Golf Courses Embark on Road to Environmental Recovery

For years, a golf course—or proximity to one—has been a prerequisite of the destination meeting. But as meeting planners increasingly seek to green their practices within the meetings and lodgings parameter, they are likely wondering about the green practices of the greens outside.

Happily, golf course managers are also seeking answers to the waste of resources and harm to wildlife, which were hallmarks of past practices. "The biggest challenge," said Kenneth A. Gorzycki, director of golf course management at Austin's Barton Creek Resort & Club, "may be the public's perception that golf courses are bad for the environment." But, he added, "Look around; most urban golf courses are the only places where you can find abundant wildlife, trees, turf and open spaces that provide wildlife habitat, recreation, exercise, water filtration, heat absorption, and air purification."

Audubon International, the conservation society, has advocated golf courses like Barton
Creek as places that can provide needed wildlife sanctuaries, preserve natural areas within urban environments, support plants and wildlife native to the area, protect water resources, filter stormwater runoff through golf course wetlands and turfgrass, rehabilitate degraded landscapes, and promote environmentally sound management. There are currently hundreds of courses throughout the U.S. that have been certified by Audubon International as having proactive environmental policies, which include returning unused turf to the wild. The organization pointed out that, by removing eight acres of turf, Arizona's Quail Run Golf Course saved 16 million gallons of water and 800 gallons of fuel.

Audubon also suggested that designers create "slower" courses by mowing less, to which Wells Rawls, of Boise, ID-based Biome Design Services, agreed: "Most courses mow all the grass from edge to edge. It helps lesser golfers to keep the ball in play, have more fun, and spend money. However, lawn mowers have no systems for cleaning exhaust like cars and trucks. The carbon emissions are huge compared to the size of the engine. Mowing less area (narrower fairways, roughs, etc) and less often will be the biggest way to reduce carbon emissions."

Rawls also cited fertilizers (synthetic fertilizers are made from petroleum), water usage, and pest control as other issues affecting the environment. The Cape Cod Country Club, one of Massachusetts' premier public courses, recently used Converted Organics' all-natural liquid concentrate, which is created from food waste diverted from landfills; other natural fertilizers feature animal waste.

The recent $50 million renovation of Tampa, FL's Saddlebrook Resort made significant environmental improvements, including a redesigned golf course that, thanks to a technologically advanced irrigation system, uses only a fraction of the water used by a typical Florida golf course, according to Sean Dempsey, director of Midwest sales (and chair of Saddlebrook's Green Committee)."This is a major part of where a golf course has an environmental impact," he said.

Is there an environmental checklist for golf courses? It's better, according to Gorzycki, to request a record of environmental stewardship. "That way, you'd get a better feel for how much or how little is actually being done," he said.

Originally published Oct. 20, 2008