What is Sustainability?

As mountain peaks claw their way across a ceiling of rapidly moving clouds and sun beams begin to punch through to the earth below, Sean Tully marvels at the sight of his mowers advancing down the fairways of Meadow Club, a private Alister MacKenzie-designed course nestled in the reaches of the coastal mountains of Marin County, just north of San Francisco.

Tully, the superintendent at Meadow Club, grins sheepishly, as if he has a story he’s been burning to tell but hasn’t found the right pair of ears to appreciate it.

“You know, we’ve had 20 inches of rain this month. If the course wasn’t conditioned the way it has been for the past few years, we wouldn’t have dared to bring out the mowers this soon after this much rain.”

Twenty inches of rain? In a month? We are in California, aren’t we?” I’m astounded. I’m also missing the point.

Tully refocuses the conversation, “We have conditioned the course to play fast and firm over the past six years by top-dressing the fairways on all but two of our holes and they are going to be included in our schedule for the next year. They were at one time two of our better fairways, but as the fairways have been top-dressed for almost six years, the worst fairways are now our best ones. We do have a crew of up to four people that spot water on the fairways from June until the rains come. We have the crew hit dry areas with enough water to get us through about two days or the next time we come back to the hole. We get anywhere from six to nine holes done by lunch and leave the afternoon open for any general maintenance of the irrigation system.”

The fast and firm conditioning is part of Meadow Club’s initiative to be more sustainable. The good drainage is just a bi-product.

From municipal courses struggling to survive, to resorts trying to reduce costs, to private clubs trying to develop a sense of fiscal and environmental responsibility, courses everywhere are realizing that sustainability is not just the hot flavor of the year, but a necessary ingredient for survival. They may be making a move to incorporate a reduction of resource use, less inputs, and a smaller footprint into their long-term planning in order to remain relevant. All across the nation, golf courses are asking themselves what exactly the term sustainability means to them and how they need to adapt for the future.

Gleneagles Golf Course, a small nine-hole course at the southernmost point of the city of San Francisco, is one course where the survival instinct has compelled them to sustainable practices. The course, designed by Jack Fleming, a construction assistant to the esteemed Alister MacKenzie, was constructed in 1962 at the same time Candlestick Park was built. One of the hidden gems of the city, the course had fallen into a state of disrepair until General Manager Tom Hsieh took over in 2004.

In an attempt to re-engage the local golf community and cut long-term costs, the course has been undergoing a gradual overhaul. In August 2010, with the assistance of the neighboring California Club, Gleneagles redid their Poa Annua greens with a blend of Tyee and 007 bentgrass, mimicking the famed Olympic Club which lies only a few miles to the west.

“It’s really about taking a more simplistic approach to maintenance,” Superintendent Scott Clem explained. “The new greens are much less maintenance intensive. We’re using heavier top dressings and mowing less. I’m also letting the bunkers go more natural … less Augusta National and more Gleneagles. This place should have its own character and feel.”

Additionally, the club is changing out all the original block-system sprinkler heads to heads that will allow the course to completely shut off water in the out-of-play areas, tee to fairway. This will allow them to become more efficient and save on water. The course has also begun monitoring their water and energy usage, a crucial first step for any course striving for greater efficiency.

Defining sustainability within the world of golf is no easy task. With course after course scrambling to affix the word to all their marketing materials, the meaning of sustainability has softened drastically, almost becoming another form of greenwashing. From an outsider’s perspective, there is no way to distinguish between a course which builds a few bird houses on site and calls itself sustainable and another course that takes measured efforts to use all its resources in the most
efficient way possible. Fortunately, organizations like Golf Environment Organization
( and businesses like The Golf Resource Group
( are pushing hard for an industry-adopted set of standards.

Golf was born a sustainable sport. The earliest accounts show that it was played in sandy, windswept land by the seaside. Grass grew on the sandy seaside hills and sheep grazed on the grass that grew there and nestled close to the land to stay out of the wind. This nestling activity created hollows in the hillsides where grass didn’t grow, fashioning the first bunkers. Each hole was placed at some distance from the previous hole and level spots were used for greens. Construction was minimal. Maintenance was effortless. The resources that were needed to sustain the golf course occurred naturally in the local environment.

As the sport branched out from its roots in coastal Scotland to different climates, more effort was needed to build and maintain golf courses. Land had to be shaped with earth moving equipment, trees had to be cut down, and fertilizers and pesticides needed to be used to grow proper turf. Players also demanded conditions that were less crude. A ball needed to sit up in the fairway. A player needed to be able to find a ball in the rough. A ball should roll smoothly on its way to the hole. Somewhere along the way, brown grass became faux pas to golfers.

Just outside of St. George, Utah, in the small town of Hurricane, lies the Sand Hollow Resort. Framed in by red bluffs and lava rock, both of the resort’s courses offer a valuable glance into the bleeding edge of sustainable golf course architecture. Designed by Andy Staples and John Fought, both the Championship Course and the nine-hole Links Course were built using sustainable practices in order to minimize construction costs and long-term expenses.

The design called for a minimal approach to grading, using only on-site sands for local feature construction. They also utilized natural agronomy which weathers the local climate more effectively and is less maintenance intensive than using a foreign plant palette. Instead of installing a 4,000 gpm pump station, a gravity-fed water system was installed on one of the property’s high elevation hillsides, saving the resort tens of thousands of dollars in annual electricity costs typically associated with pumping water.

“At Sand Hollow, our goal was to utilize the native sands and natural ground to dictate the layout of the golf course while sourcing all our construction materials and labor locally. It was also important for us to quantify each design decision in terms of future savings to the golf course,” explains architect Andy Staples, ASGCA associate. “The finished product was a layout that annually ranks among the top golf courses in the state in addition to being a very efficient operation where expenses are minimal year-in and year-out.”
Inevitably, technology will make sustainable practices much easier to implement. As technology advances and courses get used to collecting more and more data, superintendents and managers will be able to more finely tune how they use resources and spend money.

Back at Meadow Club, Sean Tully shows off the latest in water monitoring technology for golf courses: the Spectrum Technologies Field Scout which he uses to track moisture content in each of his greens.

“I’m still getting used to watering with the Field Scout, but overall I’m starting to see that I can water much more effectively. We can get more specific on our spot watering and turn heads off or reduce percentages that are contributing to wet areas. By doing this, we can get the greens moisture down in the high 20s. We can really see an increase in firmness and this also allows us to get the green speed at our desired range with less mowing and rolling.”

Meadow Club also recently installed over 21 kilowatts of solar panels on their maintenance building. Making all on-site buildings energy efficient and beginning to take electrical demand off the grid was a priority for the environmentally conscious membership. With California Solar Initiative incentives totaling almost 20 percent of the cost of the system, on top of the Federal Tax Credit, the new solar panels should pay for themselves in just over 10 years and continue to produce electricity through the 30-year expected life of the panels.

Courses all around the world have felt the need to tighten budgets and re-engage the community they serve. Sustainability offers an opportunity to do just that. Whether the opportunity lies in monitoring energy and water use, upgrading to more efficient equipment, conserving the resources a course has, or promoting a sustainable maintenance strategy to the membership, every course has an opportunity to define what the term sustainable means to them.

“Becoming more efficient is a gradual process that you have to stay on top of every day: monitoring, tweaking, and improving what you have,” says Tully.

If all superintendents and managers operated according to this philosophy, the industry as a whole would be much healthier.

Ross Jett works for The Golf Resource Group out of their Roseville, California location. Ross manages and leads all preliminary and final research for new golf course projects that come through the doors of GRG. He oversees all projects from start to finish that deal with Golf Resource Group’s online presence.
Ross blogs at

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