Finding the Green

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.

“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.