Golf is Wild

Columns - america’s greenkeeper

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September 8, 2021

© matthew wharton

British composer Leslie Bricusse wrote a song titled “Talk to the Animals” for the 1967 film “Dr. Doolittle.” Although you are probably too young to remember the original version, the song has been covered by numerous artists and was performed in the 1998 remake of the film starring Eddie Murphy.

In January 2016, I attended a Turfhead Summit where Paul Carter, CGCS from Bear Trace at Harrison Bay State Park in Harrison, Tennessee, delivered a passionate presentation about wildlife on the golf course. Known for their resident bald eagles and their eagle camera, I was surprised to learn that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to nature for Paul and his team.

Paul pointed out many projects completed in-house by the agronomy team to promote and enhance the wildlife on The Bear Trace golf course. Whether it was constructing nesting boxes for various species of birds and ducks, or simple low-cost feeders for deer attached to the far sides of trees adjacent to fairways, you are guaranteed to see wildlife during a round at Bear Trace.

Paul’s message “Just Do Something,” a play on the Nike slogan “Just Do It,” was an impassioned plea for golf courses to be caretakers for our resident critters. Ironically, I grew up in Castlewood, Virginia, less than 25 miles from Paul’s hometown of Wise. Perhaps our mutual love for nature and the outdoors stems from that rural, southwestern Virginia upbringing.

Another proponent and advocate for nature on the golf course is James Hutchinson, BIGGA’s Ecology and Sustainability expert. His role is to assist BIGGA members and their clubs with environmental, ecological, woodland and grassland management. James helps with preparing reports and provides advice and guidance on rare and protected species.

He has visited over 140 golf courses carrying out nature walks and developed numerous environmental management plans. His monthly feature in Greenkeeper International is one of my first stops as I always enjoy the photos of rare birds, ancient trees and creative bug hotels. I have even been known to tag @Ecology1BIGGA when posting photos of the resident wildlife at our course.

For 16 years, I have been the golf course superintendent at Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte, North Carolina. Located less than four miles west of the city’s center, it is a true urban golf course bordered by the railroad on our north and roads on our south, east and west.

Despite our location, the golf course is home to a plethora of wildlife. Rabbits, squirrels and deer roam freely. We have spotted our share of coyotes, too. Our pond banks are always crowded with sunbathing turtles. For birds, I have seen everything from finches to robins, cardinals, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, purple martins and even red-headed woodpeckers. The two birds that fascinate me most are the red-tailed hawk and the great blue heron (Paul’s favorite).

It is no coincidence the first deer I ever saw was on a golf course – Lake Bonaventure Country Club back home in Virginia. Just two years ago, my wife and I were playing golf in Ireland at Enniscrone Golf Club, when on the 13th hole, we were greeted by the most beautiful fox. There really is something to this wildlife/golf course thing.

The older I get, the more I appreciate this deep connection we share with the animals that call Carolina Golf Club home. I enjoy watching ospreys and herons fish in the ponds. I’ve watched fawns frolic while mama stands guard. I even once saw a den of coyote pups come out to play when we were closed for maintenance, and nobody was around.

One morning while getting an early start taking TDR readings via headlamp, an ambulance raced down the street bordering the course with its siren cutting through the darkness. I heard coyotes down near the irrigation lake howling in reply. It was funny and a little chilling at the same time.

This industry has made great strides through the years, and everyone has a better understanding of our role and responsibilities with regards to the environment. Golf has been around a long time, but Mother Earth has been here much longer, and it is important we continue to become more sustainable so our children’s children can enjoy a round of golf while laughing at the site of some critters in the wild.

And if we could talk with the animals, just maybe I can get our resident blue heron to stop fishing long enough to pose for a selfie with me. That would be epic.

Matthew Wharton, CGCS, MG, is the superintendent at Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte, North Carolina and past president of the Carolinas GCSA. Follow him on Twitter @CGCGreenkeeper.