Menu

A golfer gets a clean roll on a green at Westmoor Country Club in Waukesha, where the course will shut down in August to replace grasses on greens with more drought -resistant varieties.

Monroe Miller leans back in the seat of his cart and gazes across the railroad tracks that separate his maintenance yard from the greens and fairways of Blackhawk Country Club. In the distance, the early afternoon sun glints off the windows of the hilltop clubhouse. A pair of red-tailed hawks circles overhead, but Miller’s eyes are on the grass.

He points out a spot in the rough by the closest green, where dinner-plate-sized white circles pock the dark green Kentucky bluegrass—signs of a fungal disease called snow mold.

“There are two or three things that if I don’t treat for, it will be devastating,” he says. “If you don’t treat for snow mold, you won’t have any greens. We had snow mold on our greens this year, even though we did treat. It was scary.”

Miller BS’68 has been fighting snow mold and dollar spot at Blackhawk for 36 years, since he took over as superintendent of the course in the village of Shorewood Hills, on Madison’s west side. The view of Lake Mendota hasn’t changed much in that time. Nor have Miller’s worst enemies, a handful of soil-borne fungi that can devastate a green if left unattended. But just about everything else has. For much of Miller’s tenure, golf has been the fastest-growing sport in the United States, booming from 11 million players and some 10,000 golf facilities in 1970 to more than 28 million golfers playing at 16,000 sites today. In 2005, those facilities generated $28 billion in revenue, more than all professional and semi-pro spectator sports combined. Throw in equipment and golf-related products and golf these days is a $76 billion-a-year industry.

But golf has also generated a different kind of interest. The sport’s boom began around the same time as the environmental movement, and activists have found plenty not to like about the growth of the golf industry. U.S. golf courses occupy as much acreage as Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and two-thirds of that land is turfgrass that receives significant volumes of chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Particularly as golf has expanded into water-scarce places such as Arizona and Nevada, environmental groups have called for limits on water and chemical use on existing golf courses and fought construction of new ones.

Miller got his first inkling of the scrutiny to come in 1975, when he was called to testify before the State Assembly natural resources committee about a proposal to ban phenoxy herbicides, which at the time were claimed to cause cancer and other ailments. Miller and other turf managers told legislators that they had no alternatives for controlling broadleaf weeds. The proposal failed, but the experience taught Miller that more than golfers were following golf.

Varieties of grass grow in a campus greenhouse, where researchers test their ability to get by with less water and fertilizer.

“In golf, you’re under a jeweler’s eye,” he says. “We’re very aware of our visibility. And that’s a pretty good catalyst for getting involved in these environmental efforts.”

Opinions about the environmental impact of golf courses vary. While 91 percent of U.S. golfers say golf is an environmentally friendly sport, only 66 percent of all U.S. adults feel that way, according to a 2008 survey by Golf Digest. Among all respondents, 44 percent believe that golf courses use too much water, and 41 percent believe they use too many chemicals.

Another survey taken in England in 2002 shows the ambivalence over golf in a different way. Asked to name an environmental benefit of golf courses, players most often cited that they provide natural habitat. Among non-golfers, the most commonly cited problem was that golf courses destroy natural habitat.

There will probably never be consensus on the environmental impacts of golf courses, but there’s no question that the combination of environmental awareness and economic necessity are driving a green revolution on America’s greens. The old days, when groundskeepers laid on fungicides containing heavy metals, have yielded to an eco-friendly era. At professional conferences, the talk is about irrigating with wastewater and making roughs bird-friendly, and sustainability fills the pages of turf magazines.

Environmental issues were part of the turf management culture at least by 1989, when the U.S. Golf Association began sponsoring research on the topic, focusing on issues such as the effects of fertilizers and pesticides in surface water and groundwater. In 1996, the organization convened representatives from 16 groups—including the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club—to hammer out a set of principles for environmental responsibility in course design, construction and maintenance. Among other things, those principles call for planting drought-resistant grasses to decrease water use and adopting pest management strategies that reduce the need for chemicals.

Around 2,400 U.S. golf courses now participate in a program run by Audubon International, a nonprofit group that certifies courses for their environmental stewardship. Nearly 4 percent of U.S. courses have already been certified, and more are on their way. The resort chain Marriott recently announced plans to earn certification for 34 of its North American golf resorts by the end of the year.

Any trend that shakes the golf world reverberates in Wisconsin. With more than 730,000 golfers playing 12 million rounds annually, the state ranks second nationally in the number of golfers per capita. About $100 million is spent in the state each year to manage 43,500 acres of turf on roughly 500 golf courses. If you add in lawns, parks, sports fields and roadsides, turfgrass is Wisconsin’s fourth-largest crop.

Addressing environmental concerns was a prime motivator when in 1991 the Wisconsin Turfgrass Association built CALS’ O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility. The 23-acre center, located southwest of Madison next door to the University Ridge golf course, evaluates hundreds of new products, including many from natural sources. Among them are fertilizers such as compost teas and seaweed, a herbicide derived from the bottlebrush plant and turf fungicides derived from wood-decaying mushrooms.

Noer also gives scientists such as Chris Williamson, a CALS associate professor of entomology, a place to explore integrated pest management strategies, which involve combining cultural, mechanical and chemical practices to help control pests with the least environmental impact. Researching the black cutworm, a common predator on golf greens, Williamson has learned that mowing greens an hour before sunrise can kill cutworm larvae and that bagging and removing clippings can rid greens of their eggs. He has also found ways to take advantage of genetic resistance in some grass species. “If you establish Kentucky bluegrass in the periphery of the green, you create a situation that’s unsuitable for cutworm development, and cutworms don’t lay eggs on the green,” he says.

Noer’s research plots are also home to rigorous testing of lower-input grass varieties that haven’t been used much on Wisconsin greens and fairways, most of which are planted with creeping bentgrass, Kentucky bluegrass and annual bluegrass. Horticulture professor John Stier is looking at alternatives such as velvet bentgrasses for putting greens and fine fescues for fairways, which appear to require far less water and chemicals than traditional choices.

“Some of these don’t have the water requirement that creeping bent does, and they are more resistant to disease,” he says. “They also seem to do well without nitrogen. I have plots of fine fescue that have never had fertilizer and seem to be doing fine.”

Creeping fescue, a grass native to New Zealand, covers the roughs and fairways at Whistling Straits, a world-class course on the Lake Michigan shore north of Sheboygan. The grass needs one-third to one-half of the water, nitrogen and pesticide required by typical Wisconsin fairway grasses, says Michael Lee BS’87, golf course superintendent for Whistling Straits. While most Wisconsin golf courses might get watered three times a week in season, Lee says Whistling Straits received a complete soaking only three times during all of 2007. What helps the fescue survive drought—its ability to go dormant—also helps create the distinctive character of the course, which opened in 1998 and hosted the 2004 PGA Championships. “When things start to turn a little brown, and there’s still a little green in the fairway, it’s just stunning,” says Lee.

Emeritus soil scientist Wayne Kussow uses a plot at CALS’ O.H. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility to investigate how nutrients and pesticides move through turf.

But fescues thrive on sandy soils and cool air, conditions not found on most Wisconsin courses. Other superintendents are looking for improved varieties of standards such as creeping bentgrass that can get by with fewer inputs. Jerry Kershasky has chosen one such grass to replant on the greens and fairways at Westmoor Country Club near Waukesha when the course undergoes a major renovation this August. The chance to completely replace the grass on an established course is very rare, and Kershasky did his homework. After poring over trial results from Noer and elsewhere, he is going with a deeper-rooted variety that should get by with less water, as well as stand up better to disease.

You wouldn’t think a Wisconsin turf manager would have to worry about water. It’s the kind of concern you associate with courses in the Southwest, where the average golf course water bill is 20 times that of a course in the North Central region. Scarcity of water has led some western states to require golf courses to irrigate with recycled wastewater when it is available. A Nevada water authority even paid one Las Vegas-area course to convert 70 acres to native plantings, netting the club $3 million and potentially shaving $200,000 off its annual water bill.

But in Waukesha, Kershasky has reason to think about water. Most of the county lies just west of the subcontinental divide, where water flows to the Mississippi River rather than to the Great Lakes. By rule, places such as Westmoor aren’t allowed to draw water from Lake Michigan, a dozen miles away. Instead, they must pump from a deep aquifer, which, under pressure from relentless development, is shrinking rapidly.

“I’m in the recreation business,” says Kershasky. “If it comes down to needing water for drinking, and for industry, recreation is not going to get any water.”

But Westmoor is welcome to one source of water: runoff from roadways, rooftops and other impervious surfaces in surrounding neighborhoods, including six lanes of Interstate 94 that border the course. When it rains an inch, Westmoor receives more than a million gallons from the freeway alone. That water is laden with road salt and contaminants, but Westmoor isn’t picky. Recently, the club expanded a marsh and deepened storage ponds to triple its capacity to catch and filter runoff water, which is then treated and used for irrigation before draining into a nearby creek. Kershasky is quick to point out that the water that leaves the course is cleaner than it arrived.

“A lot of people think golf courses make the water worse. In fact, it’s in great shape when it goes off of our property,” he says. “We’re a giant filter.”

The example illustrates why it’s so difficult to pin down golf’s environmental impact, good and bad. Some research at Noer shows that efforts aimed at reducing environmental impacts on golf courses can actually have the reverse effect. For example, most organic fertilizers are high in phosphorus, an element that’s already overloading Wisconsin waters, meaning that their widespread use could potentially exacerbate runoff problems. Reducing fertilizer use, too, can be a double-edged sword, says Stier.

“Not fertilizing causes more sediment loss into surface waters than proper fertilizing does,” he says. “There’s not enough turf there to hold the sediment. With proper fertilization, you can reduce sediment loss to about zero.”

Sustainability becomes even more complex when it’s factored against the chief objective of all golf courses: to offer a good round of golf. Thin, weedy fairways and patchy greens don’t just look bad; they frustrate golfers by making a ball take unpredictable turns or settle in bad lies.

An ongoing experiment at Beth Page State Park on New York’s Long Island shows why these goals may never be attainable without some chemical assistance. Jennifer Grant, of New York State’s Integrated Pest Management Program, and Frank Rossi, a turfgrass specialist at Cornell University, divided the greens on a heavily used public course into three groups with different levels of pesticide use, ranging from conventional to chemical-free. They quickly concluded that eliminating chemicals entirely rendered the greens unplayable, and so they modified that treatment to “reduced risk,” using only pesticides that have very low toxicity.

With that change made, Grant says golfers are happy, even with the parts of the course that get minimal treatment. “Basically, over the years, they haven’t picked up any differences,” she says. “They have always rated all of our treatments between ‘good’ and ‘very good.’ ”
But a survey of Beth Page golfers also shows that most golfers will go only so far in accepting reduced quality. Only 2 percent of respondents said they wanted no pesticides used, and 4 percent wanted minimal use regardless of turf quality. Just over half preferred that greens be kept at reasonable quality using pesticides only as needed. But one third said they wanted the best turf possible, using pesticides whenever they might help.

Most turf managers flinch at the sight of brown grass, but Michael Lee welcomes it at Wisconsin’s celebrated Whistling Straits. It’s not just good for the environment, he says – it’s good golf.

In fact, golfers’ expectations have never been higher, which industry insiders attribute to what they call the “Augusta syndrome,” the net effect of watching blanket coverage of tournament golf — especially the Masters, professional golf’s signature event. Held each April at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., the tournament is seen on television by nearly 100 million people around the world, some of whom inevitably conclude that the verdant perfection of Augusta’s course is how golf is supposed to look everywhere.

But much of what viewers see is strictly made for television, explains Greg Lyman, environmental director of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. “The course isn’t played for months before the tournament. They bring in an army of people to work on it. They have it in spring, when their turf there is in great shape,” he says. “Golfers watch it and have unrealistic expectations.”

Those expectations have made life harder for superintendents such as Monroe Miller. Thinking back to when he took charge of the turf at Blackhawk in 1973—when only the final seven holes of the Masters were televised—he says, “We didn’t spray as much back then as you might think, because the (green) cuts were higher. Plants were healthier. Demands weren’t as great as they are now because people weren’t watching the Masters. Golfers forget that at Augusta, they do it for a week. They want those conditions every day. It’s biologically impossible.”

But tastes in golf change. One trend in course design that favors sustainability is the emergence of links courses, which emulate the sandy, wild and windswept courses in Scotland where golf was born six centuries ago. Whistling Straits is one example. Michael Lee says that what makes Whistling Straits environmentally friendly—grasses that do well in dry conditions—also makes it a good place to play golf.

“Less water is desirable both from the links experience—playing a dry golf course is great—as well as from a water conservation standpoint,” he says. “Golfers love it. They like a firm, tight lie. They love the ball roll. Who wouldn’t like an extra thirty yards?”

“People really embrace that links idea,” agrees Jay Blasi BS’00, a golf course architect with Robert Trent Jones in San Francisco. “If you look at any list of the most highly thought-of courses, it’s dominated by courses that are built on sand and have this windswept look about them.” Blasi went with that look for his first major project—Chambers Bay, a municipal course on Puget Sound in Washington, which is built on a former gravel pit. After opening last year to rave reviews, the course was selected to host the 2015 U.S. Open, one of the prime dates on the PGA Tour.

Blasi says that environmental concerns—above all, the need to save water—are a driving force in today’s golf course design. “It used to be that you would create a golf course so that you would have grass all the way from tee to green,” he says. “(Now) in the desert, they build little pods of tees, then you hit over the desert to the fairway, and then hit over the desert again to get to the green.”

The fact that golfers are embracing a natural look to the golf course landscape is a big step toward truly sustainable golf, says John Stier. Now he hopes they’ll go one step further, toward a truly natural turf.

“Golfers expect a perfect disease- and weed-free golf course with stands of grass that all look the same,” says Stier. “To have a truly organic or sustainable golf course, we have to let nature have its way. That means there will be different grasses growing next to each other. Things won’t be as uniform. It may mean the putting is not as true as it has been. It means that there is a little more chance to the game.”

SIDEBAR — TIRES ON THE GREEN: How Golf Recycles

With engineers Jim Park (center) and Bob Lisi (right), John Stier has tested lining greens with shredded tires to absorb nitrates.

A manicured golf course may be the last place you’d expect to find old tires, let alone the end products of sewage treatment. But in fact, greens and fairways are a great place to recycle a variety of castoffs.

Researchers at UW-Madison’s O.J. Noer turfgrass facility have shown that putting a layer of shredded tires under a golf green can help keep fertilizers out of groundwater.

Golf courses can recycle effluent, too. Some golf courses in the Southwest are using effluent wastewater to irrigate turf, which has benefits for both turf and groundwater. “Right now, nutrients in effluent are discharged into surface water,” says CALS soil scientist Doug Soldat, who has been testing wastewater irrigation to see how suitable it is for Wisconsin’s conditions. “Plants have the opportunity to take out the nitrogen and phosphorus, and they’re very efficient at cleaning that up.” In fact, CALS was involved in this work as early as the 1920s, when Oyvind Juul Noer, the namesake of CALS’ modern turfgrass facility, pioneered technology to manufacture fertilizer from sewage sludge. The product of that research, marketed under the name Milorganite, has been used on U.S. golf courses since 1925.

Even course sites can be recycled. Several new golf developments have sprouted in land that can’t be used for much else, including former industrial sites, abandoned strip mines and gravel pits.