Environmentalism by nature

Columns - golf therapy

© mark mansur

The political math alone tells you to be mindful of long-term sustainability on the golf course. Since only one out of 12 in the population play golf, the other 11 have no experience or understanding of what is involved out there. That means public opinion looks askance at what you are doing. And should it ever come to a jury trial in which the golf course is up for scrutiny in a civil case, the odds are against you finding a favorable judgment. 

That might seem a harsh way of putting it. But the point is that part of what it takes today to be a golf course superintendent is to educate the public. Far too few everyday citizens have much idea of the environmental benefits of a well-managed golf course. Indeed, not enough golfers take the time to appreciate how their game contributes to the well-being of ecological systems — everything from flora, fauna and hydrology to ambient cooling and flood control.

You don’t have to be Rachel Carson, who published her landmark book “Silent Spring” in 1962, to make a difference. Small steps, aimed locally and designed to inform specific groups, can help considerably in getting the word out that your property is a net benefit to the community’s well-being. 

Zach Bauer, in his third year as superintendent at Valley Country Club in the Denver suburb of Centennial, recently worked with the club’s membership director, Steve O’Brien, to hold a bird box building program for members. Actually, it was for their kids and grandkids, which made it even more fun. O’Brien drilled and cut the pieces for the bird boxes so that the participating youth could have a relatively easy time assembling them. 

Six kids and 11 parents and grandparents participated, with each of the youth getting to work on a bird box as well as receiving a pair of binoculars, a bag of bird seed and a Valley CC bird watching club certificate. Afterwards, Bauer took the kids out for a little bird watching expedition. The Audubon Sanctuary-certified golf course provides a welcoming habitat for birds, both nesting and migratory. Among the more frequently sighted birds are robins, magpies, Western blue birds, mallards and bufflehead ducks.

Turning the golf course into a learning experience for kids is the goal of the First Green program. Started by superintendents in 1997, it is now run by the GCSAA and includes K-12 students, though the majority of the attendees are fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders. In the program’s last full pre-COVID-19 year, 41 half-day field trips engaged 2,000 students in various studies of golf course ecology. The hope is to have the program introduce them to both golf and practical science. Even if they don’t become junior golfers, students will at least have early exposure to the benefits of the golf course as a working landscape.

Another good way to make wildlife habitats known is simply through signage. If kept simple and uncluttered, such indicators can be informative as well as provide a bit of safety margin by way of subtly warning golfers to stay away from sensitive areas. 

Increasingly, we’re seeing superintendents turn unplayed areas into lesser-maintained plots, whether for wildflower ground, bird habitat or native rough. The key is knowing which stretches of the layout are beyond the reach of most play. GPS tracking can be an essential device in developing verifiable boundaries for these out-of-play areas. 

Cart-borne GPS units are readily available, but it’s more accurate and nuanced in detail to rely on small digital tracking devices the size of a USB thumb drive. These are worn by golfers to track movement during a round and help superintendents establish areas that are really those out-of-the-way areas.

None of this will reach wider public awareness without a determined effort to get the public informed and involved. Reach out to local garden clubs, hiking groups, birding clubs and land trust associations, for example, and develop times when you can give guided tours of the golf course. Work closely with municipal authorities in developing relationships so they are familiar with your property and learn to appreciate it not simply as a taxable asset but also as a wildlife refuge and stormwater management zone. Share the growing literature documenting the positive community value of having a golf course as a water filtration system and greenspace. 

As a superintendent your job is focused on a well-defined property. Increasingly these days, however, stewardship of that land means communicating its value to outside parties. It also means anticipating potential friction by educating people in advance of a (potential) conflict as to the real value provided by the land you oversee.

Bradley S. Klein, Ph.D. (political science), former PGA Tour caddie, is a veteran golf journalist, book author (“Discovering Donald Ross,” among others) and golf course consultant. Follow him on Twitter (@BradleySKlein).