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.

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