Kyle Sweet calls it going “beyond the grass.” Sweet, the certified golf course superintendent at the Sanctuary Golf Club in Sanibel Island, Florida, is talking about the many things that superintendents must do these days in addition to taking care of the turf.
“The superintendent position has evolved,” says Sweet, who is in his 20th year at the Sanctuary.
These days, Sweet doesn’t talk much about agronomics with his Florida peers. They talk about other things, like golf and sustainability.
At the 18-hole Sanctuary, Sweet has implemented a cornucopia of sustainable measures. The Arthur Hills design is the only golf course in the U.S. built in the middle of a national wildlife refuge. Sweet, not surprisingly, follows a strict environmental protocol when it comes to golf course maintenance. But many of the environmental initiatives benefit the Sanctuary economically and socially, two primary components of sustainability in addition to environmental
Because of the Sanctuary’s sustainable efforts, the private club is recognized as a jewel in the community and the state.
Sweet is aware that many superintendents say they don’t have time to implement sustainable measures at their golf courses. They may view sustainability somewhat like a middle school student considers a science project to gain extra credit – it will take too much time and the effort put forth won’t be worth the results. Sweet, having taken the time and seen the results, knows better.
“The time spent will pay off immeasurably,” he says.
Other superintendents who have embraced sustainability agree.
Scott Thayer says he feels obligated to practice sustainability at the Legends Club in Prior Lake, Minnesota, where he has been the superintendent of the18-hole public course for 10 years.
“I feel like it’s something we should all do,” he says. “It’s not a chore. … It’s not a time issue. It’s about dedication.”
Did Thayer bust his behind to make his operation more sustainable?
“Honestly, it was the easiest thing I’ve ever done,” he says.
Gary Ingram, the certified golf course superintendent and director of agronomy at Metropolitan Golf Links, an 18-hole public course in Oakland, California, says sustainability is more about commitment than time.
“It is primarily an attitude,” he says.
A thought process
Under their direction, the Sanctuary, Metropolitan and the Legends have each received Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary status by Audubon International, which offers an education and certification program that helps golf courses protect the environment while enhancing their bottom lines.
Sweet says he has spoken to other superintendents who started the program but haven’t finished it.
“I hear them say that they haven’t been able to take the time,” Sweet says.
A self-professed “cheerleader” of the program, Sweet says he tells those superintendents that finishing certification is worth the effort.
For, Sweet, Ingram and Thayer, sustainability is a thought process. Consider Sweet’s approach. He used to watch the fuel truck drive onto the property twice a month to resupply fuel tanks. Seeing it made him realize how much he wanted to reduce fuel consumption in his operation. So he did. Instead of mowing according to a set schedule, Sweet decided to mow only when it was needed.
Sweet has also changed the maintenance approach toward divot removal. Instead of removing divots with blowers, Sweet has staff members pick them up by hand, which he says is more sustainable.
“When we hand rake bunkers, those staff members patrol the fairways from hole to hole picking up divots from the previous day’s play,” Sweet adds.
The key is to consider the resources used to accomplish certain jobs and then ascertain how they can be reduced, Sweet says.
He mentions striping, noting it’s an aesthetic measure, not an agronomic one. So, Sweet asks, is it sustainable?
Ingram stresses that sustainability is about many things, including small things, like running irrigation pumps during off-peak hours and adjusting mowing patterns. It can be about installing light fixtures that consume less electricity. It’s about making the right purchases.
“Are we purchasing equipment and products that will not add to the world’s overall carbon footprint?” Ingram asks.
Ingram says superintendents shouldn’t be intimidated by the word “sustainability” because a program isn’t difficult to implement. It starts with a superintendent reviewing his or her course’s operation and seeing where implementing sustainable measures make sense.
“After that, it’s about saving time,” Ingram stresses.
Superintendents will learn that more sustainable practices will lead to a reallocation of labor, which equates to saving time and money, he adds.
Ultimately, superintendents should view sustainability as being for the community and golfers. Ingram states.
“I’ve attended symposiums on affordable golf,” he adds. “I look at those as being the same thing as discussing sustainable golf. What are we doing to make golf more sustainable for the public so people want to play the game? How are we making things less expensive? That’s what sustainability can be – doing things in a less expensive way.”
Sustainability is about looking at ways to do things differently, Thayer says. It could be about a superintendent making plans to reduce inputs, doing so and then realizing that the reduction didn’t impact playability.
For superintendents who believe implementing sustainable measures will be costly and take too much time, Thayer advises them to just give it a try.
“You can’t do anything if you don’t try it,” he says.
Sweet, Ingram and Thayer agree that many superintendents are practicing sustainable measures at their courses without realizing it.
“Just look at what you’re doing already to be sustainable and organize those thoughts,” Ingram says. “Then see where you can get better. … You might as well take it to another level, and see what else you can do.”
You can’t do sustainability alone. You need support from others, including golfers and decision makers. It starts with getting them on board with what you’re doing and why. You might have to do some convincing.
“You have to be able to stand up and speak up,” Sweet says. For instance, provide examples of how an environmental initiative will function, not affect playability and help the course save money. It’s vital to translate ideas to dollar signs, Sweet adds.
“You have to tell members that you reduced sprinkler heads by 70 in areas where there’s little play and saved $40,000 in the process,” he says. “If you show them that sustainability can equal dollar savings, they will fall right in with what you’re doing.”
When you get support, you begin to think even larger in terms of sustainability.
“The support the club has provided me has helped me think outside of the box,” Sweet says.
Ingram didn’t have to convince any higher-ups that sustainability makes sense. He says the management company that operates Metropolitan, CourseCo, embraces sustainability. Still, Ingram must continue to hammer the message home with his team that sustainability makes sense.
“[I tell them], we’re doing things here that impact the whole community, not just this facility,” Ingram says.
The owner and general manager of the Legends Club have been on board with Thayer’s sustainability initiatives from the beginning. But Thayer had to educate them – “You talk to them and show them,” he says – about what he wanted to do and the impact it would have on the environment, economics and the community.
“My owner has never fought me one iota,” Thayer says. “Our general manager has promoted it more than I could ever imagined.”
An important element is talking to golfers at the course to educate them about what he’s doing.
“I tell them about being an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary,” Thayer says. “I tell them we want to create a better environment as well as a really great golf course.”
The feel-good factor
Perhaps the biggest sustainable measure that Sweet implemented at Sanibel Island was eliminating overseeding.
“Overseeding turfgrass in Florida was so popular at one time that even we on Sanibel Island, with one of the warmest year-round average temperatures in the country, would create a winter wonderland of seed here,” Sweet says, noting the course used 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of ryegrass seed a year to keep the course looking “pretty.”
Ten years ago, Sweet led the charge to replace the bermudagrass on the course with seashore paspalum. It was an investment, but there has been a return on investment considering there’s no more seed to purchase, and no more water and fertilizer used to grow it in, among other things. Sweet is proud of the way things have turned out.
“It was a shift to sustainability,” he says.
Sweet also is proud that the Sanctuary will soon be the county-appointed relocation site for gopher tortoises found in nearby residential areas. As far as he knows, Sweet says it’s the first time a golf course in Florida has been considered a relocation site for an endangered species.
“Sustainability is entrenched in our core,” Sweet says.
At Metropolitan, Ingram welcomes hundreds of local students to the course every year, and discusses the course’s sustainable measures, such as the course’s recycling and water conservation programs. Ingram embraces such moments.
“We talk to them about how we strive to be sustainable,” he says. “We explain to them that businesses have a responsibility to be sustainable.”
At the Legends Club, Thayer is proud to say that the water leaving the streams and creeks on the premises is cleaner than when it entered it. He notes that the course received the Conversation Leadership Award from Scott County, where the course is located. Few golf courses get such awards.
The point is that Sweet, Ingram and Thayer feel good about what they’re doing. And when they’re gone from the industry, they’ll feel good about what they have left behind.
“You want to be the guy who people say, ‘I’m sure glad that guy was here. He made my life better; he made everybody’s life better,’ ” Ingram says.
FEATURE PHOTO BY KYLE SWEET