All the above is true for golf. More than the scorecard or the Stimpmeter reading. More than fairway laughter. Where the land changes, shifts and plays in different ways every day, natural elements shape the sport. Wind, trees, water, sun, soil, sand, turf. Where humans and nature compete it’s possible for all the players to win and Audubon International is changing the game.
Based in Troy, New York and founded in 1987, AI is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. It’s funded through sponsors and members. Certification and education are encouraged to promote robust environmental stewardship. It’s easiest to join through the website. Members receive multiple resources, “including the Guide to Environmental Stewardship on the Golf Course, which is pretty much our Bible,” says Frank LaVardera, director of environmental programs for golf at AI. An initial site assessment is completed and then an environmental plan is created, addressing each of the technical components of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP), formally established in 1991.
Those components are water conservation, water quality management, wildlife habitat management, chemical use reduction and safety, and, importantly, outreach and education. Using the established environmental plan, AI provides expert advice to help each member reach standards required for certification. It’s a unique process as some properties may have little to do to be certified and others will have farther to travel. Certification typically takes around two years but can be accomplished in six months.
When the property earns approval in all the technical areas, AI staff tour the site to ensure proper standards have been met and certification becomes official. To maintain certification, detailed information must be submitted after three years, with another site visit three years after that. That first certification has the steepest learning curve.
Program costs are balanced by professional support and ideas shared by AI, customized assistance, and positive brand association. It costs $400 to become a member, $500 per year once certified and some additional fees for site visits, which vary depending on location. There may be costs for each course to improve its environmental efforts (chemical use, water quality and water conservation are usually the tricky technical aspects of the program), but there are ways a course can become more environmentally friendly and cut expenses simultaneously.
Globally, there are nearly 2,000 ACSP members and it’s been a “comprehensive and robust program for over 30 years,” LaVardera says. AI is available to help properties ranging from world-renowned Pine Valley Golf Club to local municipal courses. These properties are all contributing to the momentum for environmental standards and garner third-party recognition for their effort.
Ted Horton, secretary of the AI board of directors (2014-present), has decades of experience in working in golf and the environment from his time as superintendent at Winged Foot (1966-79) to serving as vice president, resource management with the Pebble Beach Company (1993-2001). “We can go further to allow the community to enjoy the environment on golf properties,” Horton says, “and we must keep trying.” During his time with Pebble Beach Company, he changed some environmental perceptions of the industry and that is what those working with AI continue to do, too.
Let’s examine how a pair of courses on different coasts, certified in different eras, are promoting environmental efforts.
The Links at Spanish Bay
Horton was hired to ensure Pebble Beach Company was environmentally friendly. The Links at Spanish Bay, which is owned and managed by the company, had opened in November 1987 with a design by Sandy Tatum, Tom Watson and Robert Trent Jones, Jr. The course was built on an old sand mining site and development was narrowly approved by Monterey County officials and the California Coastal Commission. Ownership committed to recreating the dunescape and restoring the native habitats.
The plants originally on site no longer thrived there because the sand that had been mined varied from the sand brought in to replace it. To restore the sand dune habitat, a different palate of native plants was carefully selected in collaboration with the California Native Plant Society. “The nursery onsite grew hundreds and thousands of those plants, which were planted along the golf course and the sand dunes bordering it,” Horton says. “And the groups formed a good relationship by working together.” The nursery is still in operation and native plants are shared with the local community.
It took time to build trust between the golf industry and several environmental organizations. To keep earning that trust and to challenge the perception that golf courses were environmentally damaging, Horton and PBC organized an environmental golf summit. With the environment, communication and compromises are part of the process but are necessary for long-term gain.
Around the same time that Pebble Beach Company was placing more value on the environment, so was AI. The Links at Spanish Bay was the first course in California to be certified into the ACSP in 1994. Other Pebble Beach Company courses were certified also: Spyglass Hill (2000), Del Monte (2001) and Pebble Beach (2003). A new short course “The Hay” designed by Tiger Woods and TGR Design that is part of the Pebble Beach course will be a part of the certification (as was the Peter Hay course there previously).
“PBC has consistently upheld the guidelines and principles of the certification and have successfully completed many recertifications over the years,” LaVardera says. “Their long-term commitment to the environment is commendable.”
In addition to PBC vice president and director of golf John Sawin, there are other senior members of the leadership team devoted to resource management and environmental affairs. The PBC directives for the environment are beyond inspirational. Genuine stewardship extends from the top down, from designated positions to solar panels on the Pebble Beach maintenance facility to recycling at every Pebble Beach Company property.
Pete Bachman, superintendent at The Links at Spanish Bay, immaculately maintains Poa greens and a rye/Poa mix on the tees, fairways and roughs. The superintendent of each Pebble Beach Company course reports to Sawin and every employee is aware of, trained in and contributes to environmental initiatives. By sunset, when the bagpiper begins to play, the environment and the course have been nurtured.
“The long-term commitment the company has made is amazing,” says Sawin, who joined Pebble Beach Company three years ago. “From preserving a quarter of the Del Monte Forest; to maintaining 50 miles of walking, hiking, and equestrian trails; to recovering and recycling golf balls from the ocean, add it all up and it really is impressive.”
And that’s just one extraordinary company and a few very special courses. There are many more working for the environment and with AI.
Duran Golf Club
Shortly after the 2020 Golf Industry Show in Orlando, Duran Golf Club in Melbourne, Florida, was one of the last courses to be certified in person before COVID-19 restrictions swept the United States. Officially certified in February 2020, Duran has been an AI member since 2014 and really began its journey with the course design in 2004. That’s 16 years of sustained ambition.
“Becoming ACSP certified was always a goal so the course was created with wildlife corridors and utilizing Florida natural plant materials,” says Jeff Von Eschen, senior manager of golf operations. Superintendent Drew Norman is also a longtime staff member, helping with construction and the grow in. The hero of Duran’s certification is Dr. Jim Papritan, a dedicated golfer and professor emeritus from Ohio State University’s Department of Food, Agriculture and Biological Engineering.
“He was looking for something to do,” Von Eschen says. “I said, ‘Funny you should ask,’ and we talked.” He was organized and kept pushing. “With the course, you can get sidetracked with projects, so Jim set dates and times for us to get everything done.”
Papritan handled paperwork and insisted that Duran do everything correctly. Papritan was the one in contact with AI. It can’t be reiterated enough, it is worth enlisting help. LaVardera highly recommends configuring a “Resource Advisory Committee.”
This public course was created on what was originally a sod farm. There are 18 holes with tees, fairways and roughs covered by Tifway 419 Bermudagrass. The greens are TifEagle Bermudagrass. A few tee boxes are used as experimental plots to see if Empire and Icon zoysiagrass can be maintained at lower mowing heights. There are also pockets of Bahiagrass on the edges of the course and an extensive illuminated practice area and short course.
At Duran, there are well-used brush piles, bat boxes and bird houses for purple matins, Carolina wrens and tree swallows. There are acres of no-spray zones and naturalized areas to increase the carrying capacity of the property and an integrated pest management program to reduce chemical usage. Water is conserved by using nonionic surfactants and by hand watering dry spots. Ponds and wetlands are monitored to ensure appropriate water quality, and students frequently use the course for science projects.
Winds off the Atlantic Ocean influence playing conditions, but that doesn’t bother the golfers or the staff. They enjoy it all, including seeing butterflies visit the pollinator garden. “We keep an eye out for gators during the removal of invasive species in the native areas,” says Norman, who prefers tangible projects and plays a pivotal role in Duran’s accomplishments.
“Part of the reason we wanted to be certified is because golf courses get a bad reputation for being awful polluters of the environment,” Von Eschen says. “I know every superintendent in this area and certified or not, we are stewards of the land and responsible in everything we do.”
Duran intends to maintain certification and continues to photograph and document new projects so the paperwork will be ready. “It was extremely rewarding to get that certification,” says Von Eschen — and, of course, Papritan was there.
“The certification documents submitted by the Duran Golf Club were truly amazing,” LaVardera says. “Dr. Jim Papritan, Jeff Von Eschen and the entire Duran team demonstrated a detailed understanding of establishing and implementing environmentally sustainable practices.”
Besides certification, three AI conservation initiatives provide options to enhance and promote sustainability: BioBlitz, Raptor Relocation Network and Monarchs in the Rough. BioBlitz is open to every golf course and requires little planning. Accommodating participants young and old, people gather to identify and count species of plants and animals. Observing the on-course diversity demonstrates the value of these green spaces. Promotional materials and event instructions are provided.
Due to high nesting grounds and long views across the fairways, golf courses provide great habitats for owls, kestrels and hawks who help control insects, rodents and other golf course pests. The Raptor Relocation Network is a partnership between United Airlines Eco-Skies and AI to connect ACSP golf courses with airport wildlife managers in San Francisco and the New York metro area.
Monarchs in the Rough is a third conservation initiative option. This effort is trying to reverse the decline in the monarch population. The premise is to create pollinator habitats on a national network of golf courses to collectively reduce habitat loss for these iconic butterflies. The 755 courses in the program have dedicated more than 1,000 acres for monarch habitat. Courses are eligible to receive an acre’s worth of regionally appropriate milkweed and wildflower mixes. Signage, posters and technical guidance are available.
AI is always moving forward, though Horton acknowledges it’s sometimes difficult to have the funding and staffing to check on certified courses. Virtual visits offer more potential since the pandemic. “We are considering recognition for the individual who has helped the course be certified,” Horton says. “It wouldn’t have to be a superintendent, it could be anyone driving the AI process.”
“As golf courses are being built or renovated, make sure there is a walking trail around it. Make sure any open space has some gardens for pollinators,” Horton says. “Courses generate oxygen, provide wildlife habitat, filter water, help control flooding and so much more. All these things are positive and we need to talk about them. Decisions made with enthusiasm move the success needle and result in reaching goals and personally experiencing something amazing.”
An intriguing sport of so much more than 18 holes, the environment establishes the natural grace of every round. Successfully navigating decades of growth, AI has the ideas and energy to encourage and support those who are ready. Coast to coast, and for every perceptive spirit, environmental stewardship can be a resounding strength of the game.