The Greening Of Oakmont

Oakmont superintendent John Zimmers (center) said the first step to greening the course was the removal of trees. (John Mummert/USGA)

By Mike Dudurich

In a great bit of irony, the “greening” of Oakmont Country Club really got under way when one of the greatest “ungreenings” of a golf course ever took place.

“Believe it or not, removing those trees was the first step of us going green,” said John Zimmers, Oakmont’s superintendent. “A lot of people won’t understand that. But when you look at our golf course, the trees were such a negative thing. They took more fertilizer, took more water, did not create a good environment for the turf in terms of sunlight and shade. That led to problems, which led to more chemicals.”

The controversial tree removal – with between 5,000 and 8,000 trees being taken – had a domino effect in the greening evolution.

For the most part, the areas that had trees have become fescue-covered, not only improving the visual appearance of the historic club, but changing the maintenance efforts in those areas as well.

“We have 70 to 80 acres of fescue where the trees were,” Zimmers said. “And that’s low-maintenance grass, comparatively speaking. It gets mowed once a year. There’s basically no fertilizing and water consumption is nearly zero, except for what nature provides.”

Those who have played Oakmont have likely had encounters with the dreaded “ditches” that wind through the course. And while they are merely a knee-high nuisance for those who find their ball in them, the ditches play a big role in the 260-acre course’s eco-system.

“They are a big part of the integrity of the drainage system here,” Zimmers said. “They are drainage areas for the course. They’ve been capped with a sand filtering system, and returned to fescue. So before anything leaves the property, it goes through that system.”

A year after Zimmers assumed his position at Oakmont, the irrigation system was replaced. With the old system, the club traditionally used  roughly 25 million gallons of water per year (water, by the way, that they pay for).

Since 2000, when the system was changed, Oakmont has saved 31 percent in water usage annually, about 7 million gallons a year. What makes the savings even more remarkable? The course has grown by 40 or 50 acres since Zimmers’ arrival.

“I think you’ll see in the future, that water will become such a commodity that you’ll only water what absolutely needs to be watered,” Zimmers said. “We do not water the golf course a lot.”

Zimmers said he’s sure people wonder why, despite a state-of-the-art irrigation system, they still see members of the grounds crew out watering with hoses.

“The ability to put water exactly where you need it is a big thing for us. Water management is crucial,” he said.

Zimmers is constantly comparing 10-year periods and, like the decrease in water usage, he has seen a decrease in the amount of fertilizer and chemicals used.

“Golfers hate the word ‘aerify’ but when we do that and take soil samples (in the spring and fall), that’s a $1,500-$2,000 expense,” Zimmers said. “But it tells us exactly what we need in our soil, so we’re not just blindly applying things. And we use organic fertilizers. All of our fertilizers and chemicals are 100 percent contained. They’re in a dike, they can’t run off. We feel like all those things are very important. It’s a responsibility we have.”

Zimmers and his staff are not only concerned about what goes into the ground, but also with the equipment that works above ground. The hydraulic fluid trails that marred courses for years don’t occur at Oakmont. Why? Because the hydraulic aspect of mowers, rollers and other grounds equipment no longer includes anything hydraulic.

“Our fairway mowers are all hybrid technology,” Zimmers said. “They’re gas-driven, but the hydraulics have been replaced with electricity, which makes the blades go around. We’re using less fuel and reducing the potential for leaks considerably. We have a greens roller that’s electric and half of our fleet of carts is electric.”

Zimmers thinks that golf courses, which have for years been criticized for not being good stewards of the environment, will continue to be at the forefront of the “greening” effort.

“I believe we’re innovators in a lot of ways,” said the man who oversees the meanest and fastest set of championship greens anywhere. “I truly believe we’re doing a pretty good job, better than we’ve ever done.”

Mike Dudurich, whose work has previously appeared on, is a freelance writer based in the Pittsburgh area.

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