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Jul 062009
 

By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now

Golf courses and environmentalists have had – and still have – a rather rocky relationship.

The land that courses are built on and their impact on habitats has been fiercely debated. As huge users of pesticides, fertilizers and water, golf courses have faced criticism for fouling the environment with chemical-filled runoff, potentially harming humans and wildlife and wasting huge quantities of precious water, even in drought-plagued areas.

Public pressure over the last few decades has led the country’s major golf and golf-course associations to create programs and conduct research into more natural ways to maintain their prized pristine grasses.

Fourteen years ago, major golf group representatives sat down with environmental experts and started talking. The result was the Golf & The Environment Institute that has worked since then to guide golf course clubs away from green grass perfection toward green-thinking environmental concern. With an estimated 20,000 golf courses in the country, there is a lot of land at stake.

The United States Golf Association has been looking at environmental concerns on their member courses for years. They offer a long list of research and reports on the topic, and work with environmental groups to study long-term solutions.

The nation’s association for golf course superintendents has created the Environmental Institute for Golf to develop alternatives to heavy pesticide and fertilizers, and massive water consumption. They urge golf course superintendents to participate in and respond to surveys and research on creating more environmentally friendly courses.

Despite the national groups’ efforts, the vast majority of golf courses still rely on chemicals to keep their courses pristine. The primary reason for that is golfers themselves. They expect to see impeccable swaths of perfect green turf and immaculate greens.

The organizations’ say their ongoing struggle is to inform golfers that it’s OK to play on a course with a few brown spots.

In America, there is only one totally organic golf course: Vineyard Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. To the surprise of many, the courses there look like any other top golf courses in the country. That’s due to the work of Jeff Carlson, the Vineyard’s golf course superintendent.

His goal is a great course that isn’t always perfect looking, he has said. At the Vineyard course there are no pesticides or fertilizers or any products with synthetic ingredients. They take many extra steps, such as whisking away dew on greens and fairways.

Carlson has said weeds are still a problem, and he misses being able to use a pesticide every now and then. Trying to have an organic course in the South would be impossible, he told Golf Digest. And, interestingly, one of the driving forces behind the green Vineyard course are women club members.

Another course that strives to minimize chemical and water use (but is not totally organic) is the Arbor Links Arnold Palmer golf course near the Arbor Day Farm in Neb., which makes extensive use of native grasses and trees as well as retaining edge areas for wildlife.

The Audubon International Sanctuary Program (not affiliated with the Audubon Society) works with the USGA (which is its primary sponsor) to promote ecologically sound use of the land and protection of natural resources. The group awards certificates of recognition in several categories, working closely with golf course superintendents to create environmental improvement plans. According to the USGA, more than 500 courses in the U.S. have received Audubon Sanctuary certification. The program provides a list of all certified courses.

Another program, Wildlife Links, promotes wildlife conservation on areas within golf course lands.

So what can your area golf course do?