Grapevine, Texas – For golf courses facing rising rates for water or decreasing supplies of the resource, the easiest way to reduce costs and make their businesses more sustainable is simply to consume less.
And the best method of lowering water use is to reduce the area of irrigated, maintained turf, a solution repeatedly recommended by the experts at the two-day USGA Water Summit.
Doug Bennett, conservation manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, stated that many courses in his jurisdiction converted grass to unmaintained native areas in order to comply with water budgets. USGA agronomist Chris Hartwiger urged courses to focus on irrigating down the middle of holes, while allowing areas on the edges of holes to truly be a rough landscape instead of grass that is maintained longer than fairways.
Jim Hinckley, whose company, Century Golf Partners, manages 80 courses around the country, said that reducing the amount of maintained turf is the first solution his courses try to implement when faced with water shortages.
While this movement is gaining in popularity, the standard bearer is Pinehurst Resort’s Course No. 2, the historic North Carolina layout designed by Donald Ross and the host of the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens. A recently completed project peeled away layers of changes heaped on the course over several decades and restored it to the way it looked and played in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Ross lived along the third fairway while lovingly tweaking and tending the course to his exacting standards.
When the USGA returns in 2014 for the back-to-back U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open, millions of golfers and fans will see a course at which more than 40 acres of grass have been removed, allowing for a reduction in the number of sprinkler heads from 1,100 to 450.
Sandy native areas replaced the rough. Despite the overall loss of turf, the resort actually increased the width of fairways, allowing for more options and angles into Ross’ raised greens.
At the Water Summit, Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s director of golf courses and grounds management, described the process and philosophy behind these dramatic changes, which not only have reduced the amount of water and other inputs like fertilizer applied to the course, but also have made the course more playable and more fun for the average golfer.
“The previous changes we made to the course were about adding length, which only affected the best players,” said Farren. “These changes affect every single player. Higher handicappers are now in the game, and they can recover from sandy areas much better than they could from thick Bermuda rough.”
For elite players at the U.S. Opens, the changes will introduce elements of unpredictability and risk-reward options for shots missing the fairway. Some shots may end up in decent lies that entice players to go for the greens, which are difficult targets, especially in firm, fast conditions.
Implemented under the vision of course architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the restoration was not undertaken with sustainability as an initial goal. But Farren and other Pinehurst officials have discovered that the 2014 Opens could send a strong message to the golf industry.
“Many have said that it was the boldest golf course restoration ever undertaken,” said Farren. “The significance of the changes will be important for championships, but it will also leave a wide mark for sustainability.”
Many Summit attendees hope the 2014 Opens will help overcome the biggest obstacle to the evolution of courses with less maintained turf.
“Here in the U.S., we’ve conditioned golfers that courses should look wall-to-wall green,” said Hinckley. “I think the industry has a tremendous opportunity with the 2014 Open at Pinehurst to change that mindset.”
Whether by conducting a national championship on an influential course or by convening an event like the Water Summit, the USGA will continue to advocate sustainability for the golf industry and seek to educate golfers, superintendents, course owners and others about issues like water use.
“We had a successful Summit,” said Dr. Kimberly Erusha, managing director of the USGA Green Section. “We had a lot of good information from a diverse group of speakers. Now we have a big task ahead of us, to put some firm plans together so we can identify key messages and get that out to the public.”
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org