Conventional wisdom has it that golf has been relatively late to the Greening-of-Sports party. But this is not the case. In Part I of GreenSportsBlog’s Greening of Golf series, we introduced you to Aubrey McCormick, the “Green Golfer” and budding “green-preneur” who is working to green the business of golf. Here, in Part II, we talk with M.G. Orender, former President of the PGA of America* and currently President of Hampton Golf Management, a company that owns and operates 18 courses nationwide, to get a sense of how sustainability fits into the mindsets of course superintendents, who manage golf courses day-to-day, and the companies which own the courses.
GreenSportsBlog: The common perception is that golf is behind the curve when it comes to greening…especially with water use and pesticide issues. Is that the case?
M.G. Orender: Not really. On a per acre basis, golf courses use less in the way of chemicals than does agriculture. As far as water management is concerned, “Green” has been a part of golf dating back to the late 1800s…
GSB: …I had no idea water conservation has been a “thing” since that far back!
MGO: Absolutely! Water management has always been an important concern for golf course superintendents and managers. In recent years the irrigation systems have evolved so water use can be monitored and analyzed to a very fine point. This is a critical issue for courses in drought-stricken California and the Southwest. Now, any good superintendent will tell you that, for healthier turf, use less water. So the drought can be dealt with–up to a point.
GSB: From the points of view of superintendents and course managers, are water management and other greening measures a response mainly to environmental or financial concerns?
MGO: Both. Superintendents look for any means possible other than chemicals to care about the environment and to save money. And, like I said, saving water makes for the best golf courses.
GSB: Really? That seems counterintuitive…
MGO: It’s true…too much water isn’t good for a golf course. And, when you think about it, golf might not have been made to play on lush green grass anyway. Original golf courses opened well before modern irrigation techniques were invented. And the browner, drier courses are, the harder and faster they become….
MGO: …Yes…I have to say I like the courses that way. Not to get too technical, but the root zones on un-irrigated courses, down about 3 feet, make for fantastic courses.
GSB: How do the club members feel about a browner, faster course?
MGO: Not great. They want a lush green course–and that’s the challenge. The “Browning of the Game” is really an “inside golf” kind of thing. Which is a shame, because the superintendents, in general, want to do the right, green thing and do a great job. Their natural instincts are to be strong stewards of the game and the environment. And they’re also financially prudent. But club members often want something else–which is green and thus, highly watered. Which makes water management perhaps our biggest challenge.
M.G. Orender, former President of the PGA of America and currently President of Hampton Golf Management (Photo credit: Golf Florida)
GSB: What’s happening on the recycling front?
MGO: It’s standard operating procedure and has been so for a long time. Golf equipment manufacturers have gotten into the act, making benches and trash boxes from recycled content. More and more courses are also using insulated products that are recyclable.
GSB: Is composting part of the mix?
MGO: Composting is also standard for supers…
GSB: That’s great to hear…
MGO: …if supers don’t compost, it’s because of space considerations or local ordinances that won’t allow them to do so, which is another story about backwards local authorities.
GSB: Where do things stand with fertilizers?
MGO: As far as fertilizer is concerned, there is an interesting environmental and aesthetic challenge. For example, at a golf course located in a residential development, nitrogen runoff from fertilizer can be harmful to fish in a lake on the course. Residents would not be happy about that, of course. To keep nitrogen levels down, superintendents can switch to prilled chicken or turkey organic fertilizer. It’s cheaper, it does a good job, and there’s no nitrogen run off.
GSB: Sounds like a perfect solution…
MGO: …Well, you do have an unpleasant odor for two days or so so it’s not exactly perfect just yet. Still, the organic material approach is gaining in popularity.
GSB: And what about pesticides?
MGO: For many years, Integrated Pest Management has been the standard for course management. IPM is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests through an environmentally-sensitive combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties.
GSB: Well, it sure sounds like golf has been a leader rather than a laggard in terms of greening, at least from a course management perspective. Tell me, have you noticed any reaction from golfers and club members to these greening initiatives?
MGO: Well, we just did an overhaul of one of our courses and had to take down a number of trees. We had a portable mill set up and made the new tee markers, hole signs, benches, etc from that wood and got a number of positive comments from members and guests. On other hand, we get relatively few comments from golfers about recycling, which is a shame.
GSB: Turning to the PGA Tour*, the Waste Management Phoenix Open (WMPO) stands out as an example of a tournament that dots every possible green “i” and crosses every possible green “t” (Zero Waste for 2nd year in a row.) What do you think of what they’ve done out there? Do you see other tournaments going that route?
MGO: I love the WMPO model and what they’ve done so far, but am not sure how long it will take fully catch on due to the perceived high cost of implementation. It is a shame that it costs more to do the right thing, which is a deterrent.
GSB: Agree, the cost of greening a golf tournament is a problem. To me, getting sponsors, a la Waste Management, who want to promote their greenness to essentially fund greening efforts is the way to go. What Greening of Golf issues keep course management companies and superintendents up at night?
MGO: Right now, it’s all about the availability and future cost of water, especially in the West and Southwest.
GSB: I imagine water will be the #1 environmental issue facing course management and supers for a long time.
* The PGA of America is the world’s largest sports organization, comprised of 27,000 men and women golf Professionals who are the recognized experts in teaching and growing the game. The PGA Tour is is the organizer of the top level of men’s professional golf tournaments in the United States and Canada.
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