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Many of the players walking up the 17th fairway of the Dogwood Course at The Country Club of North Carolina (CCNC) probably don’t notice the sign on the hole’s left side designating a monarch butterfly garden with specific flowers planted to support this iconic species. Monarch butterfly populations have declined by 90% in the last 20 years, so CCNC participates in a program called Monarchs in the Rough that helps golf courses provide habitat for monarch butterfly breeding and migration.

The small preserve is but one of the numerous environmental efforts that are managed quietly and efficiently on an almost daily basis at the 2,000-acre Pinehurst-area club that houses two 18-hole golf courses. Much of this work is done in partnership with a group called Audubon International that helps golf courses protect and enhance the environment. 

A white binder in the office of 30-plus-year director of agronomy Ron Kelly details the programs, studies, tests, inventories and surveys that must be completed in a five-year cycle to maintain CCNC’s status as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, a certification by Audubon International that the club has maintained for 20 consecutive years. 

“The Country Club of North Carolina is honored to have been an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary since 2003,” said CCNC COO/GM Don Hunter. “Ron Kelly and his staff pay a lot of attention to the flora and fauna that live and thrive here at CCNC. The quality of our golf courses is the most visible evidence of their great work. But the health of the plants, animals and waterways on our property is just as important. We enjoy being thoughtful stewards of our Sandhills environment.”

The club will be presented with a plaque by Audubon International to celebrate its 20 years as an Audubon Sanctuary.

“The Country Club of North Carolina has been a longstanding member of our Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program and is celebrating its 20th anniversary as a certified member in 2023,” said Frank LaVardera, Audubon International’s director of environmental programs for golf. “All of us at Audubon International congratulate them on this great achievement of implementing environmentally sustainable practices on their golf course. We look forward to our continued relationship with the club.”

While the evidence of this two-decade collaboration is not eye-popping, it certainly makes a difference for all the creatures and habitats at CCNC. Having a positive impact on the environment doesn’t happen overnight, it takes decades of consistent and committed effort to achieve meaningful results. Much of that work may go unnoticed by golfers and residents, but preserving the environment is central to the club and community’s values.

“The facility has always been environmentally friendly from the first president Mr. (Richard) Urquhart, who was more of a naturalist,” said Kelly, who holds a Bachelor of Science from North Carolina State in agronomy with a turf concentration. “We tried to keep areas conducive for wildlife habitat and tried to intermingle that between the residences and the golf courses here.”

As an example, Kelly points to the club’s work with wood duck boxes, purple martin boxes and bluebird boxes, noting that at one point there were 150 bluebird boxes on the courses and there are numerous purple martin boxes on the club’s three man-made lakes.

“We have fish feeders and increase the productivity of the lake systems,” Kelly said. “There is a lot of bird feeding to naturally attract birds around the clubhouses and other focal points.”

In addition, the club has been vigilant about efforts to preserve the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker since the 1970s. Since 1996, CCNC has been active in North Carolina’s Sandhills Safe Harbor Program, which allows the club to actively manage the golf courses as well as provide habitat for this species.

 Kelly emphasizes that all of this work is part of a calculated resources and environmental plan. 

“The Cooperative Sanctuary work detailed in our binder takes quite a bit of time to do,” he said. “It takes some down time to get all of it, but I will take some guys out and it’s something fun to do.”

“During the winter, we try to do a lot of the necessary work to maintain the certification,” Kelly said. “We go through the checklists,” he added. “We’ll do an inventory of bird species and wildlife species or a case study of something we’ve accomplished like reducing pesticide use through IPM (integrated pest management). We are looking at a lot of things including water quality – what is coming in and what is going out.”

Kelly, who worked at Pinehurst No. 7 for six months right out of college, served a summer internship at CCNC in 1988 before being hired full-time in 1990. In his tenure, he has supervised two major renovations on the Dogwood Course and one on the Cardinal Course.

He enjoys staying the on modern edge of practices and new technologies and has been a certified golf course superintendent through the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) for 25 years and is also a member of the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association, the Sandhills Golf Course Superintendents Association, and the Triangle Turfgrass Association.  

Regardless of the time and energy required to maintain the high standards of the Audubon certification, Kelly never flinches.

“I’m a farmer,” he said. “I grew up on a farm. I am an outdoors guy. I hunt and fish. Doing this work to help protect the special environment we have here suits me.”