When professional golf’s U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open were televised from North Carolina’s historic Pinehurst No. 2 course in 2014, viewers got an unforgettable look at what is considered the future of golf courses. From a blimp high above, cameras showed a landscape not covered in the lush greenery typical of golf courses, but fairways that were streaked in browns and roughs pockmarked with stretches of exposed sand. Except for the putting surfaces, Pinehurst No. 2 looked arid. And it was all by design.
As part of a makeover to restore the course to its more traditional condition from the mid–20th century, the fairways were widened and framed with belts of sand, tufts of vegetation, and patches of pine needles, while the conventional high-grass roughs were replaced with sandscapes and native vegetation. As a result, the amount of turf needing watering dropped from 90 acres to 50 (from 36 ha to 20) and overall water use dropped by half—all while maintaining a championship-quality course.
Water conservation “is the direction the industry is going,” says Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s director of golf course management. “We became the poster child for doing it.”
Indeed, a new era for golf courses is emerging—one that is more sustainable and water conscious than in the past.
As drought and water supply issues become more serious, golf course designers, superintendents, and leaders of the game contend that it is no longer possible to maintain golf courses as they have been over the years—with lush green grass covering nearly every foot of space, even outside playing areas.
A rising number of golf courses have been implementing strategies to use less water or to shift to nonpotable water sources. Today’s strategies include using more drought-resistant turf grasses; replacing some grass with native plantings; installing better computer-controlled irrigation systems; increasing the use of recycled water; and in some cases, simply watering less and letting some of the grass turn brown. This has spawned the golf course industry’s current mantra: brown is the new green.
“Everyone understands water is the greatest challenge we face going into the future,” says Rhett Evans, chief executive officer of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), based in Lawrence, Kansas, outside Kansas City. “The whole golf industry in general is getting behind conservation.”
The association has surveyed operators of U.S. golf courses about water issues during the past decade. Its latest results, released last fall, determined that respondents’ courses reduced their total water use by 22 percent from 2005 to 2013. The survey also found that more than twice as many golf courses reduced their turf acreage during 2009 to 2013 as did for 2001 to 2005.
Golf courses adopting conservation measures can get special recognition: Audubon International, a Troy, New York–based nonprofit environmental education organization not affiliated with the National Audubon Society, offers certification programs for existing and new golf courses based on water conservation, chemical use, and other categories. It is much like a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) system for golf courses, and the number of courses receiving certification has more than doubled in the past decade to 956 today.
“The old days of switching on a sprinkler head and letting it run are long gone,” says David O’Donoghue, senior vice president of DMB, a developer of master-planned communities; DMB also manages golf courses in four western states—Arizona, California, Hawaii, and Utah—including the Silverleaf course in Scottsdale, Arizona, where O’Donoghue is also general manager.
Turf removal. Turf rebates have emerged in the western United States as a popular program to help golf courses save water. Water districts or municipalities typically offer some cash incentive, usually $1 to $3 for every square foot ($11 to $32 per sq m) of turf removed, up to certain limits. This strategy supports a golf course management approach of “maintenance up the middle”—focusing irrigation and other care activities on the tees, fairways, and greens and away from roughs and nonplayable areas.
Las Vegas’s Southern Nevada Water Authority was among the first U.S. water districts to adopt a turf-removal program. In the past dozen years, it has paid out more than $25 million, and more than 70 percent of golf courses within its boundaries have participated. Las Vegas’s Angel Park Golf Club, which consists of 57 holes spread across four courses, during the past decade has removed more than 80 acres (32 ha) of turf from areas, including its driving range, according to the water authority.