Just a few years ago golf courses were considered an environmental abomination, wasting precious water, spewing runoff contaminated with fertilizers and insecticides, and replacing wild meadows and woodlands with monotonous manicured landscapes to serve the country club set.
These days, golf courses are often seen as an environmental asset. They provide communities with open space, greenscapes, and view sheds. Their rolling acres, waterways, and shade trees serve as wildlife habitat for animals escaping from the relentless march of housing developments, shopping centers, office parks, and malls.
Perhaps most surprising, golf course managers are now widely considered experts on water conservation and are frequently consulted by municipalities, state governments, industries, and non-profits. As water costs continued to rise in recent years and some 20 states reported long dry spells and crippling droughts, managers realized they had to rein in their water use.
New strategies to reduce water use range from the super high tech to tips from grandma’s garden. Golf course managers have planted native grasses that require less water and replaced the flowering annuals with less thirsty perennials. Lawn mower blades are kept super sharp to avoid frayed grass, which requires more water to stay healthy, and, when possible, recycled effluent and surface water is used for irrigation rather than tapping into municipal fresh-water systems.
A huge advance in protecting water resources has come with the advent of wireless underground sensors. This reasonably priced technology monitors moisture, temperature, and salinity. The information can be fed to a desktop, laptop or handheld device. At golf courses from Pennsylvania to Florida and Arizona, managers report water savings of up to 10 percent, which translates into millions of gallons of water.
Golf courses still have their detractors and environmentalists continue to bristle at some management practices, but it is unlikely that this $76 billion industry that, according to a recent study, provides “economic, environmental, and recreational assets to local communities” is going away any time soon.
Meanwhile, golf course professionals have become valued community resources. During the recent drought in Georgia, Habitat for Humanity landscaped front yards with drought-tolerant plants recommended by golf course superintendents, and Marriott International adopted the lessons learned on their golf courses to all of their resort properties in other states. Government officials are also getting advice on how to reduce water use on public ball fields and parks.
Through it all, one water-saving technology has proven failsafe for the Atlanta Country Club. When the club’s superintendent Mark Esoda finds dry spots on the greens, he sends the staff out with their trusty watering cans.