Royal Dornoch Golf Club in Dornoch, Scotland

Browner Fairways Equal Greener Pastures

If you went around asking people what they think of golf, you’d be likely to get one of two opinions. It is either the greatest game ever played, or a sad, boring excuse for a sport played exclusively by snobby, rich white men. But if instead you posed the question, “what do you think of golf courses?” the overarching sentiment would be that, while naturally beautiful, they’re sadly harmful to the environment.

This is a valid claim given that some reports say the average golf course uses 300,000 gallons of water daily. And the issue is not only the water, but also the toxic pesticides that are used religiously to maintain carpet-like fairways and greens. There will soon come a time when people become fed up with the golf industry’s attitude toward nature and its most essential resource. But to understand the core of the issue it’s necessary to trace golf back to its original home: Scotland.

Many years ago, when small towns were developing along the Scottish coast, there would typically be an open area by the water, a coastal plain of sandy dunes that wasn’t conducive to growing crops. Despite the land’s infertility, grass grew by way of vegetative succession and it was in these undeveloped areas that people came to play golf. Animals were the modern day lawn mowers, and sand traps were formed in low areas that collected the most golf balls, and hence the most divots. Links, the names for these types of golf courses, were and still are in many ways self-sustainable. When British professionals brought golf to the States, sites reminiscent of those back across the Atlantic were chosen. But new locations were found after the most suitable land was taken up, which is the source of the problems that exist with today’s courses.

The most essential feature of any golf course is its soil, just as essential as flour is to bread. And the most important thing to know about Links course soil is that it is fast draining. The fescue and bent grasses that comprise these courses are mature and deeply rooted. They grow better in nutrient poor soil, and require much less water and feeding compared to the kinds of turf seen in the States. These drier surfaces are far more delicate and thus intolerable of golf cart traffic, but the British don’t really care for golf carts anyway. Perhaps it’s a question of culture. Golf carts take away the social aspect of the sport that make it unique among others, something that overall Americans seem to value less. Simply comparing an average American and British course will speak to this. When golf was first invented, there were no carts, which meant that the holes were laid out to keep walks between tee and green at an absolute minimum. However, in America many courses were built on hilly terrain that made walking difficult, or in tight residential areas that forced course architects to have to place holes further apart. Together, these two factors led to the invention of the golf cart.

“The traffic that you get from golf carts forces us to push growth in a time when a lot of grasses would rather go dormant,” says Frank Tichenor, the golf course superintendent at Forest Hill Field Club in Bloomfield, New Jersey. “In a hot, dry summer, grasses should naturally be going dormant. That’s what you see over at the British Open where everything is brown, because it doesn’t rain in the summer. In the US, that isn’t the case because you can’t go and put golf carts over dormant grass because the dormant grass will die. So we as turf managers are constantly pushing turf to grow in a time when it’s saying, ‘look I just want to shut down, and I’ll come back in September.’”

This is a vicious cycle when you look at it. The average American course simply isn’t set up in a way that always makes walking feasible, so many people choose to take carts instead. But the traffic from the carts isn’t healthy for grass that is already fighting hard to thrive during the summer; therefore water has to be used to keep the surfaces green.

But let’s imagine hypothetically if water wasn’t used, or wasn’t used as much. Well then the grass would go dormant and lose its emerald green glow. But what would be wrong with that? Dormant grass actually provides a perfectly good, if not, according to some, superior surface to living grass. After all, the Open Championship is played in Britain every year on often-dormant golf courses, and nobody complains about them. Clearly most American golfers don’t see eye to eye, it’s a sentiment that Frank Tichenor calls the “Augusta Syndrome.”

He’s referring to Augusta National Golf Club, the most well known course in the United States and the annual host of the famous Masters Tournament. Among the signature features the course boasts every spring when the golf world turns its attention to Augusta, Georgia are vivid azaleas, snow-white sand traps, and the most flawless, lush fairways and greens seen anywhere. Nearly every golfer’s dream is to play Augusta National, but due to its high exclusivity, few ever do. So instead golfers ask the superintendents of their respective clubs and courses to meet the gold standard provided by the Georgian club. “Everybody looks at it and says, ‘wow I want our place to look like Augusta National.’…And I’ve said this to a bunch of people, as long as they keep holding that tournament down there in April, that’s going to be the standard that Americans want,” explains Tichenor.

In the end, the power to make golf courses safer for the environment is not actually in the hands of people like Frank Tichenor, but rather in those of the golfers who play the game. Golf has to be looked at like any other industry, and like in any other industry, it’s the consumers, who are golfers in this case, that dictate the products. “If you’re not giving the customer what they want, they’re going to go someplace else. If the customer wants lush green fairways, I can deliver that. Is it as environmentally responsible? No. But hey, stuff gets done all the time.”