Golf Courses Taking Key Steps To Become Good Neighbors

By Lisa D. Mickey

When golfers think of golf courses, they envision expansive green spaces with ponds, trees, and native wildlife. But often when non-golfers think of these same grassy areas, some view golf courses as water gluttons and excessive abusers of fertilizers and chemicals.

Fortunately for both sides, modern course management has demonstrated a willingness to minimize harmful substances, reduce water usage, and scale back manicured turf on these courses to better mesh the game with the natural environment. And now when both golfers and non-golfers wonder if golf courses can be good neighbors in the environment, the perception is more often a resounding yes. 

According to Audubon International, an environmental nonprofit that works with golf courses and various industries to improve environmental management, between 10–15 percent of courses in Canada and the United States are members of environmental programs. The organization (no relation to the National Audubon Society) has worked with more than 3,000 golf courses in 30 nations taking steps to conserve water, reduce chemical use, and improve wildlife habitat.

“Managing a golf course with environmental standards is not easy,” says Doug Bechtel, Audubon International Executive Director. “It requires the facility to commit to conservation best practices, like water quality, animal habitat, and naturalizing areas not in play—none of which have an impact on playability.

“We find that for courses making this commitment, the payback can be significant, and those courses are considered great neighbors in their communities,” Bechtel adds.

Mark Johnson, associate director of environmental programs at the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), says his organization provides professional education and resources for course superintendents to manage the land while “using resources wisely and protecting the environment.

“Golf courses exist and rely upon a healthy environment,” says Johnson. “Courses implementing agronomic and environmental best-management practices are valuable green spaces in any watershed.” 

Even beyond how and where grass grows, course superintendents have become more focused on replacing invasives with native species. Craig Weyandt, superintendent at The Moorings Yacht & Country Club in Vero Beach, Fla., removed a mile-long hedge of Brazilian pepper and extracted invasive Australian pines in exchange for planting more than 800 native plant species on his course.

He also allowed his lake-bank grasses to grow 12–18 inches high, rather than mowing to two inches. By letting native lakeside plants grow, Weyandt created buffer zones around water hazards to avoid chemical runoff into ponds, while also creating wildlife habitats for fish, birds, and butterflies.

“I think we took what we had and made it better,” says Weyandt, who has led wildlife tours for members and guests on his course for 10 years.

For natural mosquito control, Anthony Williams, former grounds director at Stone Mountain Golf Club in Stone Mountain, Ga., had two-dozen bat boxes built on his course to attract Southern brown bats. He also added 36 bluebird boxes on his facility’s 36 holes and stopped mowing a 14-acre area to restore pasture habitat.

“A lot of this is old wisdom that we lost along the way with actions that gave us the reputation of not being good stewards of the land,” says Williams. “What we’ve learned is that everything we do as an operation has an impact on the wildlife and the environment around us.”

Other courses, such as The Sanctuary Golf Club in Sanibel Island, Fla., have added working bee hives and planted native wildflowers to encourage pollination by bees and butterflies. The Sanctuary is surrounded by J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Both Stone Mountain and The Sanctuary have earned distinction as Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries—an Audubon International program that requires specific qualification criteria for golf courses to become designated for environmental achievement.

Locust Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., also became certified through the program and its superintendent, Rick Slattery, says his membership gained a greater environmental awareness through the process.

“I would hope that some day, whether or not a golf course is environmentally friendly and sustainable will enter into people’s decisions about which golf courses they choose to join and patronize,” Slattery adds. 

Water has increasingly become a greater concern throughout the nation in recent years, with western states falling under strict guidelines and new usage challenges. TPC Las Vegas, for example, has found a way to uphold the standards and conditions of the PGA Tour while maintaining only 90 acres of turf grass. 

But even rain-rich courses, such as The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., have consciously reduced water usage through state-of-the-art sprinkler systems and the use of effluent water.

John Katterheinrich, superintendent at The Bear’s Club, says the course’s namesake, Jack Nicklaus, took extra care when he built the course in 1999. Nicklaus installed 17 lift stations to transfer water out of areas of play on the course and into a settling area planted with native vegetation. The course design filters all water twice before it leaves the golf-course property.

In addition, The Bear’s Club maintains 65 acres of turf compared to the average 110 acres of grass for 18-hole courses in South Florida. And on a hot summer night, the course will use up to 350,000 gallons of reclaimed water compared to an average of 850,000 gallons of water used by many other South Florida courses, says Katterheinrich.

Over the years, Nicklaus has designed or modified more than 375 courses in 36 countries through his company, Nicklaus Design, but the World Golf Hall of Fame member says one thing has remained a constant throughout his career.

“I’ve always been a wildlife lover,” he says. “A main part of my design philosophy is that a course must be aesthetically pleasing, and [that means] not only how the course looks to the eye—the greens, fairways, bunkers, etc.—but how it also includes the trees, native vegetation, and the wildlife that surrounds the course.

“I hope people understand how golfers and golf course designers are very good stewards of the land and environment,” Nicklaus adds. “When they finish a round on one of my courses, I hope it was a walk with nature and that golf was a part of that walk.”

 Lisa D. Mickey is a veteran golf writer and a certified Florida Master Naturalist.