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A Publication of the National Golf Foundation

Questions, Answers and Insights for Everyone Interested in the Business of Golf

A Different Kind of Birdie Pursuit
The Ecological and Environmental Benefits of Golf Courses

by Tom Mackin

November 2019

Brianne Kenny thinks a golf course is for the birds. And ducks, reptiles, native vegetation and wildflowers. Even the odd coatimundi, too.

Kenny’s work at several Troon-affiliated properties – she was recently named the company’s manager of environmental science working out of Troon headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona – has shown how golf courses can be valuable natural resources and positively impact the surrounding environment. One of her key outreaches includes bringing bird-watching groups to the golf course and demonstrating how the courses contribute to the ecology around us.

“What she’s been able to do is bringing a group of non-golfers to the golf course who had a negative perception about golf and flipped it on its head,” says Troon Vice President of Science and Agronomy Brian Hampson.

Kenny’s efforts, and similar ones around the country, seek to address some existing misconceptions about the game. NGF research finds that 19 percent of those who have never played golf believe that a course has a negative impact on the environment which detracts from its appeal — from notions of too much chemical and water use to causing the loss of animal habitats.

“Studies are showing that golf courses can actually support a greater diversity and greater number of bird species than other types of green spaces (like parks or cemeteries), especially related to cities,” said Kenny, who earned a master’s degree in biology from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “Even the water bodies on courses are important. At Powder Horn (in Wyoming), a creek running through the course ended up having one third of the state’s bird species visiting because having a riparian area is very important to attract birds. I led three bird-watching walks there for both members and local residents. They had no idea how many birds were on the property, and that the course was such a good habitat.”

Kenny is currently coordinating with bird watching groups to get them on Phoenix and Scottsdale-area golf courses during a Christmas Bird Count event in December and January through the National Audubon Society.

“While I was at Troon Country Club, we spotted more birds there than at Pinnacle Peak, a nearby local park,” she said. “The event will help gather more accurate information on golf courses so that even more people can understand that they are good for the environment.”

Bri Kenny’s work for Troon, including leading bird-watching groups on the golf course, has shown how the game can positively impact the surrounding environment. (Photo credit: Everardo Keeme Photography, LLC.)

 

Minimal Impact at Massachusetts Muni

Wildlife has long been a familiar presence at Widow’s Walk, a municipal course in Scituate, Mass., located halfway between Boston and Cape Cod. When the facility opened in 1997, it was America’s first “environmental demonstration course.” The Dr. Michael Hurdzan design minimized the use of fossil fuels, used grass types requiring less water than normal, and included a wildlife habitat that today attracts more than 70 varieties of migratory birds, including red-tailed hawks, great horned owls and even a few eagles, along with deer and rabbits.

The course, built on an abandoned gravel quarry adjacent to the North River and within sight of the Atlantic Ocean, features more than 100 bird nesting boxes, has only about 30 acres of irrigated turf, and has been designated as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.

Despite those efforts – communicated to the local community via social and traditional media outlets ­– misconceptions still exist today, according to Head Professional Bob Sanderson.

“The town of Sciutate has had some issues with the drinking water supply related to high levels of manganese that can discolor water,” he said. “Just this past summer, some residents blamed that on the course, but we don’t even use potable water here.

“We made sure they knew that when they see our sprinklers running, that water is captured in our man-made pond from rain, not from their drinking water,” Sanderson added. “We have also used an abandoned town well, just a quarter mile from the course, since we opened to irrigate our property as a supplemental water supply. That was good foresight on the city’s part.”

Turtle Hatch Parties

Sanderson believes when it comes to environmental issues, golf courses have gotten a bad rap for a long time and are not really deserving of it. “Homeowners can do a heck of a lot more harm to the environment than golf courses because at least the courses are licensed to use chemicals and know how to use them, as opposed to homeowners who aren’t always educated and try to do it themselves,” he said.

At The Landings, a private community with six courses on Skidaway Island near Savannah, Georgia, Director of Golf Course Maintenance Chris Steigelman highlights one of many environmental projects that have drawn attention from both residents and locals. It involves Diamondback Terrapin turtles that lay their eggs in bunkers on five holes at the community’s Plantation Course.

For the past decade, volunteers have relocated those eggs to nest boxes built on the course, turning The Landings into the largest turtle hatchery for the Diamondback Terrapin species on the East Coast. Turtle hatch parties, attracting both residents and youngsters from local schools, are then held when hatchlings are released back to a local marsh.

A marsh turtle known as a Diamondback Terrapin lays eggs in a bunker of one of the golf courses at The Landings on Skidaway Island. (Photo credit: Carolyn McInerny, founder of the Skidaway Audubon Diamondback Terrapin Project)

 

“It’s hard to quantify, but I feel like we’re reaching people when it comes to programs like that here,” said Steigelman. “It’s the people who want to understand that really get it. The one myth we still battle is that we just carpet bomb courses with chemicals. I tell people this is a business and chemicals aren’t cheap. We scout, target and put down only the right amount of product where needed. That’s good for the environment and our financials, too.”

Classes on the Course

At Metropolitan Golf Links, an NGF member facility in Oakland, California, Director of Agronomy Gary Ingram communicates the benefits courses offer to the next generation of golfers through the Oakland Turfgrass Education Initiative (OTEI), which brings middle school, high school and community college students from Oakland schools to Metropolitan Golf Links up to 10 times a year.

“We’re either going into or coming out of a drought here in California,” he said. “Kids don’t quite grasp the idea of where water comes from and how we use it on the course. So we talk to them about that and how we save water by using around 20 different methods, including different technology and also removing grass from areas not used by golfers. We also conduct hands-on water experiments with the students before taking them out on the course and also providing them with some golf instruction. We’ve had more than 2,000 kids go through the program and some have ended up working in the golf business, including one still here at our course.”

Gary Ingram teaches students about the environmental benefits of golf courses through the Oakland Turfgrass Education Initiative. (Photo credit: Metropolitan Golf Links in Oakland, California)

 

While California has the second-most golf courses of any state, less than 1 percent of its potable water is consumed by the golf industry. Nationwide, golf courses consume less than 1.5 percent of all water used for irrigation.

As Director of Environmental Programs for Golf, Frank LaVardera oversees Audubon International’s Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf and the Signature and Classic Sanctuary programs for new and renovated golf courses. Begun in 1991, the program includes just over 900 courses in the U.S., with outreach and education as components in the certification process.

“We let superintendents know that while they are doing great things on their courses, they need to tell people about that,” LaVardera said. “Some examples courses now promote are monthly wildlife walks on property, bringing elementary school classes in to help build birdhouses, and inviting a local community college science class to help with water quality sampling. Those are things we strongly recommend.”

The ACSP for Golf program seeks to help enhance the valuable natural areas and wildlife habitats that golf courses provide while minimizing potentially harmful impacts of golf course operations. For more information on the global initiative and it’s standard environmental management practices for golf certification, visit the Audubon International website here.

“Golf courses aren’t just good for golf,” adds Ingram, whose facility is adjacent to the Oakland International Airport. “In a lot of communities, it’s the last open space between a house and asphalt. It’s major community asset. Golf courses can give Mother Nature an opportunity to survive. ”

Ingram on the golf course with local students. (Photo credit: Metropolitan Golf Links in Oakland, California)

 

What kinds of things are you or your facility doing to show or demonstrate the environmental benefits of your golf course? Share your story here

 

 

 

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Tom Mackin

Tom is an Arizona-based freelance writer and former Senior Editor at GOLF Magazine. He is a frequent contributor to multiple golf publications, including Troon Golf & Travel, The Met Golfer, Golf Monthly UK and the USGA’s website.