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Courses reap financial rewards from shrinking turf, and their neighbors (human and wild) benefit as well.
Golf Courses Shrink Turf
July 23, 2001 by Evelyn J. Hadden

For nearly two decades, the United States Golf Association (USGA) has funded research on reducing the water, chemical fertilizer, and herbicides required by golf course turf. It has spent millions on developing hardier, shorter turfgrass and weather-linked, automated irrigation systems. In the last decade, though, a previously undesirable option has come into favor: converting out-of-play turf to a more natural landscape.

In 1991, the USGA teamed up with Audubon International (an nonprofit organization not affiliated with the National Audubon Society) to create the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System for Golf Courses, an educational program that rewards environmentally responsible courses by certifying them in six different areas:

  • Environmental Planning
  • Wildlife and Habitat Management
  • Chemical Use Reduction and Safety
  • Water Conservation
  • Water Quality Management
  • Outreach and Education

Of our nation's estimated 16,000 courses, just over 2,000 (about 12%) have enrolled in the program during its first decade. Nearly half the enrolled courses are certified in at least one area, and 282 are fully certified as Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries, meeting requirements in all areas.

Superintendents of certified courses report numerous benefits -- cost and labor savings, reduced chemical use, more wildlife habitat, and even better playing quality and higher job satisfaction. A Colorado course converted a four-foot-wide strip of lakeshore from mown turf to rush, sedge, cattails, and mixed native wildflowers, creating "a mosaic of color that lasts throughout the growing season," attracting nesting ducks, and saving 35,000 gallons of water during the first summer. A North Carolina club spent $10,000 to install 30 acres of natural prairie and has saved an estimated $15,000 per year in maintenance costs while increasing the populations of birds, mammals, and reptiles.

But though successful courses proudly publicize their achievements, many courses face barriers to following their lead.

Adopting a different landscape aesthetic is a long-term strategy. It can take several years to establish native plant communities. For instance, many of the native grasses and wildflowers that might be the best choice for replacing turf take several years to develop their above-ground growth; they're busy producing long root systems. One North Carolina club's environmental specialist admits, "For some club officials this is a hard reality to accept."

The membership may have trouble accepting it too. There's an expectation among golfers that the grounds of a course should be perfectly maintained. The in-play areas must be perfect because they affect the game, but golfers also expect visible out-of-play areas to be aesthetically appealing.

Traditionally, aesthetics didn't vary much among American golfers. Greens were expected to be green, and courses across the country strove toward the same park-like look, with acres of close-cropped emerald lawn stretching away under judiciously spaced trees.

Now, with the advent of environmental awareness, many course managers are trying to develop a new aesthetic. They not only want to escape the impossible standards they've been measured against, and the rising costs of maintenance, but they are also increasingly aware that their land offers essential habitat for wildlife pressured by non-stop development.

However, many patrons still vehemently prefer close-cropped turf and are not swayed by environmental concerns.

A New Jersey country club reported that its members required lots of persuasion and incremental changes to embrace the conversion of 30 acres of formerly mown roughs to native grass and wildflowers. "At first, it was kind of a tough sell," said the club's superintendent. "Our members are conservative and like a more maintained appearance." He used a monthly newsletter column and various meetings to communicate the project's goals and benefits and address concerns.

Golfers aren't merely reluctant because they prefer the look of short green grass. For some, it's a matter of playability. On a Wisconsin course in which all out-of-play areas were planted with native prairie grasses and wildflowers, the superintendent reported that "Golfers comment on the beauty of the prairie fields, but complain of lost golf balls." He drives around distributing free balls to replace those lost to the prairie.

One USGA official wrote an article complaining that some grasses, when unmowed, grow in stiff, dense clumps that are hard to play off. He warned that planting such grasses near play areas "makes recovery shots nearly impossible".

How playable courses should be is a matter for debate. Another top golf official wrote recently: "I adhere to the philosophy that the playing areas of the course, namely greens, tees and fairways, should be absolutely perfect, but the other areas should not be improved and should be very penal in nature."

The natural landscaping debate among golf course industry leaders is relevant to non-golfers for several reasons.

  • Homeowners must confront similar issues in shrinking their private lawns. With limited budgets and space, they may be reluctant to invest the time and effort in building a natural landscape that won't produce much of a "show" for several years. Neighborhoods often assume a certain aesthetic, particularly for front yards, and departing from the expected look can bring grumbling, fines, and even lawsuits.

  • Courses may represent a large chunk of open space, especially in urban areas, and how they are managed affects the local water supply, stormwater treatment capacity, and wildlife populations. Golf courses not only have the potential to degrade those factors, but also to improve them. Some courses are able to water much of their turf with recaptured water from the course or a nearby municipal area. Courses have been built on low-value land such as abandoned strip mines, landfills, and quarries, turning a local nuisance into an asset.

  • The golf industry drives new landscape technology that benefits homeowners. The USGA has spent millions of dollars funding university research--such as the University of Nebraska's research on buffalo grass--to develop turfgrasses that need up to 50% less water and less fertilizer to stay green and that can better tolerate short cutting. Homeowners can use the new grass cultivars for lower-maintenance, lower-cost lawns.
The golf industry boasts several vocal proponents of more environmentally sound golf course management. Golfers enjoy the outdoors, and many are eager to experience nature on the course. Some architects relish the challenge of integrating a course into the natural landscape, and this is the current trend in new construction. The golf course managers who participate in the Audubon program are learning management methods that benefit their communities.

Like home gardeners, but on a much larger scale, golf course managers have the property and prominence to affect our society's views about how our green spaces should look... and whether they will degrade or improve the environment.

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