SUSTAINABILITY
Coastal Courses Embrace Their Role as Environmental Stewards June 11, 2019 | LIBERTY CORNER, N.J. By George Waters, USGA

Crashing waves, like these at Pebble Beach, send salt spray onto turf, which must be closely monitored and managed. (USGA/John Mummert) 

Golf and the sea have been connected since the game’s earliest days. The coastal landscape shaped golf as we know it – giving us features like sand bunkers – and seaside courses continue to draw players from around the world each year. There is no question that being located alongside the ocean is a tremendous asset for a golf facility, but these are also sensitive and dynamic environments that require careful stewardship and present some unique challenges when it comes to golf course maintenance.

At Pebble Beach Golf Links, host of the 2019 U.S. Open Championship, superintendent Chris Dalhamer and his team work hard to be good stewards of the coastal environment that helps make Pebble Beach a world-renowned facility. The course has been certified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary since 2003. This designation is earned through environmental assessment and planning, wildlife and habitat management, chemical use reduction and safety, water conservation, water quality management, and outreach and education. Examples of these efforts at Pebble Beach include recycling the water used to wash equipment, gathering clippings from mowing and reusing them as compost around the resort, and establishing native habitat areas.

“In the last few years, we have converted several large turf areas to native coastal grasses,” said Dalhamer. “This helps to conserve resources in the long term and provides valuable habitat for local wildlife.”

Water is another key focus area. Pebble Beach Golf Links and the six other courses in the Del Monte Forest share a reclaimed water source that was developed with the help of millions of dollars in funding from the Pebble Beach Company. This system eliminated the use of potable water for irrigation, saving more than 6.4 billion gallons of potable water since 1994. Pebble Beach also works with an outside company to monitor water quality in the streams passing through the course and into the ocean. Testing is performed throughout the year and helps to ensure that water leaving the course is as clean as when it entered.

While Dalhamer and his team work hard to protect and enhance the coastal environment of Pebble Beach, they must also contend with some challenges that come with being located along the ocean.

“Watering can be difficult because we frequently experience strong winds off the ocean that disrupt sprinkler performance,” explained Dalhamer. “We watch our on-site weather station data carefully and schedule our irrigation to avoid the windiest times. This helps us deliver water where we want it to go – which means better playability, healthier turf and less risk of waste.”

The strong coastal winds also create challenges beyond irrigation. When wind-driven waves crash against the coastline, saltwater from Carmel Bay sprays onto nearby tees, greens and fairways. Salt accumulation can damage or kill grass, and iconic holes like the 17th and 18th are especially vulnerable to salt spray. In response, Dalhamer uses a variety of techniques to manage salt content in the soil.

“The goal is to move those salts through the soil as quickly as possible,” said Dalhamer. “We use our irrigation system to dilute and flush salts out of the rootzone, and we use wetting agents to help salts move through the soil profile. Regular soil testing allows us to monitor salinity and make sure that serious issues are not developing.”

Dalhamer is even experimenting with some salt-tolerant grasses along the coastline to see if they might provide a viable option in the most salt-affected areas.

“We have some spots that struggle with salt issues in spite of our best management efforts,” said Dalhamer. “That’s where salt-tolerant grasses could be a real asset to us. We are currently experimenting with test plots in key areas and are seeing some encouraging results.”

Adapting to the coastal environment is a continual process for the team at Pebble Beach, and they are always working toward more sustainable solutions. Ideally, this is a process of incremental improvement. However, there are times when the coastal environment forces golf courses to adapt faster and more significantly than they planned.

In 2016, the dunes along the Ocean Course at Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast, Fla., were breached by the storm surge from Hurricane Matthew. As much as 70 percent of the golf course was under saltwater for two to 10 days. In the aftermath, vast areas of bermudagrass turf were dead and the soil was contaminated with salt. This left Hammock Beach with some difficult choices for how to move forward.

Hurricane storm surge flooded the Ocean Course at Hammock Dunes in Florida, killing vast areas of bermudagrass.

Replanting bermudagrass would potentially mean a faster recovery, but it would require soil restoration and still leave the facility vulnerable to severe storms in the future. They could also remove all the bermudagrass and plant seashore paspalum, a salt-tolerant grass that had proven successful on another course at the resort. Some patches of seashore paspalum had popped up on the Ocean Course over time, and their condition following the hurricane was surprising.

“After being under saltwater for a week, the paspalum looked like we had fertilized it while all the turf around it was dead,” said superintendent Steve Sorrell.

USGA agronomist Dr. Steve Kammerer was called to advise on the recovery process and he felt that seashore paspalum would be a good option. “Seashore paspalum makes sense for a lot of courses in warm climates that either have a risk of coastal flooding or are dependent on water with a high salt content for irrigation,” said Kammerer.

After extensive deliberations, Hammock Beach decided to convert the entire Ocean Course to seashore paspalum. In addition, the dune system adjacent to the course would be restored as part of the recovery project. Hammock Beach worked with experts from the municipality to rebuild the dunes and replace the tall, dense shrubbery that had overrun them with native grasses and other low-growing dune vegetation. The result was a more ecologically diverse dune environment and better views from the golf course.

If there were any lingering doubts about converting the course to a salt-tolerant grass, Hurricane Irma provided an unwelcome validation of that decision just a few weeks before the Ocean Course was scheduled to reopen. Once again, the storm surge breached the dunes and sent ocean water onto the golf course. Instead of widespread turf loss, the newly established seashore paspalum came through the storm in great shape.

Converting the Ocean Course to salt-tolerant seashore paspalum has delivered excellent playability and will help protect against future floods.

“Hurricane Irma confirmed that we had made the right decision converting to seashore paspalum,” said Brad Hauer, Hammock Beach’s general manager. “It’s the more appropriate grass for our site and golfers love the playability. We played more rounds in 2018 than at any time over the last 10 years.”

“In addition,” added Sorrell, “we’re using less water than when we had bermudagrass and we no longer have to overseed because paspalum retains its color and playability better through the winter in our location.”

“Best of all, we know that we’re well-positioned to handle any future coastal flooding,” said Sorrell. “The ocean is pretty, but it can be mean if it wants to be.”

Coastal golf courses around the world will always hold a special place in the game and golfers will always be drawn to play them. Dealing with issues like coastal erosion, extreme weather and invasive species are challenges that many coastal courses face. Fortunately, courses like Pebble Beach and Hammock Beach are finding ways to protect and enhance their coastal environment while successfully adapting to the changes that come.

George Waters is the manager of Green Section education for the USGA. Email him at gwaters@usga.org.