Golfing Goes Organic

Many golf courses are making greener choices.

Love the game of golf, but wrestle with indulging yourself on a water guzzling, chemical laden golf course? Worry no more. Golf courses are getting the message and are beginning to go green. Many golf courses, including my own, are taking their cues from one of the first to go completely green, The Vineyard Club on Martha’s Vineyard.

In 2002, when the Vineyard Golf Club’s newly hired superintendent, Jeffrey Carlson, heard that the brand new Martha’s Vineyard island course had been mandated by the county to be strictly organic, he thought his days working there would be numbered. Through the permitting process, the Martha’s Vineyard County Commission would not approve the new course without water use limitations and strict pesticide and fertilizer guidelines. It was an ambitious new concept and Superintendent Carlson knew he was in unchartered waters.

His first challenge would be to let Mother Nature do most of the watering. With very little irrigation out on the new course, he was worried about brown out conditions during stretches of dry weather. Secondly, back in 2002, there were only a few companies producing organic fertilizers and pesticides, and there was only one company producing an organic fungicide. These new organic products were more expensive than conventional ones, but Carlson soon found out he had full support of the enthusiastic club membership. Once Carlson found products that would work best on the Vineyard Golf Club’s 35 acres of fairways, 30 acres of rough, and newly built greens, Carlson applied the cultural practices that would promote fairways and greens to be resistant to disease and require less water. Carlson found one key to managing disease was selecting the right grass, bent grass in particular, which over time proved hardier than blue grass. Soon after the first season at the Vineyard Club, Jeffrey Carlson was pleasantly surprised that his efforts seemed to work.

Eight years later, Carlson has found that the damp air surrounding the island has provided sufficient moisture for the most part, and the fairways and greens have responded satisfactorily to the organic compounds. Over the years, more organic pesticide and fertilizer choices have become available. There are still some challenges with weed infestations as organic herbicides (weed killers) haven’t yet broken into the mainstream, leaving the course vulnerable to infestation, but Carlson is positive about the future.

To his credit, keeping the fragile balance of an organic golf course seems just as much an art as it is a science, but Carlson believes the key to the course’s great success is communication with members. Members of the club sterilize their shoes between rounds (and visitors to the course are expected to do the same) to keep unwanted weeds and pests away. The members clearly understand that less watering means an occasional brown out here and there, and no heavy duty pesticide and herbicide use mean enduring a small bout of disease that will, with care, eventually fade. Carlson gives full credit to the Vineyard Golf Club members for the course’s success and believes they are the true environmental pioneers. Carlson explains the philosophy of the members, “The members here at Vineyard Golf Club understand that its playability that counts and not visual perfection.”

Jeffrey Carlson’s hard work and ingenuity has paid off. The course has received many awards, and most importantly, the Vineyard has set the bar for other golf courses. Courses out west are now experimenting with grasses that brown out in the winter, requiring little care; more local courses are switching their turf over to the tougher more durable bent grass; and club members around the world are becoming more educated about using organic, less toxic chemicals on their courses. So play on golfers – with a lot less guilt!

To find a eco-friendly golf course near you, check out Audubon International’s list of certified courses.

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