Greening the Greens

Golf gets environmentally hip.

Deerfield Golf and Tennis Club in Newark reduced its
golf course maintenance budget by 20 percent when
the staff changed the way it controls weeds and insects.


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When Mark McGreevy, superintendent of Wyncote Golf Club in Oxford, Pennsylvania, and owner Jim Pepple decided to cut Wyncote’s greens higher than those of other area courses, they went “against the grain” of cutting greens short to increase their speed. The reason wasn’t to make them easier to putt on.

“Cutting them higher is less damaging to the plant, so the greens require less water and fertilizer to maintain their health,” McGreevy says. “As far as playability is concerned, our greens putt truer than many that are cut much shorter.”

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It seems a simple thing, but impressive advances have been made in turf management, to say nothing of improved turf grasses coming out of the lab. It’s all helped to accomplish the difficult job of maintaining a golf course while improving environmental quality.

Yes, golf is going green, as courses find ways to reduce the copious amounts of water and nutrients—not to mention fuel for mowers—that have kept them beautiful for so many years.

“The longer the leaf, the better it can perform its task of photosynthesis. Mowing damages the leaf,” says superintendent John Jacob of Deerfield Golf and Tennis Club in Newark, Delaware. “It’s like opening a wound, so you can see how mowing greens down to an eighth or even a tenth of an inch in height every day, seven days per week, is going to create an awful lot of stress. Add the amount of walking across the greens that occurs on a normal day, and you can see what kinds of challenges we’re facing to keep that green healthy or just alive.”

Some changes occurred simply through an adjustment in attitude and approach to course aesthetics. McGreevy, for example, encourages the growth of Wyncote’s native grasses because they require less water and maintenance than other varieties. They also serve as natural air and water filters. “We have increased the amount of oxygen in our streams and decreased the amount of nitrogen, which improves water quality,” he says.

In the greening of golf, it’s a matter of less is more.

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“For weed control now, we spray preventatively when particular weeds are prevalent rather than routinely attempting to attack everything at all times,” Jacob says. “That has reduced our overall need for herbicides.” Jacob has been able to reduce his overall maintenance budget by about 20 percent as a result of decreased pesticide and herbicide requirements.

New methods of maintenance contrast sharply with the bad old days of golf course maintenance, when potent cocktails of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides amounted to virtual chemical weapon attacks. James D. Werner, director of air and waste management for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, recalls the bad old days quite well.

“Superintendents actually applied arsenic to the greens to fight a fungus that formed from excessive watering,” Werner says. “This was, we believe, an inorganic arsenic, which was more dangerous than the organic type.” (Inorganic arsenic is a delightful mix of lead and arsenic.)

To put the amount of arsenic usage in perspective, a quantity of 10 parts per million is natural for our region. Werner recalls golf courses with measurements of inorganic arsenic in excess of 100 parts per million.

Excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers has serious effects on our soil and water, Werner says.

“Organic pesticides contain phosphates, which accumulate over time because they don’t break down, potentially creating long-term health issues,” he says. “Excessive fertilizer use increased the amount of nitrates that wound up in our streams and rivers, which resulted in destructive algal blooms.”

Fortunately, economics and increased environmental awareness have put all the bad days behind us except, perhaps, in cases where older golf courses that used such antiquated maintenance measures are plowed under for developments.

But out on the course, things are a lot greener and healthier. Superintendent Bill Brown, of Broad Run Golfer’s Club in West Chester, Pennsylvania, says one of the most important changes in course maintenance is the switch to phosphites, organic fungicides made from nutrients already found in plants. “By using phosphites, we are elevating the nutrients already present in the turf. Making turf more nutrient rich increases its resistance to disease and fungus.”

Healthier plants require less water, thus promoting increased conservation and reducing runoff. Brown has switched to a 60 percent organic fertilizer that improves soil by adding to the levels of microbes it contains. Also, with a more focused irrigation system, Brown can concentrate the water in areas where it’s needed, cutting back on volume. He cites the development of stronger and healthier grasses that require less fertilizer. Reduced nitrogen means reduced nitrogen runoff—a major contributor to oxygen-depleting algal blooms.

Golf course superintendents are in the vanguard of keeping golf environmentally green. “A golf course is a green space,” says McGreevy. “I consider myself an environmental steward.”  •


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