Despite vastly different climates, golf courses have same desire for sustainability
Kynan Marlin and Daniel Karl | Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018
Arizona’s arid desert landscape and Scotland’s cool, wet, wind-swept setting situated between the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea are about as opposite in climate as two renowned golf destinations can be.
For those who build and maintain courses in Arizona and Scotland, the approach to maintenance also is much different. But their courses do have more in common than nine holes per side.
In Arizona and Scotland, course superintendents are working hard to make their facilities more sustainable and environmentally friendly.Certification from Scotland’s Golf Environment Organization is an indicator that a golf course or event is achieving that goal. GEO brings together superintendents, professional tournament organizers, golf industry experts and product manufacturers to promote and support sustainability in golf.
“It’s a really difficult thing to compare (links courses in Scotland and traditional courses in the desert) because everything is so different,” said Gordon Moir, the director of greenskeeping at St. Andrews Golf Links. “The soil type is different, the climate is different, the expectations are different.”
St. Andrews is known as the home of golf, where the game has been played in the rain and wind of Scottish linksland along the North Sea since the 15th century. By contrast, TPC Scottsdale, whose Stadium Course is the venue for the Waste Management Phoenix Open, is situated in the Sonoran Desert, where water is scarce.
The challenges are different, but the goal is the same. Both are taking steps to protect the environment and natural resources while making their facilities sustainable.
TPC Scottsdale has been a trend setter in sustainability since Waste Management took over as sponsor of the Phoenix Open in 2010. It achieved “GEO Certified Tournament” status in 2017, the first PGA Tour event to earn the honor.
From the beginning, Waste Management set out to make the tournament a so-called “zero-waste event.” And with more than 650,000 golf fans streaming across the tournament grounds over two pro-am days and four days of tournament competition, there is no shortage of waste.
“We really look at responsible re-use of materials that come off this site, whether that’s recycling or cleaning up trash,” said Blake Meentemeyer, director of golf course maintenance operations at TPC Scottsdale.
According to Waste Management, 50-percent of materials from the event are recycled, 34-percent of waste is composted, 14-percent is converted to energy and 2-percent is donated. So 100-percent of waste material produced by the tournament is repurposed for a beneficial use.
While TPC Scottsdale and the Phoenix Open have received acclaim for their efforts, other golf courses around the world often face criticism for overusing natural resources and being unsustainable.
GEO certification is one way to battle that stigma.
To receive that status, courses must go through a rigorous GEO certification process that focuses on three key golf industry areas: facility operations, golf development and renovation, and tournaments.
The certification process also includes on-site feedback to provide ideas for future improvement.
Although golf’s popularity has waned in recent years, there were more than 34,000 golf courses worldwide in 2015, according to a study by the National Golf Foundation funded by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, Scotland.
TPC Scottsdale is one of nearly 200 golf courses in the Phoenix metropolitan area, according to GolfAdvisor.com.
“People started worrying about the environment,” said Jonathan Smith, founder and executive director of the GEO Foundation. “Consumers start to think, ‘that’s an unsustainable product,’ so we get a real drive for sustainable products. All things we consume start to take a ‘sustainable angle.”
Sustainability is important to people. Various studies have indicated people consider sustainability when making product purchases. Another found that millennials would take less pay to work for a company that makes sustainability a priority.
Golf is no different.
“From a business side, we have to be more sustainable,” Meentemeyer said. “The less-is-more concept goes a long way in our industry, for sure.”
Still, many environmentalists believe golf’s negative impact is greater than the game’s positive benefits. According to Smith, many people believe course designers look for a beautiful piece of land to bulldoze and don’t consider the environmental impact.
“I think from the outside point of view, golf looks like a very selfish pursuit,” Smith said. “A lot of rich people invest in stuff to pursue the profits instead of thinking about the ecology.”
To help shake that stigma, course designers and superintendents are turning to GEO certification to provide evidence that they’re trying to make golf more friendly to the environment.
The first step in becoming certified is logging data such as course water usage, the type of grass that is grown and which pesticides and fertilizers are utilized. Data is constantly updated and the GEO system tracks annual performance, building a library that shows the most sustainable practices of that facility.
The system also makes suggestions about ways to be more efficient and sustainable such as reducing water and energy use, lowering maintenance costs and making suggestions about using different suppliers or fewer materials.
Another aspect is raising the awareness of golfers and communities about improvements that are being made to the game.
Once a facility or event reaches that point, GEO sends a representative to the course to further evaluate the operation and make more suggestions.
Once a course is certified, the GEO Foundation provides guidance and materials to promote the achievement with staff, golfers and the community.
GEO’s goal through the process is to create an international golf community that focuses on protecting natural landscapes, uses natural resources responsibly, generates social and economic value and uses its reach to raise sustainability awareness around the world.
In Scotland, as courses became certified there was a domino effect and other courses wanted to follow suit.
The Royal and Ancient, which is the governing body of golf in the United Kingdom, now requires that courses that host the Open Championship must first be GEO certified. In 2011, all seven courses at St. Andrews were presented a special plaque by GEO, the European Tour and Royal and Ancient in recognition of its sustainability commitments and achievements.
It made St. Andrews the first Open Championship venue to earn GEO certification and other courses in the United Kingdom’s national championship rotation have followed.
“We have always been very sustainable,” Moir said. “We’ve always been low (fertilization), low irrigation and always try to keep things as natural as we can.”
Although the Old Course is historic and the most famous golf links at St. Andrews, it’s not treated any differently than the other courses there. According to Moir, he didn’t have to do a whole lot to any of the courses to achieve certification.
“We didn’t really change very much,” he said. “The hardest thing I found was working with other organizations within St. Andrews. For instance, where were we purchasing our food from? Where were we purchasing our tools from? How many miles were we putting on (vehicles)? Could we store stuff locally?”
The actual golf courses didn’t require a lot of changes, but as the head of greenskeeping, Moir made small adjustments to other aspects of the operation such as storage and suppliers in order to become more sustainable in the eyes of GEO.
The process isn’t always easy. Trump International Golf Links, which opened amid controversy in 2012, is trying to become GEO certified in order to qualify as a venue for the Open Championship.
However, the course faces backlash from some in the community and from environmentalists because it was built, in part, on a protected dunes area along the North Sea in Aberdeen, Scotland. The area is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
Despite negative feedback, Trump International is working to become more sustainable to achieve certification, all while creating more jobs and improving the local economy.
“We are working all the time,” said Jonas Hedberg, golf operations manager at Trump International Golf Links. “We developed the golf course within the guidelines that were provided to us. A very, very small percentage of our land is what you would classify as SSSI.”
SSSI designated areas throughout the United Kingdom are considered premium sites for wildlife or geology which require special protection.
According to Hedberg, the course is on less than 5-percent of the SSSI-designated land, and he argues that the land is more beautiful and accessible to the public than it was before the development.
“We work as hard as we can,” said Hedberg. “A lot of work has gone into preserving the dunes. Trump spoke a lot about that, and we’ve done a great job stabilizing the dunes where it needed, so I think we’re in good shape.”
Kynan Marlin and Daniel Karl are journalism students at Arizona State University. These stories were part of an Arizona State University Study Abroad program exploring the role of golf in Scotland.