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Game-Changing Solutions January 28, 2022 By Lisa D. Mickey

New extremes in climate prompt new approaches to golf sustainability

The USGA works with golf courses to assist in replacing certain types of turf with more drought-tolerant plants. (USGA/Kohjiro Kinno)

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Droughts, wildfires, record temperatures and record rainfall often dominate news headlines. And in their own agricultural ecosystem against the backdrop of a dynamic climate, golf courses and superintendents have felt the pinch of water restrictions, budget constraints and public scrutiny. When water is limited, its price goes up, and extreme weather and climate challenges mean that cost-cutting measures for sustainability often become necessary for survival.

“Climate and weather have always been a challenge in golf course management, but the series of droughts in the western U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s really started to highlight the need for sustainability,” said Cole Thompson, director of the USGA’s Mike Davis Program for Advancing Golf Course Management.

The main challenge, Thompson noted, is that “not everybody fits into the same box.” What California courses need isn’t necessarily what’s needed in, say, Louisiana. Plus, the way courses were managed 30-plus years ago is in stark contrast to the scientific and economic approach used today to optimize
natural resources while leaving a smaller environmental footprint.

There currently are around 15,000 courses in the United States, averaging about 150 acres. Every superintendent is focused on maintaining a quality playing surface while balancing the necessary water and chemical inputs, managing overall land use, coexisting with the surrounding natural environment and wildlife, and operating within local, state and sometimes federal guidelines. But before one fixates on the inputs required to keep a course viable, consider that scientific innovations have changed how the work is done and even how a course looks today.

The USGA and its century-old Green Section have used their turfgrass research grant program (recently renamed after former CEO Mike Davis) to help create nearly 50 turf cultivars – ranging from drought- and salt-tolerant grasses to ones designed to resist disease or to stay greener longer. It also recently partnered with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) to provide working documents for course maintenance strategies. Last year, the two entities completed an initiative launched in 2017 to create best management practice (BMP) manuals that document agronomic and environmental practices for courses in all 50 states. Now they are working to help superintendents take those BMPs and adapt them into their own “Facility Adoption” manuals for individual golf facilities.

“This is an environmental sustainability program that goes above and beyond baseline compliance or what is required by any governing body,” said Chava McKeel, GCSAA director of government affairs. “It covers everything, such as water, irrigation, pesticides, fertilizer and course setup. Superintendents are professional land managers and environmental stewards, and they got into this work because of their love of the environment.”

Chris Hartwiger, director of the USGA’s Course Consulting Service, works with superintendents nationwide and has helped them figure out everything from how to implement “precision turf management” to removing managed turf where it isn’t needed.

“When it comes to sustainability, the extent to which a golf facility can be divided into site-specific management zones is an area where we’re going to see continued improvement,” said Hartwiger. “Now we’re asking, ‘What’s the best way to do things economically, environmentally and socially to provide a good experience for those who use that property?’”

One USGA initiative employs GPS tracking devices to chart and analyze where players go and don’t go on a course. In some cases, managed turf has been removed from sparsely traveled areas and replaced with native areas, wildlife corridors or low-maintenance waste bunkers. In turn, that removal of turf has lowered seeding, watering, fertilizing and labor costs, allowing courses to reallocate spending where it’s needed most.

Other tools developed to make course operations more efficient include: soil moisture sensors, which help monitor water usage; programmable irrigation systems that allow precision watering without waste; and the USGA’s Deacon facility app, which helps make course management more measurable, predictable and efficient. Thompson noted that the amount of managed turf has declined about 3 percent in recent years, water use on U.S. courses has been reduced by more than 20 percent, and nutrient use has been reduced by more than 40 percent since 2003.

“We’ve done a good job in these areas, but I think we can make more improvements on pesticides,” Thompson said. “Our research shows about a 10 percent reduction overall in pesticide use with a slight increase in some types of pesticides for diseases and weeds.”

Perhaps more importantly, Thompson estimates that the BMP conservation practices created by each state have been adopted by nearly half the nation’s courses. That means more courses are onboard with integrated management strategies designed to cut resource use.

“If you think about grass as a crop, the yield they’re trying to create is turf growth,” said Hartwiger. “The more you fertilize, the more expensive it is and the more grass you grow – and then you also have to mow and control weeds more frequently. Courses are thinking more about where they spend their dollars.”

With around 1,000 golf courses, California has wrestled with drought and the price of water for years. Some of the state’s northern counties have experienced a 40 percent cutback in water usage due to the current drought, noted Craig Kessler, director of government affairs for the Southern California Golf Association (SCGA). “Golf courses are increasingly subject to drought emergencies and contingency ordinances,” said Kessler, “and have learned many ways to comply other than resorting to Draconian water-once-a-week measures for those whose irrigation equipment isn’t as sophisticated.”

New grasses, including seashore paspalum, have allowed courses in some parts of California to irrigate fairways with salt water, and conservation measures have helped reduce water requirements. Kessler noted that nearly 40 percent of California courses no longer use potable water – water that’s fit to drink. There is also heightened interest in managed turf removal at all types of courses in and around Los Angeles, an effort to which USGA agronomists have contributed time and expertise.

“Sustainability has become a central organizing principle at some of these clubs,” says Kessler.

Organizations such as Audubon International have worked with the USGA since the 1990s to create cooperative sanctuary programs and increase the prevalence of naturalized and native areas on golf courses. National programs such as “Monarchs in the Rough,” have established more than 1,000 acres of habitat for pollinators on courses. Another recent USGA initiative, the Natural Capital Project, seeks to quantify “ecosystem services,” such as flood mitigation, cooling zones for urban areas, pollinator habitats and nutrient absorption for various forms of green space, including parks and golf courses. Quantifying those benefits potentially gives sustainable courses an enhanced value extending well beyond the traditional golf community.

“The neat thing, and maybe the frustrating thing about sustainability, is it’s aspirational,” said Hartwiger. “I don’t think we can ever say, ‘We’re there.’ There’s always a new frontier.” 

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