of the world. We have seen a massive drop-off in sediment throughput in some very large rivers. There was a study produced for China that showed nine of its biggest rivers had experienced an 85 per cent drop-off in sediment. It’s like a canary in a coal mine. It’s telling us that we are taking so much material from the rivers that we need to keep an eye on them. Now, river sand extraction limits are becoming more common, and, for example in China, there is evidence that they are starting to work.”
At present, it is not possible accurately to monitor global sand use. However, Pascal Peduzzi, director of UNEP’s Global Resource Information Database said it could be measured indirectly, because of the close correlation between the use of sand and cement.
The UN estimates that 4.1 billion tonnes of cement is produced every year, driven primarily by China, which constitutes 58 per cent of today’s sand-fuelled construction boom. The global use of sand and gravels has been found to be ten times higher than that of cement.
The global rate of sand use – which has tripled over the last two decades, largely as a result of surging urbanisation – far exceeds the natural rate at which sand is being replenished by the weathering of rocks by wind and water.
The result of this huge exploitation of sand supplies is, inevitably, upward pressure on prices. “Sand and aggregate are very localised markets. Getting price data is therefore difficult,” says Dr Gallagher. “There is no global price for sand, but we know that a lot of the sand out there is underpriced, because it’s not taking environmental costs into account.”
Golf is in an invidious position in respect of sand availability and price issues. Sand is, as we have already established, absolutely crucial to golf’s continued existence, at least in the form that we have known it for more than a century. But, at the same time, golf is a tiny speck on the overall global map of sand users, with the construction and civil engineering sectors dwarfing golf. When something is strategically important to you, but you have effectively no influence over the market, you are in a difficult position. “Sand supply for golf is suffering, as suppliers are more interested in producing for concrete,” says Scottish-based contractor David Nelson of Greenmakers by Nelson & Vecchio. “The price is very localised depending on each country or area’s natural resources, but across the board, we have seen a price increase of 30-40 per cent in the last five years. And also, as the sand becomes harder to extract from the ground, it becomes more expensive for the end user.” As all greenkeepers and golf construction specialists know, sand is not just sand. The apparently insane practice of shipping sand into desert countries for golf courses there is not as crazy as it might seem, because desert sand particles, eroded by wind rather than water, are too smooth and rounded to pack down in the right way for green construction or bunker use. For golf usage, angular particles that lock together are sought after. Unfortunately for golf, precisely the same issue applies for construction purposes. Angular sand is typically sourced and extracted from seabeds, coastlines, quarries and rivers around the world, and it is these sources, as Dr Gallagher points out, that are coming under most pressure.
“But the truth is that it’s not about source, it’s about performance,” she says. “We are looking for material that will perform in a certain way, and we need to let go of the idea that it needs to be from a particular source, especially rivers. There is evidence that high-value sands are becoming more of a tradeable commodity – we are hearing more about international trade in sand – especially in places like Singapore and the Middle East that are resource-poor in appropriate sands. We know that transport and fuel costs are very key in terms of demand for sand, but if people are shipping the stuff long distances it’s not a good sign. Because of a global tightening of environmental regulations, the material might be there, but getting access to it is becoming harder in some areas.”
So, the question for golf is how to deal with a world in which sand is harder to find and more expensive when you do find it? Sam Thomas of the Golf Environment Organization (GEO) says that the industry is really only in the very early stages of addressing this issue, with little or no guidance coming from the golfing authorities as yet. “It does surprise me that the USGA has done nothing on exploring alternatives to sand – or for that matter peat,” he says. “‘Heads in the sand’ is an easy phrase to use, but frankly it isn’t that far from the truth. Topdressing is what we see as creating the largest carbon footprint for golf courses in the future. It’s the diesel they’re burning trucking in sand week after week. It may be that greenkeepers in some locations will need to be prepared to be a little more flexible about exactly what sort of sand they will use to topdress with. If we need to import sand, the closer to the site that we can find a quarry – even if the sand doesn’t quite match the specifications you wanted – the better. Can we ameliorate non-conforming sands to a point that they will do what we need them to? If all we have is dune sand, what do we need to add to it to make a mix that works for us? But if you ask clubs, ‘what are you going to do in thirty years?’ people do turn a little pale. A lot of agronomists are very conservative – they still tend to err on the side of caution and are afraid to advise the client to do something different. Now that said, I cannot think of any large-scale alternatives to sand that would work for golf. Slag from iron and steelworks is being used as a replacement for gravel, but not for sand. There is some interest in grinding down recycled glass to use it as a sand replacement – certainly in the Middle East there has been discussion about this – but it is hard to see it providing sand in the quantities that are used by courses.”
Although in terms of overall consumption it is dwarfed by topdressing, the biggest single use of sand that any course will ever make is to cap the site to improve drainage. David Cole, director of golf course and estate at the exclusive Loch Lomond Golf Club in Scotland has recently completed a massive project to sandcap the course, which has always had chronic drainage problems (for more on this project, see the January 2020 issue of GCA). “We used just over 80,000 tonnes of sand for our project. That put approximately 200mm of sand over 25 hectares,” he says. “We were very fussy with the sand – it had to meet USGA specifications; if it hadn’t done so, the project would have failed.”
While the Loch Lomond project has succeeded triumphantly, it is legitimate to ask how relevant such processes are to other courses. “There are a number of courses that we are working with that say, ‘we must sandcap’,” says Sam Thomas of GEO. “But to what depth? How much of the site do you want to cap? A lot of the time it is driven by the client’s golfing IQ – wanting to achieve something that isn’t feasible on their site. They believe they can buy in links conditions. But can they, and for how many years does the sandcap hold up? These questions really need to be answered by anyone before starting any kind of capping project.”
At the recently completed JCB Golf & Country Club in Staffordshire, England, on a site that was almost as wet as Loch Lomond, architect Robin Hiseman of European Golf Design, took a different track. Although considering a sandcap of 150mm depth – which would have required 42,000 cubic metres of sand, Hiseman and his construction team changed their plans, and instead spread only 25mm of sand across the site, a total of 7,000 cubic metres, just enough to give a uniform seed bed. Extensive sand banding was also used to improve the drainage. “I’m not sure how much sand was put back in the bands, but the saving was in excess of a million pounds,” Hiseman says.
Part of the solution to golf’s reliance on sand will certainly be found through technology. “Our industry is slow to adapt on the design and construction side,” says John Holmes of grass supplier Atlas Turf. “Many architects are still using construction specs from twenty years ago. Take sandcapping: installing more drainage and using porous ceramics can decrease or even eliminate the need to cap courses. Or topdressing: some of the newer turf varieties produce less organic matter which ultimately can reduce topdressing needs. My club changes out its bunker sand every two years because of contamination. If we had a modern liner system in place, we could go much longer.”
Echoing this theme, Capillary Concrete CEO Martin Sternberg highlights his firm’s new Wash Box, which allows course managers to pressure wash their bunker sand to remove contaminants. “One client of ours estimates that two man-hours spent washing saves about 6.4 tonnes of sand per year,” he says.
Les Howkins, course manager of the Richmond club in England, takes a similar, technologically-driven line. “We renovated our bunkers ten years ago and had a proper engineered liner put in, and we use very little sand in them now,” he says. “It doesn’t go anywhere, and we don’t get contamination. The sand is as clean now as it was the day it went in. We buy one 20-tonne load each year and frankly we could get away with less. People use upturned turf and wonder why their sand is black every year from washing dirt off the faces.”
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.