Monday, 27 December 2010

How Green is Golf?

Overview

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.”

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