Tim Hiers jokes that trying to briefly summarize all of the things his course, The Old Collier Golf Club in Naples, Fla., has done to be sustainable is like trying to describe the Bible in three sentences. But his comparison is not too far off.
For starters, Old Collier was a pioneer of Daniel Boone proportions after becoming the first course in the world to irrigate exclusively with brackish water. It was the second in the world to use seashore paspalum from tee to green. And then another first: it was named the first Audubon International Certified Gold Signature Sanctuary golf club in the world. All of these accomplishments were achieved shortly after the club’s inception in 2001. In 2003, the club was recognized by the Council for Sustainable Florida with the Sustainable Florida Award.
“Once we went with seashore paspalum, it opened the floodgates for other courses to start using it, and it’s now used around the world,” says Hiers.
When asked what the impetus was for starting down the path of sustainability, Hiers said it’s just something he has always done.
“To me, it’s like asking someone why they eat,” he said. “I didn’t do it because it was sustainable. If our founding fathers hadn’t used sustainable features, we wouldn’t be here today. I’ve incorporated sustainability into my management style since 1988.”
Hiers says his water, pumped from the lower Hawthorn aquifer, is probably the second worst quality in the world. It contains up to 7,500 total dissolved solids (TDS) with high bicarbonates; most courses would be concerned if they were pumping water with merely 1,000 TDS. Needless to say, you can’t just throw that kind of water on any plants, which is why the course features seashore paspalum and halophytic plants that are tolerant to salt overspray.
After the finer textured paspalums came out in the late 1990s that were acceptable for use on golf courses, Coral Creek in Oahu, Hawaii was the first to use them, with Old Collier coming in second right behind it.
The irrigation system was a “prescription” one due to Old Collier’s unique needs. All 2,700 heads were physically staked and designed to put water exactly where it was needed – a task that requires more heads than usual.
“We use a lot less water and electricity that way,” says Hiers. “If you told the typical golfer that we had more heads, you would think as a result that you would use more water, but we actually use less because it goes precisely where needed. It just costs you more up front to do that.”
Plus, the heads are lower angle ones with the correct spacing and lower PSI, which produces bigger water droplets and thus reduces misting caused by the wind. Hiers also spent $100,000 on larger pipe to reduce his water window, but he estimates it’s saving him a minimum of $15,000 per year. Give that the installation was done 12 years ago, he figures he has already netted $80,000. But more importantly, it allows him to use less water and electricity and reduce wear and tear on the system.
“We’re able to irrigate the entire golf course in six-and-a-half hours, which means we can wait later to irrigate and give it a chance to rain,” Hiers says.
Not pumping during peak hours allows Hiers to pay about 65 percent less per kilowatt hour, which saves him about $1,500 per month. His electric bill last year was a mere $14,000.
“If you told that to someone in California, they would say that’s not possible because they spend $50,000 to $150,000 a year on electricity,” he says.
Hiers said he and his staff had to take many learning curves at once on the chin concerning the soil, pumping, irrigation, grass and water. Add to that the fact that Old Collier is a high profile club with high expectations and you get a stressful experience.
“I don’t want to fail, but you remember and learn more from non-success than you do success,” Hiers says. “Sometimes when you’re successful, you’re complacent. We can’t get complacent because the expectations are so high.”
Failures included solenoid issues in the irrigation system due to the brackish water, but Hiers says Toro was instrumental in solving the problem.
“They went back and tested the new heads they developed with higher saline water to ensure they would work,” he says. “Now, those heads that were developed here are used around the world.”
There were also issues with the pumping station. Flowtronex engineered special stainless steel components for Old Collier, but there were still failures.
“[Flowtronex] took the whole station back to Texas, and to their credit, engineered a pump station that is also now used around the world based on their experience at Old Collier,” Hiers says.
What did the members think of the paspalum? Hiers said the only complaint the first year was that the rough was too easy because the ball sat right on top of it. But he said he doesn’t hear about that anymore because the members like it too much.
“We’re probably the only club in the southeast that hasn’t lowered their initiation fees in the last four years,” he says. “We wouldn’t still be getting new members if they didn’t like the grass. But we’re more than just the turf, too – our level of service is extraordinary. If you talked to the golf pro, he would tell you our members love the grass.”
Even though Hiers considers Old Collier to be a leader in many sustainable developments, he isn’t below taking ideas from other courses and using them, too. For example, he modeled his pesticide storage and recycling building after the one at Sharon Golf Club in Ohio. He also sent his mechanic to TPC at The Canyons in Las Vegas to study their maintenance facility. A team of nine people worked on the design of the facility for two-and-a-half years, altering traffic flow and the way equipment is stored and cleaned, among other things.
“We’re not afraid to go look at other courses and ask for help,” says Hiers.
Another example of Old Collier doing something not just for the return on investment is making its bridges out of 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic. It was quite expensive, with an expected payback in 15 years. But it was concern for aquatic life that fueled their decision.
“We did it because we didn’t want to be putting a stain on the bridge where rain could come down and wash it into the water underneath and hurt the macro- and micro-invertebrate environment,” Hiers says. “On the financial side, we now have two more years till we’re making money on the bridges, and they’re guaranteed for 50 years because the recycled plastic has UV protection in it.”
Hiers can’t say he would do much different if he had the chance to redo the club’s sustainability measures – other than maybe choose a different variety of paspalum.
“There’s a different paspalum that exists now that I would put on our greens, but it wasn’t available 13 years ago,” he says.
But they’re not done yet. They’re currently installing moisture meters in the fairways and greens and working with manufacturers on experiments that could yield innovative new products.
About the author
Jason Stahl is a Cleveland-based writer and frequent GCI contributor.