Shorter, wilder courses and ample room for habitat are just some of the transformations coming to golf.
By Lisa Owens Viani
One outcome of the last housing boom was a glut of golf courses built to market new suburban developments. As courses have closed or sat vacant, planners and communities have debated their next best use.
But despite declines, there has also been a bit of a rebound in the industry over the past six years, with new demand for shorter courses with less environmental impact, says Jeff Danner, ASLA, a principal with Phoenix-based Richardson | Danner Golf Course Architects.
“People started to realize that golf was the perfect activity during the pandemic, and we saw a surge that we hadn’t seen since the late 1990s when Tiger Woods burst onto the scene,” he says. Danner attributes the demand—for “right-sized courses, not necessarily 18 holes”—to younger players who don’t have the time to play longer courses on 150 acres and who want to play more interesting, environmentally sustainable courses.
“We’re seeing more courses in the 30-to-60-acre range, which the National Golf Foundation didn’t track until recently because they weren’t the norm,” Danner says.
Conserve and Protect
While some designers are focused on redesigning courses to have smaller footprints, others are helping them revert to nature, especially where they were built in wetlands. One example is the San Geronimo National Golf Course in West Marin County, California, a former 18-hole public course built in the floodplain of San Geronimo Creek. The creek is a major tributary to Lagunitas Creek, a stream that travels from east to west through protected open space—hillsides of oaks and California laurel, Douglas fir and redwood forests—into Tomales Bay on the coast.
Although some golfers wanted to see the course stay open, in 2017, with the costs of irrigation high during the dry season, and heavy rains soaking the green in winter leading to poor drainage, the owner decided to sell rather than look for a new developer.
That’s when the Trust for Public Land (TPL) became involved. “The county recognized the really high conservation and restoration value of the property and all of the other multiple benefits,” says Erica Williams, a senior project manager with TPL. “It’s in the heart of rural West Marin, and it was immediately evident that this could be an important project for salmon recovery.”
The trust partnered with Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit dedicated to stream conservation; Environmental Science Associates, an environmental consulting firm; WRT Planning and Design; the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN), a nonprofit dedicated to protecting endangered salmon and their habitat in the Lagunitas Creek watershed, and others to restore 135 acres to wildlife habitat. The project includes two streams—San Geronimo and Larsen Creeks—that support endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout runs.
On the former front nine, the team restored 1,700 linear feet of San Geronimo Creek by removing human-made concrete pools and a fish ladder that was acting as a barrier to juvenile fish. A natural channel with pools and riffles is being installed, says Jorgen Blomberg, the restoration design team director with Environmental Science Associates. “We designed a whole new roughened channel with a range of habitat and channel types, and then we’ve expanded the riparian corridor and enhanced the floodplain,” he explains.
The team is currently studying how best to restore an upstream segment of the creek, with the goal of preserving a mature riparian canopy while creating an off-channel wetland to store high flows, which can wash out young fish. “We’ll be looking at bringing that water into former fairways and greens and creating a large, complex willow thicket and more channel complexity, maybe cutting some backwater alcoves into the existing corridor,” Blomberg says. “Those will offer places for fish to haul out and hide in high-flow events.”
On the former back nine, Larsen Creek will be removed from a culvert and daylighted, but there are some golf course–specific challenges. The team is figuring out the best ways to remove all of the underground pipes that had previously been used to divert water away from the course.
They are also betting that planting more native trees and vegetation and restoring ephemeral drainages will create connectivity between the former course and the four open-space parcels surrounding the property, Williams says. “Just the coho salmon and steelhead restoration has very high value, but the opportunity to create wildlife corridors and recreation corridors [on] these open lands adds even more value.”
Williams says the project partners are excited about the climate benefits the restored land will provide. “Reconnecting the creeks to their floodplains, bringing moisture and water back to the land, helps build in resilience,” she says. SPAWN’s director of watershed conservation, Preston Brown, says he has already seen more wildlife on the site. “It feels a lot bigger than it used to; the vegetation is thickening. It’s a little more rough around the edges and more interesting than it was before.”
Progress, Not Perfection
Danner says any time a golf course closes is unfortunate and that there are better solutions than dismantling and decommissioning golf courses. He also acknowledges that many were built in the wrong place, especially those in a floodplain or wetland. “The reality is that some of these courses built 60 or 70 years ago were built when there were different standards, different approaches to design.
People were using a lot of subsurface drainage pipes to make courses drain as quickly as possible and keep the turf dry. There are places that should just not have a golf course.” One of his firm’s projects, in Shingle Springs, California, preserves existing oaks and expands wetlands. The firm also won an award for its redesign of the Anchorage Golf Course, which reduced the amount of turf from the previous design, improved drainage, restored habitat, and lowered carbon emissions as a result of the turf reduction.
The idea of the perfectly manicured course began in the mid-1950s when the Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club was televised, says Danner, who is coauthoring a book about golf course sustainability. “We like to call it the ‘Augusta syndrome,’” he says. Before that, many courses were better sited and were a bit more “wild and woolly,” he says, but now there is a movement to go back to a more natural look. “People are begging for the older style of fitting the course with the land—they are sick of the same old template and [are] looking for new courses created in the old, more minimalist style.”
In Stuart, Florida, Sanford Ferris Golf Course Design reduced an 18-hole footprint at the Sailfish Sands Golf Course by changing it to a nine-hole reversible course, which lowered chemical and fertilizer use and mowing by 40 percent according to David Ferris Jr., ASLA, a partner at the firm. In addition, the trend toward shorter games lends itself to shorter courses, reducing the carbon footprint of the greens, he says.
The biggest hurdle to creating more sustainable courses is the players’ preconceptions. “Americans love their green grass—as seen on TV every week, whether it’s a golf course, baseball or football field—and convincing the public that it’s okay to play on a course or field with less than perfect conditions still has a way to go,” Ferris says.
In Florida, Ferris says, when a golf course closes, it is immediately purchased by developers for housing. Kristina Hill, an associate professor in the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied golf courses in transition, says if a closing course is located in an urban area, it should absolutely become housing, but preserving the land’s stormwater detention features can help prevent combined sewer overflows.
Hill would like to see some turf areas switched to decomposed granite or a lawn alternative that consists mainly of yarrow. “It’s better for water use and requires less herbicides, pesticides, and nutrients,” she says.
A rougher surface might raise the difficulty level of the course, “but let’s come up with other strategies—maybe the tees could be made higher if there’s a rougher surface.” After all, she says, golf is “just a game. The idea that this game would so dominate our expectations of landscape doesn’t make sense anymore, especially when you’re not providing bird habitat when it’s so desperately needed.”
Bird habitat is the focus of Audubon International’s certification program for golf courses, which awards points for preserving and creating habitat, reducing chemical use, conserving water, and improving water quality, among other measures. To date, 900 courses, primarily in North America, have been certified, says Frank LaVardera, the organization’s director of environmental programs for golf. “The backbone of the program is really the reduction of managed turf, which is where you see the benefits,” he says.
“We encourage them to identify areas where they can reduce managed turf—it’s not that difficult. Before you know it, they can chisel away three, four, five acres. That means less chemicals, less fuel for mowing, less manpower.” As a side benefit, course owners see “a reduction in their maintenance budgets,” he says.
One member of the Audubon International program, the 235-acre Vineyard Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard, is a course that is setting new standards for modern courses. The course opened in 2002 and has been managed without synthetic chemicals or pesticides, according to Jeff Carlson, who recently retired as superintendent.
Carlson, who has worked in the golf course industry for 30 years, says he was wary of managing a course organically at first, but he had no choice: The Martha’s Vineyard Commission made it a condition of development. “Being mandated to be organic forced us to get through the difficult times and to find products and methods that would help us, rather than giving in and using chemicals,” he says.
The course uses organic nitrogen fertilizer and products that stimulate plants’ natural defenses, Carlson explains. The green uses bentgrass, cut short, and it’s used on the tees and fairways as well. In other areas, the course managers plant fescue, which requires less maintenance, nitrogen, and water. In the long run the cost of organic chemicals is no different from synthetics, according to Carlson, although more maintenance can be required depending on the standard you want to achieve.
Carlson says that although the learning curve was steep, “We had to understand that at times, there would not be perfection throughout the entire property—our members were excited to participate and fund something that is different from everyone else. If people would just back off a bit on the strive for perfection—if you see an occasional dead plant or grass, don’t have a heart attack about it—we could have a lot more of these kinds of projects. I wouldn’t do it any other way now.”
He ran seminars in conjunction with Cornell University for 12 years on how to manage golf courses organically and says most superintendents would rather not use pesticides; they just need more information.
To that end, in September, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) entered into an agreement pledging to pursue environmental stewardship and sustainability on golf courses. “The partnership provides a platform for collaboration to develop sensible approaches that protect the environment and public health,” says Chava McKeel, the director of government affairs with the association.
“Golf course superintendents can lean on EPA to help advise on forward-thinking options for environmental improvement,” she says. “EPA can help provide technical assistance on projects and help golf course superintendents learn where sources of funding might be for implementation of best management practices.”
Danner says he hopes this new partnership will result in more courses like the Vineyard Golf Club. “Their specific program can’t be a model for everyone,” he says. “But the way they think can be.”
Lisa Owens Viani is a contributing editor to the magazine who lives in Northern California.