Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Future of Golf Course Architecture in Canada

Part One - The Environment
Photo courtesy of Brian Ewan

“We have a duty to minimize our imprint on the environment”

I plan on talking for at least a week about the environment and golf. I set out to give a lecture on the future of golf course architecture and found myself openly questioning the way things are done in both design and maintenance of new golf courses. This journey began a few weeks back with my learning that Ontario would head towards a ban of pesticides - while golf courses are expected to have an initial exemption - they are likely facing a long term ban. I knew right away that maintenance practices in Canada are going to have to change and so were the designs. Once you add the issues of water restrictions and the ever-increasing costs to build and maintain it makes it so clear that the golf course industry will undergo a transition and be forced to become even more environmentally responsible (most are better stewards than people realize). I knew that my design work was going to have to reflect what is to come – and place my new courses in the best position to cope with the future - rather to foolishly build to today’s environmental standards and leave the courses struggling to deal with each change in legislation.

Last week I attended the Canadian Golf Superintendents Conference in Calgary. I went to lectures on turf, fairway renovation, dealing with trees, soils, foliar fertilization (my brain hurt afterwards), eliminating pesticides (tomorrow’s discussion), the European Environmental Movement, and even rating courses with Bob Weeks. I also saw lectures by well know superintendents reflecting on the changes in their business and attended a panel discussion with an open mike for questions. I was able to seek out and ask many great superintendents from all over the country about the changes they face with the environment and what is possible. I went there with the goal of finding out if Canadian Superintendents believed that a reduced input program is possible taking our turf closer to a UK model in order to be more environmentally responsible.

One of my lectures included Ken Seims from Loch Lomond talking about the Environmental Movement in Europe and for the first time I was able to see how an existing course could become a better steward of the land. It was an eye-opening lecture on all the possibilities outside of the playing areas and what we could accomplish if we looked at the property as a whole – including all the buildings. I didn’t get exactly what I sought but I did get a window into what it would require. One of the keys that Ken stressed was drainage since it was the key to better choices on turf selection which is one cultural key to reduce inputs to turf. Another lecture talked about the fact that sunlight and the production of carbohydrates in the plant is the key to avoiding disease pressure and that airflow is not near as big a factor.

Jack's Point NZ

One fascinating part of asking a lot of questions is what you learn by accident. I was tipped off by another superintendent to ask Dr. Loyns about the potential of golf courses as a carbon sinks. He said that a study at the University of Colarado confirmed that golf courses are 50% better as carbon sinks than natural grasslands. Can it be possible that the future will have golf course could selling carbon credits?

Part Two - Pesticides


“Reduce & Eliminate the Use of Pesticides?” – Jennifer Grant

This was the lecture I wanted to see. Could we maintain a course with no pesticides? Was it still possible to provide acceptable playing conditions after legislation that forced golf to turn to little or no inputs? Could we turn back to a more UK style of maintenance? After all, my lecture two days later talked openly about the possibility of contending with this circumstance as part of the potential vision of the future.

Dr. Grant talked about Cornel’s experimental program going on at the Green Course at Bethpage State Park. They had been a running experiment for around six years with the goal of find out what effects different cultural practices, levels of input, and the use of chemicals had on turfgrass. They also wanted to investigate the use of biological controls and alternative approaches to see what sort of impact they could have on turfgrass and whether there were alternative approaches that work. Their focus was also on testing solutions that were more environmentally responsible right up against common cultural practices.

The Old Course

The 18 greens were divided into six groups and each was put under different regimes to see how they react. One of the test groups were given no pesticide and herbicide, the next set were maintained under the Integrated Pest Management and the last group allowed anything the superintendent wanted to use. Each group was then divided to break out different practices under each scenario.

While environmentalists and politicians may want to completely ban the use of pesticides and herbicides – the answer was swift. At Bethpage it proved impossible since dollar spot alone was enough to wipe out the greens. The study quickly concluded that no cultural practice was capable of dealing with the threat and even if they managed to avoid the snow mold or dollar spot another disease like Pythium was always there to finish them off. The greens need some applications to survive.

But what became interesting was they quickly found out that “light” chemical use was almost as successful as an unlimited use of chemicals. When you added in particular cultural practices and the use of organics to control the disease and pest pressures on turf and the conclusions were fascinating. What they learned was by selecting certain “lower toxicity” products and limiting the spraying to a minimum and increasing certain cultural practices they could meet green expectations of around 9 feet and take the environmental impact down up to 90% from the unlimited approach. While no input is impossible, minimal input is not. It’s complicated at times, requires additional maintenance, a little more expense – but possible!

There are two key things that designers and regulators must read into this study to see this become the standard to which we all should strive. They must recognize the old problems are still problems and become bigger problems since the superintendent has half there tools removed from the box. We need to head down this path BUT we need to ensure the growing environment is ideal to allow for the production of carbohydrates the key to making sure the plant is as strong as possible and is more resistant to disease.


One interesting note was when the golf courses began to brown a little through reduced input, the tested the quality of the roll of the ball roll and found it just as consistent in that low input environment. In other words they may not have looked as “nice” (ie. green) but they played exactly the same. I think if anyone really wants to address this whole issue correctly – the answer to reducing is follow their example of lower inputs and better environmental choices when they need a produce. The mantra of reducing “toxicity risk” is a great one. Toxicity risk looks at the opportunity for the chemical to migrate, the risk of contact, the strength of the product and places a value that needs to be multiplied by the application rate. It values the overall impact to the environment and helps us make the best decisions for the ecosystem rather than a blanket decision.

Part 3 - Economics


The last two entries talked about environmental issues – which I’m sure I’ll return to before this series is up – but today I wanted to touch on other issues that will have a huge impact on future golf developments. I’m going to continue to talk about a series of related subjects for about a week and then pull them all together with what I think is a realistic solution. Golf is going to change – the question is no longer if – its how much.

The Economic Model Doesn’t Work

Golf has clearly entered a period of stagnation that began at the turn of the century with a noticeable decline in participation. The price to play golf had turned players away for the first time in decades. All the while developers continued to over-build a market that was in decline, creating enormous price pressure particularly with the new higher end courses. The problem stems from too much ego getting involved in the developments with each mega project attempting to one up the previous course in order to draw attention away. The result is that each business model became more unrealistic than the last – people seemed to have forgotten that this is still a business where revenue must outpace expenses.

Study after study has reached the same conclusion. The game has become too expensive, takes too much time and in many cases is too difficult for the average person – and until the game becomes more inclusive of different skill levels, socio-economic groups and does not involve a whole day - the game will struggle. This doesn’t mean and end to new projects – far from it - but they will have to be better businesses in the future. They will need to be built for less, require less maintenance, and be inclusive of all levels of players.

shape only tees, greens and bunkers

Golf designers will need to show some restraint. In particular they need to avoid the development of what I would call Extreme Golf. It makes for great photos and lousy playing experiences. Just because we have the equipment and skills to build in even the most extreme places – it still doesn’t mean we should. The amount of earthmoving required, the potential for environmental damage, the shear cost, the difficulties for grow in and the development of cart only golf courses is not healthy for the game.

The economics and designs will improve if we choose to disturb less of what’s there. We don’t need to strip an entire site of topsoil, reshape the site to suit or image of a golf hole and then put it all back together. By finding the holes that nature has left and accepting some of the quirks as part of the design – we can become less intrusive – and a little more creative as designers. This will also leave much more of the topsoil in place, reduce disturbance amd create a cheaper build.

Part 4 - The Issue of Water

Twenty years ago, the number one question was do you have enough money to build a golf course. Ten years later it became is there enough land left after the environmentally sensitive areas are delineated. The most common question now is do you have a reliable source of water.

To give you some perspective, Calgary is awash with money but the Bow River in Calgary has no water licenses available. It’s not hard to understand why there has only been limited building of new courses throughout the Bow Valley despite the need for golf. Here in Ontario it gets harder each year to get water taking permits. In a candid conversation with a member of one of the Conservation Authorities I was told, “We have water issues – golf courses and farmers are seen as big users. Right now it’s more politically popular to get golf courses to cut their usage first – once that’s done we’ll go after the farmers.” The Ministry on the Environment has often hinted that they may stop issuing permits for wells for golf courses. Water is the number one issue in golf.
The 10th at Copper Creek with main irrigation pond

Most new courses have been built to minimize the impact of their water taking. They can only use the excess water from the river they’re on during peak flow periods – the rest of the flow is unavailable for use. What that means is taking water from rivers and streams only takes place during spring run and the occasional storm large enough to exceed certain volumes. The golf courses have had to build massive storage ponds that they fill when water becomes available and then supplement that with whatever run-off they can collect. Existing courses are now being asked to work off the same system and those that don’t probably will down the road.

But what about Grey Water you ask. While the available resource is enticing for everyone involved you also have to consider that Grey Water is essentially the water left over from washing dishes, clothes and taking showers. It’s an interesting source unless the levels of soap or salt are high and then it weakens turfgrass with repeated use. Imagine that the more you use the thirstier the plant will become until you get natural rain – add in the fact that salts take up nutrients and you can see why turf can easily decline in this environment. There are more than a few famous Canadian courses with “bad” water where the turf is always under stress – and so is the superintendent.

The 1st at Copper Creek and the massive storage pond

So getting to the future - I think it’s reasonable to look forward and see a future where a new course must supply all its own irrigation through the collection of rainwater and snow melt. We have an example with Copper Creek which can store around 20 million gallons. The drainage network collects 75% of the water that falls onto the site and channels it into the storage ponds. The water is moved around using a combination of pipes and pumps mainly to avoid large fluctuations in the ponds. Supplementing is limited to high peak flows on the Humber but I’m quite convinced they could survive without it although the ponds would likely look a bit empty at times.

Part 5 - British Style Maintenance

St. Andrew's Old

Eventually Canadian golf will be forced to accept "brown" through changes in legislation, why not do something about it now.

At the Calgary Golf Course Superintendents Conference I was able to ask a number of superintendents about the possibility of going to a British style approach to maintenance - which meant fewer inputs, lower fertility and less water – with a new course. Most loved the idea until I asked about existing courses. The certain saw the benefits and would like to do it but many feared the membership’s reaction the first time the turf went a little brown.

Crystal Down 5th

In reading a recent article by Mike Miller – superintendent of Crystal Downs – He outlined the process and timelines it would take to have a more British approach to turf at Crystal Downs. His feelings were that without re-seeding it would take 10 years to change the turf to accept lower water demand and reduce the need for inputs. The article can be found here: http://www.gcsaa.org/gcm/2008/feb/feature6.asp

Brora's 6th - no fairway irrigation

It will be hard for existing courses to convert, but it is a lot easier to plan for it with new designs since there is no existing turf to convert and we start with a blank slate. Why wouldn’t we create a new course ready for a different approach to maintenance and get ahead of the curve.

The only way to make this goal realistic is to provide ideal growing conditions. The reason that British courses require so little input is that they are generally out in the open and on sandy soils. When greens receive full sun they are able to use photosynthesis to make lots of food which makes them less likely to be susceptible to disease and pests. This tells us that if architects want to help make this change in maintenance styles we will need to spend time finding green sites that are excellent places to grow turf. We need to make sure the site is well drained and take down enough trees. This is where we need the authorities to recognize the goal. Since trees are the greatest threat to healthy turf, clearings around greens need to be wide. The authorities will have to support more tree removal on new projects – understanding this is for the greater good.

how we will eventually look

Canadians will need to change their current expectations of wall to wall green because is not sustainable. They will have to understand that turf can be green or brown and still be healthy.

Part 6 - The Future of Architecture 

Prairie Dunes

If we begin thinking from the outset that nature will need to be part of our designs and strategies, we open ourselves to touch less of the site, leaving more of the natural features and leave less maintained area. We will start to the blur the line between the natural surroundings and the golf course - like Prairie Dunes does. This will give our courses a greater sense of place - separating it from the typical modern looking course - making the course unique. In turn these courses will become cheaper to build by minimizing earthmoving, reducing the stripping of topsoil, and getting back to more seeding and less sod. We will be building courses that are a more realistic economic model that will allow them to open with lower greens fees and let then the market dictate price. If the course finds it can charge more than the business model, the profits become much greater and the businesses becomes even more of a success.

Old Sandwich

Since our playing fields will get less input – the courses will play firm and fast – so we will need to design courses to accommodate that style of play. The fairways will need more width to accommodate the run in the ball. This will place more emphasis on the rumples and rolls in the land since the ball will bound more. This allows designers to make greater use of the undulation to dictate strategy and reduce the modern reliance on bunkering to dictate strategy. The small rumples and undulations around the greens will become far more important particularly if kept short. This will open up far more options to putt, bump and run or flop around the greens. This helps the average player play to their strengths, but hurts the good player who has to choose between all the options opening the possibility of a poor decision. These courses will need to feature far more greens on grade and be more open in front to allow running approaches. Since the ground is now part of play, the player has the option to either use the land or play a conventional approach to the green which knowing it is more firm and harder to stop a ball on. Either way they need to have both options available in a firm and fast environment.

Barndougle Dunes

Our designs are going to have to have extensive water collection systems and large storage facilities from the outset. Our goal – even if not a requirement – should be close to self-reliance. The approach of collecting everything and distributing it back to the irrigation system will become common practice. That will also allow us to control what leaves the site and prevent any residue from escaping the property. The use of natural filtering for any water collected or more importantly any water leaving the site will help ensure that treatments don’t exit the property. I also see a lot more tree removal to provide far more open green sites – and even those sites can’t have ridges or hills that block the sun – otherwise the low input idea will not work. I think the real future of low input golf is with the turfgrass research industry. They are the ones that will make the greatest stride. Velvet Bent has had very mixed results - but there is no question about the environmental benefits of Velvet. It’s finding the right grasses to do the job.

Thinking outside the box – nothing could be more beneficial than a return to walking courses. Imagine not requiring cart paths, carts and cart storage facilities – that would save a million dollars or more. Think of the benefits to the environment when you think on the big picture. Of course designers will need to return to building walking courses – which would be a great idea since Cart courses generally suck.

Bandon Trails

We all need to change our ideas about what we think is Canadian golf is and realize there are better ways to be more environmentally responsible without compromising the quality of the game. We need to realize that our current state of golf is not sustainable and that a new approach to golf course design and maintenance will be good for all of us in the long term.

Monday, 27 December 2010

How Green is Golf?


I was in the airport and had a quick scan in the book store to see what was in the current of Golf Digest issue beyond instruction - and the front cover said, “Plus - The Most Important Article We’ve Ever Published - page 196.” I opened it up to see what this article was about and read the title “How Green is Golf?” I didn’t need to read any of it and simply walked to the counter and paid my money to buy the article – they threw in the magazine. This was the first issue of Golf Digest that I have bought in a lot of years – and I’ll buy lots more if they give me one article a month as good as this.

John Barton opens his article with a mention of the first Golf and the Environment conference in 1995 and allows that to become the opening. It gives the impression that the movement is new but actually it has greater roots than that – but most don’t realize that the Golf Superintendents have as an industry been trying to become leaders in this area for quite some time. They often take a beating in this article – but I can tell you through personal experience that the leaders in the industry are well out in front on this issue. The difference now of course is that the subject of golf and the environmental impact has become a political hot button for non-golfers. The Golf Industry finds itself under enormous pressure.

This is an excellent article - and I think you should go out and buy the magazine and read this article.

Where it works best is the fact that John takes seven completely different people from all sides of the issue and gives them a voice. He begins with “The Golf Course Architect” Michael Hurdzan to speak for the architects but ends up speaking on behalf of the golf industry. He then turns “The Activist” Jay Feldman to talk mainly about the inherent risk of pesticides but also talks about some common misconceptions – some of this is either eye-opening or controversial – but well worth the read to understand where certain opinions stem from. The one I enjoyed the most was “The Golf Course Superintendent” Jeff Carlson who runs the only truly organic golf course in the United States. This section will inform you a great deal about what the environmentalists and public seem to want and what it means to you as a golfer.

“The Regulator” with Robert Wood seemed a little out of place with the others and deals mainly with his role in protecting wetlands. “The Advocate” with Ronald Dodson of Audoban International was one I looked forward to since he has played such a large role in getting the environmental movement going with-in golf, but strangely John seems more interested in following the controversy over the name Audoban than the actual role of the organization. This is an opportunity clearly lost. Everybody likes the goal of the organization, but I think John’s note about cost ($9,500 for new development) does explain some people’s questions about the money involved.

“The Grass Expert” James Snow is an interesting contrast useful to explain where the problems will come for golf in trying to go organic. His explanation about why the US can’t adopt the UK style because of climate is fascinating. Finally John concludes with the perfect choice with “The Environmentalist” Brent Blackwater. Imagine a lobbyist for Friends of the Earth who is also a single digit handicap golfer – nothing better than understanding the issues from both sides. He certainly makes a strong case for change - but also makes it very clear that golf has a place. He simply feels that we can be much better environmentally as an industry – and so do many people working in the industry.

Environmentalism in golf isn’t going to go away – this is just the early stages of what will be the most remarkable change the game has seen since the introduction of the Haskell Ball.

I’ll begin tomorrow by touching on each person’s comments – except Robert Wood and Ronald Dodson because I see no point - and discuss what they had to say. I’ll also touch on the sidebars which deserve some minor comment too.

change your expectations

The Remarks of John Barton

“Golf in America will face a crisis over water. There simply won’t be enough to go around for golf courses to continue to do what they have been doing.”

I have often heard water being called the “new oil” and that some even feel that more wars will be started over water than any other factor in the future. The use of water in semi-arid and arid conditions particularly in the south west of the United States is something that is incomprehensible in the long run. I agree with his assertion that golf may be forced to disappear in places like Las Vegas and Phoenix if those cities continue to rapidly expand while the source of water continues to deplete. Water will simply be too expensive – socially and economically – for golf to exist in the long, long term.

remember that kids play and they are at greater risk

“Can we be sure that the chemicals aren’t harmful?”One of the great observations brought up in this article is how often that a product was approved by the EPA and then requiring banning after collected evidence proved that a product carried a harmful side effect. I did all the spraying of my parents apple orchard for quite a few years as a teenager and I know what instructions on the bags said and it was enough for me to don the space suit every time out. While we know that today’s chemicals carry a lower toxicity, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are safe or more importantly fully understood yet.

His summary contains a wonderful paragraph that describes where we seem to be headed if this movement truly takes hold – and to be honest I like it.

"As water management becomes scarcer, as organic management practices increase, as environmentalism and environmental legislation start to bite more than they have, as the economy struggles, and as we come to appreciate the aesthetics of golf courses in all their many natural beautiful hues, the way the game looks will change. And the way it plays will change too, with firmer and faster turf demanding a return to shot-making, creativity, the bump and run.”

If you remember my “Future of Golf In Canada” series – you will see that I also drew a similar conclusion after spending almost two months on this subject before writing for the week. The series is here: http://thecaddyshack.blogspot.com/2008/03/future-of-golf-course-architecture-in.html We will be eventually legislated down this road, we will need to change our expectations on what our courses look like and we end up with courses that play a little different than the typical American Parkland layout.

The Sidebars

“Global Warming”This sidebar talks about how many coastal courses are at risk if the seas rise due to global warming. If someone has proof that the seas are in fact rising please send it through to me. I believe in the principle of reducing our impact hole-heartedly but I have yet to see a definitive proof of this phenomenon that is not based upon a model rather than measurements. If it is true, the notion of losing at least part of courses like Fishers Island, Seminole and the TPC at Sawgrass is depressing.

walk always

“A Call to Action – What You can Do?”

The sidebar touches on all the key points: get involved, support the golf superintendent through this change, make the personal decisions that have an impact like walking, change your mind about what good conditioning means, and make the changes at home to follow through at all levels of your life. Nothing earth shattering but a good list for someone who is new to this issue. I think the key factor here is if you believe in lower the clubs impact, you must also be vocal and supportive to the superintendent by changing people’s expectations. All the superintendents I know like the idea but fear losing their jobs because the expectations don’t change in the membership. If you want change – you must support them through what will be a very tough time.

“Golf Digest Changes its Views on Conditioning”

This simply talks about the fact that rankings have changed how the raters should rate the conditions of the course. The methodology has been changed to reflect the new approach promoted in this piece. I think the editors are noble – but I’m not as convinced that the rankers will have the same view. Most are single digit handicaps who got that way by caring a great deal about the score they shoot – a bad bounce or bad lie will effect what they think of a course – at least that has been my experience with them.

Could Seminole disappear?

“The Golf Course Architect” Michael Hurdzan

“Opponents of golf believe it’s an unnatural environment, and that we use too much water, fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels to maintain plant material in an unnatural state.”

Mike goes on to defend golf as being under attack because it is a symbol of development but I’m not sure that’s true anymore. I don’t think we’re seen as gobbling up land as much as people fear golf being a detriment to the environment. Mike later on agrees with the criticism of golf using too much water. When faced with the solution to the problem of water use he points to the development of new types of turfgrass that can survive less water or thrive in grey water. I can see his point when he goes on to mention Seashore Palspalum - but we really don’t have a new grass that accomplishes this in cool season grasses and many of the latest grasses require higher maintenance.

“We’re going to keep developing better grasses that require less water, pesticide, fertilizer – that’s the trend”

He talk a lot about the complications of approvals and points out that often people use misinformation about what golf courses do - and get away with it - because most people at hearings don’t have the scientific background to realize that many claims of golf courses being a risk to the environment is simply scare tactics used by the environmentalists to stop development. When pressed about the pesticide use Mike makes the analogy about there being a fine line between medicine and poison and that careful application is the key to safety.

Mike one interesting angle is when he talks about the golf course as a positive form, citing recreational space and the role it has taken in reclaiming sites. Mike’s Widow’s Walk project is mentioned in the article and certainly represents everything that golf can do to transform a lost site. He does a good job trying to on one hand defend golf and on the other still acknowledge the problems we all face. The only time he loses me when he suggests GPS mowers without operators are in our future too.

“The Grass Expert” James Snow

When asked if we could go British Style (my question to superintendents all winter as I researched) he simply answered that its not possible because the British Isles have the climate that is conducive to growing turfgrass and we don’t. He continues on with a detailed list of nasty pests and weeds that the US course will almost certainly face and that the typical UK course never needs to fear.

“In the UK the problems are minor. They have the right climate, they don’t have the problems we have with weed, with insects, with disease, and they don’t even have to irrigate their fairways.”

The other assertion he makes is that the American golfer is not yet ready for that change. He mentions if they don’t get what they want they are not going to buy it. That the culture remains that once the conditions improve, the reaction is to ask for even more improvement. The problem - of course - has lead to us to a point where turf is being pushed to the edge and any desired reduction in inputs will certainly take its toll on the turf and also the stability of a superintendent’s position. James is a remarkable reality check to people like me clamoring for change – now – telling us to understand that the golfers will resist this harshly and won’t lower their expectations.

When confronted with the pesticide issue James is blunt.

“Well you’d rather not have any if you had a choice, but your not going to have a golf course if you don’t use some.”
He goes on to talk about limited use and many other aspects of studies similar to Dr. Grant’s work. I would suggest you go to my “Future of Golf in Canada” series if you need further information on the realities of trying to go without pesticides on a typical parkland course. Here is the one on pesticides: http://thecaddyshack.blogspot.com/2008/03/future-of-golf-course-architecture-in_11.html

One of the more interesting aspects of Jim’s interview is his stance on water. He agrees with smarter use, more effluent water, better grasses etc – but at the same time points out golf is a 65 billion dollar industry and should be treated like all other industries that require water to survive. You can’t ask golf to cut drastically like they did in Georgia recently (10% of normal use!) and not ask Coca Cola to do the same. He says that the visibility of what they do makes them standout when other industries use a great deal of water too - and need to also share the reductions. He points out that water will clearly be the key issue going forward and uses the declining aquifer in Las Vegas as a great example. He says the loss of golf is inconsequential compared to the eventual need to relocate people as the aquifer dries up.

Milton, outside Toronto froze growth until they finally arranged a water connection to Lake Ontario so that they would not put undue pressure on their aquifer. I’m surprised that Palm Springs, Vegas, and Phoenix haven’t had development frozen if the statistics are true about the declining resource in each community.

“The Activist” Jay Feldman

Jay believes that the use of pesticides in golf is not safe.

He begins by pointing out that pesticide use poses health risks to anyone who comes in contact with them. He goes on to explain the links of pesticide use to hormonal imbalances which place all of us at greater risk to other greater complications like cancer (there has been a speculated link for quite some time). He brings and interesting point up about the idea of combinations of chemicals and even with medications causing us to be at a much greater risk than we realize. If you think about the issue of prescriptions and how pharmacists take so much care to know the other things you are taking to avoid a dangerous reaction between two prescriptions – you can see the potential of what he is pointing out. His feeling is that because pesticide use does get outside the intended target zones at times we are in risk when we often don’t realize (and without any warning to the risk we face).

The most interesting part of his piece is he truly believes that the risk assessment process is flawed. He feels the EPA is often in a position where they never truly understand the risk posed by the pesticide until after the product is in use and that is only through complications through its use do they finally understand the risk.

“So here we are in a realm of having newer and newer chemicals, and as new studies come out, we realize that we’ve introduced new levels of danger, new complexities, and a whole host of effects that the EPA isn’t even looking for.”

Jay believes that if we could simply remove the pesticides from day to day use, we could eliminate the risk. He comes from the viewpoint that public safety supersedes any benefit that products may pose. He believes strongly that organic practices are the way to go and points out the emergence and success of organic farming. He also believes that the agencies have not strong enough and would like to see the golfing public step in and take control over the issue. If educated, they would choose to reduce their exposure by simply saying this is not acceptable.

“Until we get the golfers themselves to engage on this issue, we cannot expect the right thing to happen.”

“The Environmentalist” Brent Blackwater

Brent established the Golf and Environmental Initiative to try and influence the principles used to maintain golf courses as well as have an impact on where those courses should be built. Unlike many lobbyists, he sees new golf courses being built and contributing to the environment. He sees them being important sources of rehabilitation and reclamations. Where he really deviates from the norm is he has no issue with them being built over a former farm. He sees one of the main key points being the treatment of the non-use section of a course where native species can either be protected or introduced making for a better ecosystem within the property.

His issue comes from losing biodiversity, he feels there are places that golf should simply not go (and for the record I agree), anything that reduces important habitat or compromises water quality is unacceptable.

“An adult male with a large body weight might not be that susceptible, for youths and women of child bearing age, exposure to chemical in even very small amounts at the wrong time can do awful things”

While Brent expresses his concern about the potential link between pesticide use and cancer, he also comes across a little more moderate and doesn’t see a need to ban pesticides like Jay, but instead feels the “realistic” answer is Integrated Pest Management. The idea that you don’t automatically spray, but first identify the source of your problems, understand the reasons and spray sparingly if you need to as a last resort. He still feels that golf needs to go organic as it can and points out to the success in organic food to prove that it is possible to change successfully.

He was asked what golf in a perfect world would be like.

“You would be playing on an organic course. The maintenance equipment would be charged by solar power. Recycled water would be used for irrigation, and used efficiently and sparingly. There’d be a greater variety of wildlife habitats.”

“The Golf Course Superintendent” Jeff Carlson

Jeff is in change of America’s only organic course where no pesticides or chemical treatments are allowed. He just recently won the 2008 President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship from the America Golf Course Superintendent Association. Jeff was also involved in Widow’s Walk which has been called an environmental demonstration golf course.

The reason his course – Vineland Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass – went this route was because there is only one single source aquifer on the island. While they felt they could “virtually guarantee the safety of the groundwater – 100% was not possible – and that was the standard required to approve the club. So they went organic. The article talks a lot about the trial and error that is still going on in order to maintain the organic commitment but also to keep a good healthy course.

“Our mantra is, we strive for excellent playability, but that doesn’t necessarily mean visual perfection”

Jeff talks about a few of the progressive techniques like using nematodes to deal with grubs – and mentioned that they get a lot of things to trial because of their unique position in the golf community. He provides us with a positive outlook for the future mentioning how many companies are bringing organic products to the table to be ahead of the curve and to be ready for the foreseeable future – I was excited by that comment.

The key he has found is cultural practices - and so did Dr Grant’s study too. He mentions all the techniques they had to develop to limit leaf wetness to deal with problems of fungus. This even includes the old fashioned technique of whisking the dew from the greens. He mentions that fungus has been his biggest battle for the last 6 years.

“When I started, it was the fungal diseases that were the most problematic. With our cultural practices and the organic fungicides that we use, the disease severity is a lot less than it was. We also think – not proven, total anecdotal – that there is some natural selection going on. We think the grasses are starting to adapt. It’s survival of the fittest – disease-resistant grasses occurring naturally.”

He mentions that weeds are still a problem and laments that if he could only use a couple of pre-emergent applications that issue would be gone. He mentions that there really isn’t an organic solution to this problem and ends up talking about a machine that literally applies boiling foam in a concentrated spot spray to kill the plant. The one thing that this points out about going organic is techniques like this – or hand picking which they have to do too - are very labour intensive compared to spraying applications.

I find it fascinating when he points out most women members get the idea and support the idea of organic golf maintenance. You have to wonder if the maleness of golf is actually a hindrance to getting on with doing the right things. Jeff feels that golfers must become willing to accept something a little less perfect looking – that still plays great – to make a move to a practice that is obviously healthier for us all. As he says if we use less, it has to be healthier for everyone. Jeff mentions that superintendents would go more organic if they knew their jobs were not linked to the current level of perfection. The level of expectation is extraordinary now and the organic movement is up against those expectations. One large issue that most superintendents bring up is the fear of losing their jobs because organic golf will not meet member’s expectations. As Jeff points out – they would be more organic already if they had some assurances.

I admire Jeff for taking this challenge and excelling – he is an inspiration for everyone. I think there is a little context needed to understand that his circumstance plays a role in this too. This course is built on sand (excellent drainage), that has a clean water source (no complications of salt), it has a moderating maritime climate (this tends to suppress disease pressure), the grasses are new (selected for the situation and are still fairly pure), this is a high end club with a decent budget, and the golfers have no choice but to accept the conditions that he can present in the circumstance.

This is not said to belittle his accomplishments – which are extraordinary. This is also not said to make it sound impossible when faced with less budget and a tough site. We must have an understanding about how tough certain sites will be and realize that we either have to improve the situation (new grasses, drainage, remove trees) or have slightly lower expectation on tough sites during extreme stress. We’ll all be better off for the change of attitude.

I’ll let Jeff finish with a great final point that could make all the difference.

“Unless golfers begin to have a change or perception and begin to accept those blemishes, and has that same mentality as when he goes to St. Andrews or Hoylake, and accepts those conditions and finds them charming and has a great round of golf. Then you can do it. The professionals and the tours and golf’s hierarchy have to embrace that, too. The guys who are driving the bus.”

2010 - 2020 What will happen this Decade?

He might not build a course!

The economic fallout from the Banking Crisis did more to change golf architecture than fashion or popularity. This decade will see only a handful of well financed, well thought out, realistic business models getting built. The Minimalist movement will completely dominate golf course architecture since it makes more economic sense and continues to garner critical support. Golf is in recession and this will be a the final catalyst for a change in styles.
Golf will continue go through hard times this decade but eventually there will be more building. As with all new cycles it will begin with more sensible economic models. The more ambitious projects won't come till the end of the decade. The driving force in new projects will no longer be real estate – ending the dominance of the brand name designer.
I originally assumed that Tiger Woods was to become the biggest designer in the game, but between the change in economics and his transgressions, there's now a better than even chance he does not build a course this decade. The dominant architect of this decade is going to be someone who is busy even now. He will have a small office, loves to run a dozer and would be classified a minimalist. His influence is the philosophies and principles of the Golden Age. I would predict that it's going to be Gil Hanse.

2000 – 2010 Minimalism becomes Mainsteam

Bandon Trails by Crenshaw and Coore

Coore and Crenshaw have established themselves as the best architects in practice – their reputation clearly eclipses former decade leaders Fazio and Dye. Both are still busy, but people have found Fazio too predictable and Dye to…well….to unpredictable. A new crop of designers have also emerged to take over from the previous generation and while a few practice a version of modern design, most practice a style similar to Coore and Crenshaw. This style has been given the name “Minimalism” and this has become the new buzzword in golf design – it’s the name of the movement that defines this decade. The trend appears to be very firmly rooted and will quite likely be the defining trend for the near future.

Old Sandwich by C&C

Minimalism is actually a lousy term for what the movement really is since it was incorrectly named for the assumption of no earth movement in these new “retro” designs. The new movement is more a return to the roots of golf design. The latest crop of architects are choosing to ignore almost anything done recently and instead look all the way back to the work of the Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture. They are influenced by Colt and Mackenzie, rather than by Nicklaus or Fazio. They love early Pete Dye but have little regard for his latest work. They all love Bill Coore and want to build courses like he does. He has become the benchmark for this generation, their inspiration and often their mentor too.

Pacific Dunes by Tom Doak

So why is this style better than modern or post modern? It’s the playing experience itself. Golden Age Design is about freedom and discovery. Modernism or Post-Modernism tends to tell you what to do and where to go. Golden Age design invites you to gamble or “to shoot the bones for the whole works,” but also provides you with the freedom to take any route, including a tentative longer route to avoid risk. The great Golden Age layouts always compel you to take on greater risk than you should.

Barndougle Dunes in Tasmania by Tom Doak

While architects like Gil Hanse (Rustic Canyon), Mike DeVries (Kingsley Club), and others have create wonderful and interesting layouts, the architect who has moved to the forefront to take on Coore and Crenshaw is Tom Doak. Doak is to some a controversial figure due to his strong opinions and Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, but without question one very talented designer. Tom made his name initially with his writing and opinions and back them up with a very interesting first course called High Pointe, but his work at Pacific Dunes was his coming out party. The course received immediate comparisons to Cypress Point for its architecture, stetting and unusual hole sequences. The course was shorter than normal, wider than most, but brilliant in the use of the environment and the land to create a series of very compelling holes. Doak followed that up with a series of spectacular sea side courses in Australia, New Zealand and in the US. His work is comparable to the work of Coore and Crenshaw in both playing style and aesthetics – and now in quality too. There is no question he is clearly influenced by the work of Coore and Crenshaw – the question now is can he surpass it.

What's the Future?

1990 – 2000 The decade of Contrasting Styles

Sand Hills opener

This is one of the most interesting decades due to the explosive divisions in architectural philosophy practiced by a series of high profile architects. You have Rees Jones continuing on the legacy of his father with his new work like Atlantic Golf Club. His renovation work at Bethpage Black and other famous layouts provides him with the “Open Doctor” moniker just like his dad had and he become the USGA’s go to guy – like his dad. Nicklaus continues to work on hundreds of projects with many being outside the US, but gets into financial problems with the development and construction arm of his company. Pete Dye becomes the very antithesis of his early origins, while he continues with the remarkable design ideas that brought him to prominence, he now shapes and moves everything – a far cry from The Golf Club. His courses are still strategically excellent and fascinating, but the work lacks the same charm of the early courses. This culminates at Whistling Straights where he takes an average albeit lakefront property and moves millions of yards of earth to build a stunning “links” layout with so many bunkers that nobody has ever counted them.

Whistling Straights 17th

Mike Strantz
, who had previously worked for Tom Fazio, was an architect walking completely out of step with all other – to my delight. The first signs of his genius are with a small tight property at Caledonia where he builds a remarkably clever and interesting layout that is a little different looking and playing than what people are used to. But there was so much more to come when you listen to this quote from an interview, “It is important to make the golf hole look more difficult than it really is." That is almost always the case on our courses, but if your mind convinces you that it really is a difficult shot, you’re beat before you even take the club back.” Caledonia was tricky in places but when he built Tobacco Road he built the most intimidating and controversial course constructed in recent time. This course is either loved or hated. I personally think this is because the course needs to be understood and respected before you can try out play it. The course uses large doses of intimidation – including blind shots – to overwhelm the player into playing in fear. The course also has width and short cuts galore to encourage a risky style of play, add this all up and you have one of the most unique and entertaining courses I have played. His work eventually softened culminating with his last course - the sublime Monterey Peninsula Shore Course - but one thing you can say about Mike’s work is that it was always interesting.

The 13th at Tobacco Road

The final prominent architect of the decade is Bill Coore. Bill began working with Pete Dye as a superintendent but became interested in architecture working on a few smaller jobs. He became involved with Ben Crenshaw and began to design so very lay of the land layouts with lots of interesting ground options and alternate strategies. The work caught immediate attention for the enjoyment in created when you played the courses. Everything changed overnight when they were asked to do Sand Hills in the middle of the Sand Hill country in Nebraska. Sand Hills was an exceptional property. Coore and Crenshaw showed the patience to walk and walk the property until they had found the right routing. While 100’s of perfect holes were available, they walked until they found a routing that would work, without having to disturb any of the natural site. Many of the hazards are natural blow outs, and others that were created to look like they were also blow outs too. The course is like Prairie Dunes where the line between golf and nature is blurred. The golf course is a perfect reflection of the site, has a perfect set of holes and will be this era’s greatest course.

The 17th at Sand Hills

Bill Coore caught everyone’s attention and ultimately ushered in a new movement called Minimalism. It may have originated with the Golden Age, been picked up by Pete Dye with The Golf Club, been regenerated with Tom Doak’s High Pointe, but it was Coore and Crenshaw that really made the statement that this movement was here to stay. They built the ultimate example at Sand Hills and then built a series of excellent examples at other less spectacular sites. Now their style has been copied by all the other architects including Nicklaus and fazio. Coore and Crenshaw became the trend setters.

1980-1990 - The Road to Excess

This happens to be the era I care for the least.

It began with Pete Dye building a new tournament course called The Tournament Players Club of Sawgrass. This was part of a grandiose dream of Deane Beaman to build tournament courses belonging to the players where the average guy could pony up some significant dollars to go tee it up on the same courses. The players would begin a slow and steady investment in these courses and would reap major profits down the road. They would even joint venture these with resorts and housing developments to bring in a bigger return. They would rule the world……well IMG would do a much more efficient job later, but that’s another story. The TPC courses (beyond Sawgrass), built using player consultants, are largely forgettable courses that have all gone under massive renovation. The most unfortunate thing about the look and nature of the course was it was roundly copied by many architects all over the world - and while I really like the course - there never should have been a second one.

At Sawgrass, Pete took a lousy property that was barely above water table and covered with bush, and slowly turn it into a brilliant piece of architecture and engineering. The course was based around most of his ideas involving smaller wilder greens, strategic placement of tee shots, clever strategic choices, but where it went two full steps further than his previous work was the addition of so much water directly into play. Pete had made the decision that the only way “to get those dudes thinking” was to use the finality of water as a way to make them blink. The ultimate statement of this was the island green built at #17, which came about by accident. This was the best source of sand on the site and they over mined it in order to cap all the fairways - and found there peninsula green had become….an island green. Once in play, they knew they had created the perfect tournament hole and a place the players feared from the opening tee shot. He had those dudes thinking and Pete Dye was in control.

Another architect who also would go on to embody the word “control” was Tom Fazio. Like Pete, the more courses he created, the more he wanted to control the site. Tom began with his uncle George Fazio creating tough layouts like the National in Toronto, but would eventually go on his own and create a very player friendly style that would define him as an architect. While Pete was into carry angles and deception, Tom preferred defining bunkers and a clear path to the hole. Tom seemed to be more concerned with hiding cart paths and grading tie-ins than he was about creating dilemmas. If anything, much of Tom’s work can be characterized as too safe and too fair to be great. Mackenzie always theorized that great holes began with initial controversy until they were understood - Fazio avoided controversy in favour of making a beautiful player friendly landscape.

The ultimate expression of his ability and style was Shadow Creek built in 1989. The course built for Steve Wynn in the desert and was a remarkable undertaking. Fazio began with a flat featureless site and moved millions of yards of sand. He then planted a massive amount of pine trees and landscaped the entire proprety to create a lush oasis with ravines amd wonderful rolls where you could only see the mountains in the distance but none of the flat desert right next door. The course is stunningly beautiful.

When asked about Tom as a designer, Bill Coore once remarked that he thought Fazio was a remarkable “Landscape Architect.”

Next Decade

1970-1980 Jack Nicklaus begins...

Another fascinating period for what it meant to the future of golf course architecture. As an important side note, what I’m going to continue to talk about is the major events and major players in the design business who have made a lasting impact on the way golf architecture is now practiced. This means I will skip by some who did have an impact. That was always the idea of this series – but I know that I’ve now entered the era where most architects are alive and many are in practice – and a few may be sensitive to being ignored.

This era was the initial sign of the future rise of the celebrity or “brand-named” designer. The first “name” designer was Jack Nicklaus, the designer of Glen Abbey Golf Course in Oakville, who remains even through to today the best known of the “brand-name” designers – those golf architects who are recognizable by name. His later successful transition from player to architect ushered in the next great architectural trend – one that remains prevalent today – the trend to hire a “brand name” designer to design a new course. Nicklaus’s serious interest began with his visits to The Golf Club to see what Pete Dye was building. While he struggled with many of the ideas that Pete had, he certainly became increasingly interested enough to get eventually involved with Pete - as only a consultant - at Harbour Town in South Carolina. Harbour Town turned out to be ground breaking and the flash point to beginning a new trend in golf course architecture. Harbour Town may have been the symbolic end to the Trent Jones era even though he and many others continued to build in that style long after the popularity had declined.

In 1973, Jack would work with Desmond Muirhead to develop Muirfield Village Golf Club, the new home for his Mermorial Tournament. The plan involved a tournament course - largely based upon Augusta National - and a housing community built around the outside of the course largely to finance the project. Muirhead planned the community and (according to most) routed the golf course. Desmond was a man with unusual ideas - and likely frustrated Jack – and they parted ways before the course was built. Jack hired Bob Cupp and Jay Morrish to be his staff and to see the course through to completion. Jay Morrish was the on site architect for Muirfield Village. The course displayed Jack’s ideas about play - demanding high soft approach shots - and aesthetics. H followed this approach until the last few years where he softened his demands on players and began to build courses that were a little more player friendly - and better from my view. With the success of the Memorial Tournament and the high praise for the course, Jack Nicklaus was in high demand right from the outset. He would become one of the most prolific golf architects in this era.

Pete Dye was definitely the rising star in golf architecture circles during the 1970’s. The decade began with Harbour Town, which immediately attracted golfer’s imagination during the Heritage Tournament. They were enthralled by his courses that looked so different than anything else they had seen. The timber banks, waste bunkers, pot bunkers, tiny greens, use of accent grasses in the bunkers, tight fairways, etc. This looked nothing like their home course and golfers traveled in droves to see this magical place.

This happened because this was also the decade where televised golf took off with large ratings brought upon by stars - like Jack Nicklaus. The public was now exposed to all these new courses through their television and this exposure was responsible for the rise of Pete Dye.

1960-1970 – The Emergence of Pete Dye

The 13th at The Golf Club

This was another great era for the growth of golf where Trent Jones built another 100 courses all over the world. There was a whole new breed of architects that began the next great wave of golf course architecture and almost all were designing the way Trent Jones did. The modern (Trent Jones) school of design was the style that dominated the era almost completely. This was the era of modernization and “progress” where history was ignored for a more modern approach to everything. Maintenance and practicality often took precedence over artistry and aesthetics. Even the architecture in the United Kingdom, walked away from its roots and embraced the new modern American style of golf course. If Tom Simpson were alive, I have often wondered if he would have called this the second dark age.

Only a short rise in front of the green

There was one very fascinating exception to everything that was going on. Pete Dye made a tour of golf courses in Scotland with his wife Alice Dye and came back determined to build course that resembled those great links course and not the courses of Trent Jones. He was the very antithesis of the Trent Jones era doing almost exactly the opposite. He built shorter courses when length was in vogue. He believed in sharp abrupt features like swales and pits and hollows rather than long graceful lines. He built small difficult greens full of wild contour instead of the massive greens of the era. He moved as little dirt as possible, while new course were entirely shaped and cleaned up.
Bunkers unlike any others I have ever seen

He also brought back unusual features like railroad sleepers and pot bunkers. He also wasn’t afraid to use subtle features like a grass slope or long rough as a feature rather than always relying on a bunker. Some of his holes were very tight while others were unusually wide open. He built holes that were nearly impossible, while others offered a breather to the player. If there was one word to describe his style it was variety. This was all a return to much older ideas and sharply away from the modern idea of fairness that was slowly creeping into golf. Dye ran directly against the current trend in golf course architecture, and eventually influenced an overwhelming change in opinion.
The work Dye did at this particular point is some of the most influential on my generation’s architecture. He took us back to our roots, told us that we did not need to move the land, to make the details more intimate, look more closely at the early strategies, forget about length and just design interesting holes, and don’t be afraid to add a sense of humour back into the game.

The massive irony to me is everything he did at this point is an important part of what I believe now – everything that would come later seems like a contradiction to his early ideals.

Two Key Footnotes:

It's also important to mention Jack Nicklaus came over to see what Pete was doing at The Golf Club which lead to their work together at Harbour Town. This is a key moment for golf design since Jack Nicklaus becomes one of the biggest designers in history. This was also the beginning of televised golf tournaments which began to showcase the courses, which eventually brought interest in who was designing these courses. This played a major role in the emmergence of Pete Dye.