Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Future of Golf Course Architecture in Canada – Part 3 - Economics

The photo is of Sagebrush in BC
taken by Jeff Mingay

The last two entries talked about environmental issues – which I’m sure I’ll return to before this series is up – but today I wanted to touch on other issues that will have a huge impact on future golf developments. I’m going to continue to talk about a series of related subjects for about a week and then pull them all together with what I think is a realistic solution. Golf is going to change – the question is no longer if – its how much.

The Economic Model Doesn’t Work

Golf has clearly entered a period of stagnation that began at the turn of the century with a noticeable decline in participation. The price to play golf had turned players away for the first time in decades. All the while developers continued to over-build a market that was in decline, creating enormous price pressure particularly with the new higher end courses. The problem stems from too much ego getting involved in the developments with each mega project attempting to one up the previous course in order to draw attention away. The result is that each business model became more unrealistic than the last – people seemed to have forgotten that this is still a business where revenue must outpace expenses.

Study after study has reached the same conclusion. The game has become too expensive, takes too much time and in many cases is too difficult for the average person – and until the game becomes more inclusive of different skill levels, socio-economic groups and does not involve a whole day - the game will struggle. This doesn’t mean and end to new projects – far from it - but they will have to be better businesses in the future. They will need to be built for less, require less maintenance, and be inclusive of all levels of players.

shape only tees, greens and bunkers

Golf designers will need to show some restraint. In particular they need to avoid the development of what I would call Extreme Golf. It makes for great photos and lousy playing experiences. Just because we have the equipment and skills to build in even the most extreme places – it still doesn’t mean we should. The amount of earthmoving required, the potential for environmental damage, the shear cost, the difficulties for grow in and the development of cart only golf courses is not healthy for the game.

The economics and designs will improve if we choose to disturb less of what’s there. We don’t need to strip an entire site of topsoil, reshape the site to suit or image of a golf hole and then put it all back together. By finding the holes that nature has left and accepting some of the quirks as part of the design – we can become less intrusive – and a little more creative as designers. This will also leave much more of the topsoil in place, reduce disturbance amd create a cheaper build.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Future of Golf Course Architecture in Canada – Part Two - Pesticides


“Reduce & Eliminate the Use of Pesticides?” – Jennifer Grant

This was the lecture I wanted to see. Could we maintain a course with no pesticides? Was it still possible to provide acceptable playing conditions after legislation that forced golf to turn to little or no inputs? Could we turn back to a more UK style of maintenance? After all, my lecture two days later talked openly about the possibility of contending with this circumstance as part of the potential vision of the future.

Dr. Grant talked about Cornel’s experimental program going on at the Green Course at Bethpage State Park. They had been a running experiment for around six years with the goal of find out what effects different cultural practices, levels of input, and the use of chemicals had on turfgrass. They also wanted to investigate the use of biological controls and alternative approaches to see what sort of impact they could have on turfgrass and whether there were alternative approaches that work. Their focus was also on testing solutions that were more environmentally responsible right up against common cultural practices.

The Old Course

The 18 greens were divided into six groups and each was put under different regimes to see how they react. One of the test groups were given no pesticide and herbicide, the next set were maintained under the Integrated Pest Management and the last group allowed anything the superintendent wanted to use. Each group was then divided to break out different practices under each scenario.

While environmentalists and politicians may want to completely ban the use of pesticides and herbicides – the answer was swift. At Bethpage it proved impossible since dollar spot alone was enough to wipe out the greens. The study quickly concluded that no cultural practice was capable of dealing with the threat and even if they managed to avoid the snow mold or dollar spot another disease like Pythium was always there to finish them off. The greens need some applications to survive.

But what became interesting was they quickly found out that “light” chemical use was almost as successful as an unlimited use of chemicals. When you added in particular cultural practices and the use of organics to control the disease and pest pressures on turf and the conclusions were fascinating. What they learned was by selecting certain “lower toxicity” products and limiting the spraying to a minimum and increasing certain cultural practices they could meet green expectations of around 9 feet and take the environmental impact down up to 90% from the unlimited approach. While no input is impossible, minimal input is not. It’s complicated at times, requires additional maintenance, a little more expense – but possible!

There are two key things that designers and regulators must read into this study to see this become the standard to which we all should strive. They must recognize the old problems are still problems and become bigger problems since the superintendent has half there tools removed from the box. We need to head down this path BUT we need to ensure the growing environment is ideal to allow for the production of carbohydrates the key to making sure the plant is as strong as possible and is more resistant to disease.


One interesting note was when the golf courses began to brown a little through reduced input, the tested the quality of the roll of the ball roll and found it just as consistent in that low input environment. In other words they may not have looked as “nice” (ie. green) but they played exactly the same. I think if anyone really wants to address this whole issue correctly – the answer to reducing is follow their example of lower inputs and better environmental choices when they need a produce. The mantra of reducing “toxicity risk” is a great one. Toxicity risk looks at the opportunity for the chemical to migrate, the risk of contact, the strength of the product and places a value that needs to be multiplied by the application rate. It values the overall impact to the environment and helps us make the best decisions for the ecosystem rather than a blanket decision.

To Part 3

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Future of Golf Course Architecture in Canada – Part One - The Enviornment

Photo courtesy of Brian Ewan

“We have a duty to minimize our imprint on the environment”

I plan on talking for at least a week about the environment and golf. I set out to give a lecture on the future of golf course architecture and found myself openly questioning the way things are done in both design and maintenance of new golf courses. This journey began a few weeks back with my learning that Ontario would head towards a ban of pesticides - while golf courses are expected to have an initial exemption - they are likely facing a long term ban. I knew right away that maintenance practices in Canada are going to have to change and so were the designs. Once you add the issues of water restrictions and the ever-increasing costs to build and maintain it makes it so clear that the golf course industry will undergo a transition and be forced to become even more environmentally responsible (most are better stewards than people realize). I knew that my design work was going to have to reflect what is to come – and place my new courses in the best position to cope with the future - rather to foolishly build to today’s environmental standards and leave the courses struggling to deal with each change in legislation.

Last week I attended the Canadian Golf Superintendents Conference in Calgary. I went to lectures on turf, fairway renovation, dealing with trees, soils, foliar fertilization (my brain hurt afterwards), eliminating pesticides (tomorrow’s discussion), the European Environmental Movement, and even rating courses with Bob Weeks. I also saw lectures by well know superintendents reflecting on the changes in their business and attended a panel discussion with an open mike for questions. I was able to seek out and ask many great superintendents from all over the country about the changes they face with the environment and what is possible. I went there with the goal of finding out if Canadian Superintendents believed that a reduced input program is possible taking our turf closer to a UK model in order to be more environmentally responsible.

One of my lectures included Ken Seims from Loch Lomond talking about the Environmental Movement in Europe and for the first time I was able to see how an existing course could become a better steward of the land. It was an eye-opening lecture on all the possibilities outside of the playing areas and what we could accomplish if we looked at the property as a whole – including all the buildings. I didn’t get exactly what I sought but I did get a window into what it would require. One of the keys that Ken stressed was drainage since it was the key to better choices on turf selection which is one cultural key to reduce inputs to turf. Another lecture talked about the fact that sunlight and the production of carbohydrates in the plant is the key to avoiding disease pressure and that airflow is not near as big a factor.

Jack's Point NZ

One fascinating part of asking a lot of questions is what you learn by accident. I was tipped off by another superintendent to ask Dr. Loyns about the potential of golf courses as a carbon sinks. He said that a study at the University of Colarado confirmed that golf courses are 50% better as carbon sinks than natural grasslands. Can it be possible that the future will have golf course could selling carbon credits?

To Part 2 – can we eliminate pesticides and herbicides?