2002: Course raters should consider environment

It’s time to evaluate golf courses on the basis of their environmental sensibility. If ecological sustainability and adherence to sound principles of nature were part of the criteria by which layouts were ranked, architects, owners, superintendents and golfers would be even quicker and more willing to embrace sound management practices.

Everyone would benefit. The cost of maintenance might well go down. Most importantly, courses would become even more ecologically friendly than they already are.

Not that courses are toxic waste sites or harmful to the environment. Several studies have shown that when properly managed, courses are ecological assets, especially in and around suburban and developed areas, where they provide multiple greenbelt functions and a hedge against mall sprawl and real estate.

To be sure, progress has been made. Chlordane, DDT and mercury are among the highly toxic chemicals that were regularly used for decades on golf courses and that have now been banned. The development of Integrated Pest Management has helped shrink the overall levels of chemicals applied to courses. Much-improved construction and grow-in techniques (siltation fencing, sodding of slopes, hydro-seeding of roughs) also have dramatically reduced surface erosion and washouts. Designers and developers are much more sophisticated today about respecting wetlands and nondisturbed setback areas. Superintendents also are far more sophisticated in how they handle, deploy and dispose of potentially dangerous materials.

All that’s great. But far more needs to be done to overcome a certain reluctance that hinders further progress. Many superintendents are hampered in their ability to do more because of underlying resistance they face from owners, golf pros and golfers. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of limited budgets that prevent greenkeepers from having a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly maintenance facility. Owners would rather invest in new mowers or an extra crew member than a zero-discharge wash station. But often the culprit is a lack of imagination among decision-makers. They think that conditioning might have to suffer. Or they fear their club’s reputation will take a hit in the name of being ecofriendly.

The best way to overcome such concerns is to place a premium on environmental sensibility. Facility managers will thereby reap rewards and be induced to cooperate further. The problem, of course, is that rating a facility on this basis is a very difficult matter.

Usually, course raters, including those who evaluate for Golfweek’s America’s Best program, judge during a single visit – mostly on the basis of playing a round of golf. We already include such maintenance-related elements as “overall conditioning,” “landscape and tree management” and our patented “walk in the park test.” Perhaps we ought to include consideration for courses that devote a large extent of land to low-maintenance or no-mow areas. Equally valuable would be no-spray zones for habitat areas and water bodies, or dense vegetative buffers along water courses that serve as filtration areas for pollutants or soil runoff.

A simpler way to proceed might simply be to award a bonus for courses that have achieved full certification as Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries. Or how about just counting the wildlife species one sees during a round and evaluate accordingly? (If we could only count nocturnal species.)

Proper assessment of environmental sensibility requires more than a fleeting glance. It might require behind-the-scenes visitations.

Among the most revealing determinants of environmental sensibility is the decision-making process governing how pesticides are applied. Deciding how this would be evaluated by a visitor or course rater is no easy matter. The crucial component here is how much latitude a superintendent has (and exercises) when it comes time to spray – and to what extent. It’s one thing to have shifted in accordance with an IPM plan from a preventive to a curative program. But that doesn’t begin to suggest how the curative approach is undertaken. Let’s say a superintendent only sprays upon the appearance of dollar spot on two greens. Does he spray only parts of those greens, all of the two greens or all of his putting surfaces?

With due respect to course raters, properly and fairly evaluating the necessary information is an extremely complicated process. I hope it can be done as part of course evaluations.

Incorporate ecological considerations into the existing rating program or develop a separate list entirely of the environmentally most sensible courses? Either way, everyone would benefit. Besides acknowledging stewardship, it also would help publicize the close relationship between sound agronomy and sound design principles.

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