Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Discussion of “How Green is Golf?” by John Barton – Part 5 of 5

“The Golf Course Superintendent” Jeff Carlson

Jeff is in change of America’s only organic course where no pesticides or chemical treatments are allowed. He just recently won the 2008 President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship from the America Golf Course Superintendent Association. Jeff was also involved in Widow’s Walk which has been called an environmental demonstration golf course.

The reason his course – Vineland Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass – went this route was because there is only one single source aquifer on the island. While they felt they could “virtually guarantee the safety of the groundwater – 100% was not possible – and that was the standard required to approve the club. So they went organic. The article talks a lot about the trial and error that is still going on in order to maintain the organic commitment but also to keep a good healthy course.

“Our mantra is, we strive for excellent playability, but that doesn’t necessarily mean visual perfection”

Jeff talks about a few of the progressive techniques like using nematodes to deal with grubs – and mentioned that they get a lot of things to trial because of their unique position in the golf community. He provides us with a positive outlook for the future mentioning how many companies are bringing organic products to the table to be ahead of the curve and to be ready for the foreseeable future – I was excited by that comment.

The key he has found is cultural practices - and so did Dr Grant’s study too. He mentions all the techniques they had to develop to limit leaf wetness to deal with problems of fungus. This even includes the old fashioned technique of whisking the dew from the greens. He mentions that fungus has been his biggest battle for the last 6 years.

“When I started, it was the fungal diseases that were the most problematic. With our cultural practices and the organic fungicides that we use, the disease severity is a lot less than it was. We also think – not proven, total anecdotal – that there is some natural selection going on. We think the grasses are starting to adapt. It’s survival of the fittest – disease-resistant grasses occurring naturally.”

He mentions that weeds are still a problem and laments that if he could only use a couple of pre-emergent applications that issue would be gone. He mentions that there really isn’t an organic solution to this problem and ends up talking about a machine that literally applies boiling foam in a concentrated spot spray to kill the plant. The one thing that this points out about going organic is techniques like this – or hand picking which they have to do too - are very labour intensive compared to spraying applications.

I find it fascinating when he points out most women members get the idea and support the idea of organic golf maintenance. You have to wonder if the maleness of golf is actually a hindrance to getting on with doing the right things. Jeff feels that golfers must become willing to accept something a little less perfect looking – that still plays great – to make a move to a practice that is obviously healthier for us all. As he says if we use less, it has to be healthier for everyone. Jeff mentions that superintendents would go more organic if they knew their jobs were not linked to the current level of perfection. The level of expectation is extraordinary now and the organic movement is up against those expectations. One large issue that most superintendents bring up is the fear of losing their jobs because organic golf will not meet member’s expectations. As Jeff points out – they would be more organic already if they had some assurances.

I admire Jeff for taking this challenge and excelling – he is an inspiration for everyone. I think there is a little context needed to understand that his circumstance plays a role in this too. This course is built on sand (excellent drainage), that has a clean water source (no complications of salt), it has a moderating maritime climate (this tends to suppress disease pressure), the grasses are new (selected for the situation and are still fairly pure), this is a high end club with a decent budget, and the golfers have no choice but to accept the conditions that he can present in the circumstance.

This is not said to belittle his accomplishments – which are extraordinary. This is also not said to make it sound impossible when faced with less budget and a tough site. We must have an understanding about how tough certain sites will be and realize that we either have to improve the situation (new grasses, drainage, remove trees) or have slightly lower expectation on tough sites during extreme stress. We’ll all be better off for the change of attitude.

I’ll let Jeff finish with a great final point that could make all the difference.

“Unless golfers begin to have a change or perception and begin to accept those blemishes, and has that same mentality as when he goes to St. Andrews or Hoylake, and accepts those conditions and finds them charming and has a great round of golf. Then you can do it. The professionals and the tours and golf’s hierarchy have to embrace that, too. The guys who are driving the bus.”

13 comments:

michael said...

thank you Ian for all of this; I was able to catch a copy of the full pdf on golfdigest.com (i guess they formatted it differently a week after they released it - im not sure how things work on their site as I too am not a big fan of them) and if there is any way i could attach this to the site, i would be more than willing to offer an opportunity to forward this article to those who are interested.

Henrye said...

Great blog articles Ian. I guess what amazes me most in all this is that I can remember being in Jamaica in '92 or '93 and talking to a College student. He was studying organic golf course maintenance and told me that there were already many developments along that front back then.

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