Travel Column: Greener Golf Is Growing—Slowly

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Later, I would put that question to legendary pro Arnold Palmer, who has been advocating low-impact golf for over three decades. "There have been positive changes in the past few years in the way some courses are built and maintained," he said. "But I hope that the golf industry will make an even greater effort. I firmly believe that it is the responsibility of every golf-course architect and builder to protect the natural beauty of the land."

It's no small matter. The 16,000-plus golf courses in the United States take up more land area than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. On average, each course uses a dozen pounds (5.4 kilograms) of pesticides per acre (0.4 hectare) annually and enough water to supply a town of 8,000. Multiply by the total, and that's enough water for almost half the nation's population—not counting the 170 to 280 new or expanded courses that open every year.

How can you determine which of them are eco-friendly? One way is to look for certification by Audubon International, a nonprofit New York group (no relation to the National Audubon Society) that provides the world's only environmental seal of accomplishment for golf courses.

Since 1991 about 4,100 courses nationwide have registered for certification. "The Audubon program is moving the game in the right direction," said Roger Schiffman, editor of Golf Digest. "Unfortunately, I'm not sure all golfers are ready for the changes."

I know what he means. Like most of the 27.4 million Americans who play golf today, I was imprinted by television with the "Augusta National Syndrome"—a perception that all links should look like that picture-perfect Georgia course where the annual Masters Tournament is played.

"With its highly manicured landscape, Augusta looks like a TV studio," says Audubon International President Ron Dodson. "It's beautiful, but it requires enormous maintenance, and superintendents elsewhere are under a lot of pressure to emulate it."

In other words, to keep their turf bright green and pest free.

One 1990 study discovered that a course in Maryland received nearly seven times as much pesticide as a nearby corn and soybean field. A study in Massachusetts found that 10 of the 17 pesticides used on four Cape Cod courses had leached into underground water supplies.

The contamination was subtoxic, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not monitor links sites, and that worries environmentalists.

"It's ironic," says Jay Feldman of the National Coalition Against Misuse of Pesticides. "People move into golf-course communities to be near the outdoors but sometimes end up prone to off-target drift and to runoff of pesticides from some of the most intensively treated land areas in the United States."

Before and After

It wasn't always that way. The game of golf originated almost 600 years ago along the coast of Scotland in "linksland," an area of small hills, native grasses, sand dunes, and few trees. Early courses simply followed the natural shape of the land, like the famous St. Andrews course (Traveler, March/April 1998), the official "home" of golf. The several hundred courses that dotted the U.S. landscape by the beginning of the 20th century similarly conformed to the character of the land.

All that changed after World War II, however, when innovations in chemistry, construction, and irrigation allowed developers to carve out new golf courses almost anywhere.

"We somehow got away from the Scottish origins of the game," Arnold Palmer said. His Palmer Course Design Company opens 15 eco-friendly facilities on average every year, with some 40 projects on the board at any one time. "Our courses are built to enhance the game of golf, but not at the expense of destroying natural features. A golf course should blend into its environment."

For his part, Michael Hurdzan returned to those Scottish origins at Widow's Walk, the United States' first "environmental demonstration course."

"It was an opportunity to take a biologically impoverished area and put some health back into the land," says the Ohio-based architect, who holds a botanical doctorate.

Today more than 80 species of birds and mammals live around Widow's Walk, which opened in 1997. Computerized monitors keep track of water use and soil health. Pesticide and fertilizer use is minimal.

"We do a lot of maintenance the old-fashioned way, by hand," said Cost Davis, superintendent when I visited.

"We might have a few brown spots, but we keep expenses down because we buy fewer chemicals." Davis had worked at a Cape Cod course that needed on average 800,000 gallons (3 million liters) of water a day. At Widow's Walk he was using about 100,000 gallons (380,000 liters).

Applying these tactics to an arid habitat, Michael Hurdzan in 1997 designed a pair of new municipal courses called Desert Willow, in Palm Desert, California, working with John Cook, a PGA golf star and Palm Desert native.

Unlike other area courses, which average 120 acres (50 hectares) of turf, Desert Willow has only about 75 acres (30 hectares). The remainder is landscaped with cacti and other flowering desert species. Sand and pebbles surround the greens.

Recycling drains and basins limit new (unrecycled) water use to 325,000 gallons (1.2 million liters) daily, in contrast to Shadow Creek Golf Club in Las Vegas, which reportedly uses a million gallons (3.8 million liters) of water a day.

"We wanted to demonstrate what desert golf courses should really look like," Cook said. "I think Mike is one of the leaders in the game's environmental movement."

Desert Willow follows principles hammered out at a meeting in California ten years ago, when about 80 representatives of the nation's environmental, golf, and science communities worked out ways to design and maintain courses with a gentler hand.

"It was a good start," said Paul Parker, of the Center for Resource Management, which convened the meeting.

Measurable Standards

A further step came in 2003 with the creation of the Environmental Institute for Golf (, which aims to apply standards in five areas—water usage, plants, wildlife habitat, siting and construction, and energy—to existing courses and so produce standards of excellence for other courses to emulate.

"What we really need," Parker said, "is a widespread program to certify courses according to measurable environmental standards."

Closest to that hole for now is the Audubon International program, under which facilities undergo a multistep process to improve water conservation, create wildlife habitat, and reduce chemical use. "They were very careful in their review of our plans and helped us come up with solutions," recalled Palmer Course Design architect Victoria Martz of one Audubon-certified project.

"Unfortunately," observed Parker, "the Audubon program is voluntary and does little on-site inspection at existing courses that have applied for certification. That's a weakness. How do you know if a course is practicing what it preaches?"

Ron Dodson maintains, however, that the goal of his group is to educate golf-course superintendents, not regulate them. "Many states do not require golf-course developers to file environmental impact statements," he said.

"So just to meet our minimum requirements for certification, many courses are doing more than what local, state, or federal agencies require."

To date, almost 500 courses have completed certification. Some 1,000 more are working toward certification, particularly in regard to wildlife habitat, following examples such as those at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, which reserved pine woodlands as nesting sites for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers.

"Too Beautiful to Pollute"

One certified course, in Presidio National Park in San Francisco, is also one of the nation's oldest. Created in 1895 by the U.S. Army, which used to maintain a base at the Presidio, the course was restored by Arnold Palmer's management company in 1998-99.

"We made a strong commitment at the Presidio to protect the environment," Palmer says. In 1999, for instance, a microscopic pest ravaged the greens. Rather than use toxic fungicides, as many golf-maintenance crews would do, the Palmer team had the course closed, tore out the greens, and replaced them with a more pest-resistant type of grass.

"It was expensive, but it will pay for itself over the long run in reduced maintenance costs," says superintendent Kevin Hutchins. "Besides, this place is way too beautiful to pollute."

That same thought crossed my mind as I approached the eighth tee at Widow's Walk. From here, the highest point on the course, I had a breathtaking view of Cape Cod in one direction and Boston Harbor in the other. In the 19th century whalers' wives would scan the sea for returning ships from this spot—thus the name, Widows Walk.

As I raised my three-iron to take a shot at the hole, a large flock of geese landed on a pond below, distracting me. Whack! The ball flew off the course into a marsh, forcing me to take another penalty shot.

Oh, well, I thought. What's a few lost balls when you have a chance to play such good-natured golf in a place where a Scotsman might feel right at home?

Mark Wexler is the editor of National Wildlife magazine.

For more environmental tourism news, scroll down.

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