The goal of golf course agronomists worldwide hasn’t changed much during the last century — develop better grasses that use less water and pesticides, that are able to withstand environmental challenges, and yet still allow a better quality playing surface.
“That, to me, is ‘sustainability,’” says Kimberly Erusha, managing director of the United States Golf Association’s Green Section. “We just didn’t term it that back in 1920 when we started doing it. But it truly is what sustainability is all about.”
Organizations such as USGA and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) have made significant strides to convince the U.S. public — from legislators to laypersons — that golf courses are environmentally responsible. At the same time, they couldn’t have done so without the aid of superintendents, Erusha says.
“We continue to advance this dialogue with various audiences that interact with the golf facilities,” Erusha says. “I think it’s important, when we talk about legislators, whether at the national, regional or local level, that we continue this dialogue and we make sure that we talk about what our industry is doing. That is going to continue to move us forward.
“You need to change some of the messaging as you talk with the general public. I think golf course superintendents, in particular, are doing a much better job at doing outreach to talk to the public — whether they be golfers that are using the golf course or people in the community — about what they do to professionally maintain that landscape that they are responsible for.”
Erusha, as one example, notes the First Green program in the Pacific Northwest in which superintendents teach STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education to local students while using their golf courses as the vehicle. “Superintendents have started doing things like that to be able to use the golf course in different way to talk about how they’re maintaining that environment around the golf course,” Erusha says. “As a superintendent, you have to bring that down to the local level.”
Thanks to USGA, GCSAA, and the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA), superintendents around the world have plenty of reference material at arm’s length:
The association publishes the Green Section Record, a complimentary, bi-weekly electronic magazine that offers articles with the latest information on research, turfgrass culture, golf course management and environmental issues. The regional updates highlight innovative solutions and challenges observed by USGA agronomists as they travel North America.
“Education is key to assist golf course superintendents in staying on the cutting edge of the latest technology available,” Erusha says. “We develop a great deal of education and outreach multimedia tools for their use.”
All USGA agronomic publications are available in full-text through the Turfgrass Information File.
Through the organization’s Course Consulting Service, USGA agronomists, located in offices throughout the country, help bring expert evaluation directly to all levels of golf facilities to help improve golf course playing quality, environmental sustainability and economic efficiency.
Finally, the concept behind the USGA’s Resource Management Tool is to provide a map-based tool to help golf course decision-makers better understand their consumption of resources, such as labor, energy, water and fuel, and to accurately measure how these resources are used for features on the golf courses.
“By better understanding where money and resources are spent, it can improve how costs are managed and better target improving the golfers’ playing experience,” Erusha says. “This year the tool will be used by the USGA agronomists with the long-term goal to make it available to golf facilities.”
Superintendents should “go outside of their core conversation circles” while trumpeting their sustainability-specific accomplishments. That’s the recommendation of Craig Smith, the association’s director of communications and media relations.
“We have to make a sustained effort to let people know what we are doing, and not just doing it,” Smith says. “People that drive by a golf course naturally think that the golf course is wasting municipal water. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Over the last decade, U.S. golf courses have reduced water usage 21.8 percent, resulting in a savings of $150 million, Smith says. At the same time, he adds, the industry annually generates $70 billion in economic impact while producing 2 million American jobs and contributing $4 billion in charitable coffers.
“Those are numbers that we try to share across the board,” Smith says.
“They’re good numbers for people to say.”
Superintendents should start in their own backyards. “Most golf courses built in the 2000s are part of developments, with homes and lawns. We haven’t reached out enough to those people,” Smith says. “We could clearly do more there.”
GCSAA’s newest initiative revolves around each state adopting the organization’s Best Management Practices. “This is a new and very important initiative for us. It will allow us to be seen as the experts across the spectrum,” Smith says. “We’re hoping to get all 50 states in the fold by 2020. Can we do it? I think we can.”
A major drive is underway within the association to support the needs of greenkeepers who are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of sustainable course management. In 2016, BIGGA appointed its first-ever sustainability executive, James Hutchinson, a former R&A Scholar, who is available to visit courses and work with greenkeepers to produce a sustainability plan going forward.
BIGGA also works closely with organizations such as the R&A, Golf Environment Organization (GEO), STRI and Home Unions to aid their efforts to educate golfers and the golfing industry in the importance of sustainability.
The next big challenge facing golf course managers in the United Kingdom, according to BIGGA, could be the availability of sand, which is required for bunkers, divoting and topdressing. “Sand is a finite resource and one we may not have forever,” Hutchinson says. “Therefore, sand-based products will become more expensive and eventually will become unsustainable.”
With reduced resources available, a cultural change to the way golf courses are prepared is becoming increasingly important, Hutchinson says, with prevention seen as preferable to cure. “And despite the hard work and expertise of our members, golfers may soon have to accept their course may not be as perfectly manicured as it once was,” he says.
Echoing Erusha’s comments, Hutchinson says greenkeepers themselves deserve all the credit when it comes to the changing opinions of a general public concerned with conservation.
“Their passion for the environment in which they work and determination to ensure their courses are sustainable in every sense of the word has been a crucial factor,” he says “Greenkeeping has always been a sharing industry, and over the last decade or so many of our members have shared their experiences with sustainability projects — good and bad — and the whole industry is improving as a result.”
Through communicating within their clubs, on social media and in local media, they have been able to portray their courses as wildlife refuges,” Hutchinson says. “Good news stories such as the presence of rare flowers, like the Lady’s Slipper Orchid, rare wildlife and schemes such as beekeeping in an effort to promote pollinators, have all played their part in a changing perception of golf courses among the public.”
Hutchinson offers the following tips to superintendents to sway the layperson:
“We need to ensure there is a continued campaign of publicity among greenkeepers and course managers.”
“If the general public thinks you spray copious amounts of fertilizer on your course, tell them you don’t.”
“If a rare animal or flower is uncovered, contact the local newspaper and invite them to visit the course and write a feature.”
“We encourage our members to shout about the successes and to communicate more with golfers and the general public. And we’ll be here to support them, however they need our help.”