As environmental pressure and annual water shortages prompt campaigners to turn on golf, Rob Smith looks at how courses around the UK are finding eco-friendly solutions.
Availability of water, not to mention its ever-increasing cost, is one of the important issues facing many golf clubs as they struggle to present their number one asset, the course, in the best possible light while at the same time balancing the books. But water shortages are not the only environmental issue facing club managers as the R&A calls for more ?sustainable? courses that work with and not against their natural surroundings. Many golfers want to play on courses that look as green and sculpted as Augusta ? but that is not always possible and not necessarily desirable.
The media ? particularly in the South ? is full of stories about hosepipe bans and the depleted levels of reservoirs, and some water companies have already been contemplating applying for bans on ?non-essential use? to be extended to golf. If bans are enforced the very future of some clubs ? already under threat from an ageing player profile and an increased number of rival businesses ? could be in jeopardy.
Regardless of whether a ?non-essential use? ban is enforced, water in the South has become increasingly expensive for many clubs. Heath Harvey, head of marketing at The London Club in Kent, says the situation is alarming. ?Ten years ago you never had to buy water. It?s now metered like it would be on a house. You pay by the cubic metre and it?s wonderfully expensive. It varies like any other commodity in terms of supply and demand. We can buy it for 88p a cubic metre one month and the following month it?s £1.09… In September we spent £50,000 on water. You wouldn?t have spent £50,000 in a year 10 years ago.?
Many clubs are now contemplating the use of tanks to store water for periods of potential bans, some have created their own reservoirs, while others are hoping to obtain licences for water extraction from bore holes. Other practical measures include renovating the irrigation system which, according to the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA), can make significant savings as ?nozzle efficiencies have improved 10% or more in the last 10 years, and computerising a non-computerised system may result in another 15% to 25% saving due to improved efficiency.?
The London Club has taken drastic measures to ensure it can cope with extended dry spells. ?We are prepared for the worst and the worst is that there is no water to be bought,? says Harvey. ?That is precisely why we have been so proactive in spending £750,000 relining our lakes and doing extensive drainage work.?
The club can use water from its lakes to irrigate its courses and the new linings should ensure minimal loss through seepage. Meanwhile a new drainage system which connects to the lakes has been installed to collect surface water from the club?s 750 acres.
Aside from the water issue, and in line with ever-tightening laws and guidelines on the use of chemicals and working practices, there is now a widespread push for ?sustainability? in managing our courses. This is defined by the R&A as ?optimising the playing quality of the golf course in harmony with the conservation of its natural environment under economically sound and socially responsible management.?
In the past golfers? expectations of lush, green Augusta-like fairways ? often for their one and only round of the year ? has placed unnatural demands on courses and greenstaff. But golfers, especially the estimated two million or so who are not members of clubs and who do not necessarily play regularly, need to be aware of the UK?s natural climate and landscape.
?New entrants to the game are being educated by TV golf,? says Alistair Beggs of the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI), ?where putting greens are emerald green, where fairways are striped and scalloped to sometimes nonsensical levels, where individual holes are cosseted from their neighbours by compulsory screens of rhododendron, azalea and ornamental conifers and where bunkers are shaped, edged and raked so that they are no longer a hazard to good players but are merely ornaments in an arena of ordered perfection. We are becoming control freaks as technology and modern equipment allow us to turn our native courses into extensions of our living rooms and gardens.?
While it is not necessary or desirable for clubs to drop standards in terms of tidiness and attention to detail, it is worth remembering that courses in the UK and Ireland are borne from their environment ? and are best left to reflect this. For example, the natural characteristics of links and heathland courses are for them to be brown, dry and hard-running in the summer. As Harvey says, ?Golfers have an expectation that even on a links they?re going to get green fairways 12 months of the year. Well that?s rubbish. That?s not what links golf is about. What are you going to do ? build a great wall around the course to stop it being windy when you play it next??
So, what is actually being done to redress the balance ? to put golf back in step with nature and the environment? There are a number of golfing and environmental bodies dedicated to the cause such as the R&A and STRI. Steve Isaac, assistant director of golf course management at the R&A, told Golf Monthly, ?The prime objective of the R&A Golf Course Committee is to issue and promote best practice guidelines for the sustainable golf course, through our website [bestcourseforgolf.org]. The benefits that the sustainable approach can bring to clubs and their members are substantial: better playing surfaces for more of the year, lower costs and a cleaner environmental footprint.?
The R&A?s guidelines are available free to anyone and offer advice on topics such as turfgrass species selection, soil husbandry, water management, irrigation and fertilising methods ? all designed to help course managers create ?sustainable?, environmentally-sound courses.
For the past 10 years BIGGA has been running its Golf Environment Competition which encourages clubs to protect their natural surroundings. Spurred on by a cash prize to be used on environmental projects, previous winners have included Hankley Common, Ipswich and Thorpeness.
The Government has formed WRAP, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, and two initiatives have found their way onto the golf course. It found that ?sand? created from recycled glass provides many benefits. As well as improving playing conditions within bunkers, the glass-sand can be used as a top-dressing around divots as it can blend into the ground better than traditional sand. A second experiment has seen shredded tyre-rubber used as a top-dressing with very good results. This type of recycling of materials is at the heart of sustainable management.
Other bodies include Committed to Green, an independent organisation aiming to promote environmental sustainability in golf, and Drive the Green ? a joint venture between Volvo Cars and The Wildlife Trust which aims to get clubs and golfers to understand the wildlife and habitats on their courses.
All but the most hard-nosed golfer will benefit from the adoption of ecological and sustainable golf course management. Modern club managers should be seeking to protect and preserve our golfing heritage and help us to continue to enjoy the unique flora and fauna of our courses. Fortunately, it would also seem that the recommended solutions are generally among the simplest and the most economical. Let?s just hope the rains come soon.