April 8, 2017 By: Annette Thompson – The major trend in golf courses these days is a more natural experience. Sure, golfers and course superintendents still want emerald fairways and obsessively tended putting greens. But the more natural the course, the closer the experience is to nature and the more satisfying.
Hundreds of golf facilities across the U.S. are designated as sanctuaries. They limit pesticides, enhance habitats and institute green initiatives such as solar-powered carts and geothermal clubhouses. Many reclaim water, use the natural environment and promote eco-friendly practices to players. That’s a seismic change from the designs and constructions of the post-World War II building boom.
“My grandfather was often called the father of modern golf course architecture,” says Trent Jones, referring to Robert Trent Jones, an English–American golf course architect who is credited with designing or redesigning more than 500 golf courses. “During World War II, bulldozers and heavy machinery were improved. He brought those into course design.”
Courses were carved out of and into landscapes, with well-tended playing areas and roughs; they were maintained with chemicals and earth damaging practices. “Now we’ve come full circle to the Scotland idea of leaving the environment alone,” Jones says. Today, a new generation of minimalist architects has emerged whose courses fit within existing environments.
Here’s how five courses have put green back in golf.
Streamsong Resort, Streamsong, Florida
When Mosaic, the world’s largest phosphate and potash mining company and the seventh largest landholder in Florida, stopped mining phosphate on a 16,000-acre plot, its developers created three golf courses with a minimalist touch — and they couldn’t have planned better. “This tract was an active mine for 100 years,” says Tom Sunnarborg, vice president of land development and management. The mining process separated the clay and sand from the phosphate; the clay was returned to the shallow pits first, allowing it to harden. Then sand was pumped on top, allowing nature to reshape it with wind and water into naturalized dunes, now fuzzy with indigenous vegetation.
“This allowed a unique water recycling system,” Sunnarborg says. “Irrigation and rainwater hits our courses, (percolates) through the sand, hits the clay and travels back to our irrigation lakes and is recycled.” The sand dunes may not be natural, but they are stunning, some almost 100 feet tall. “The architects did not move them,” he says. “Those dunes are the stars of our show.”
A minimalist philosophy permeates the entire resort. “We challenge conventional thinking of resort and golf development,” Sunnarborg says. “We emphasize walking. We don’t have rough. The fairways end in natural areas. We don’t irrigate outside areas of play, other than a tiny bit around the clubhouse. We don’t plant flowers. We don’t use street lights. We don’t have a fountain at our entrance. Our entrance isn’t even lit. We don’t do anything that’s not necessary. No houses or condos. The clubhouse is intentionally underneath the vista of the dunes. It’s a beautiful building, but it is secondary to the land form.”
1000 Streamsong Dr., Streamsong, Fla.; 888-294-6322; streamsongresort.com
Los Robles Greens Golf Course, Thousand Oaks, California
California’s severe drought wreaked havoc, resulting in state restrictions on water, pesticides and native tree removal. The city of Thousand Oaks wanted its 1960s-era golf course to be environmentally beneficial. “The city asked for a renovation plan,” says Ed Easley, senior vice president of construction and director of agronomy at Arcis Golf. “We hired architect Jason Straka because of his strong environmental background.”
From the 100-acre course, they removed 30 acres of irrigated turf and naturalized 40 acres with more than 55,000 naturally drought- and pest-resistant native plants. This drastically reduced the use of water, fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels, going far beyond the city’s target. “We hand-water everything we plant for the first few months,” Easley says. “We did not put in drip irrigation to prevent watering when plants didn’t need it.”
Los Robles works with the city and local companies to accumulate tree waste and debris to create mulch for the naturalized areas. The course has its own nursery to propagate native plants. Groundskeepers no longer clear under the facility’s signature oak trees. “We let those leaves fall and re-energize the mulch,” Easley says. “We’ve cut down weekly cleanup. We don’t use resources to address that.”
299 South Moorpark Rd., Thousand Oaks, Calif.; 805-495-6421; losroblesgreens.com
The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs, Colorado
The five-star resort’s three courses share views of the Rockies as well as a sophisticated computer-controlled irrigation systems to reuse water. The Broadmoor has converted some turf to native grass and all three courses are certified Audubon Sanctuaries — a designation earned by fewer than 10 percent of all golf courses.
“We have to show that we’re managing fungicides and insecticides in an environmentally friendly way, with checks and balances to achieve the rating,” says Zach Bauer, superintendent of the West Course. “We take a holistic approach. We promote grass so we don’t spray pesticides.” Consequently, the wildlife congregates on the course to everyone’s delight. “We see mule deer. We have coyotes and foxes (and) black bear mothers with cubs in season. Bobcats are rare, but we still see them early in the mornings,” he says. “Birds — Cooper’s hawks, red-tailed hawks, raptors. Rabbits. It’s a good diverse ecosystem.”
Course employees add bird nesting boxes each year and welcome bird counts and banding. They create habitats for bees and butterflies by growing wildflowers. A caddy program promotes walking.
1 Lake Ave., Colorado Springs, Colo.; 719-577-5790; broadmoor.com
Chambers Bay; Tacoma, Washington
Tacoma’s links-style layout converts a sand and gravel mine into a spectacular venue modeled on Scottish traditions, which connect scrub-lined holes along the coast, built on sandy soil and typically treeless. Links courses are typically buffeted by strong winds and rain. “The land was earmarked for reclamation,” says Trent Jones, a golf architect, whose father, Robert Trent Jones Jr., designed it in 2006. “We could turn it into a public park, but what if we also brought a golf course here and used it to treat waste water and generate revenue?”
The design was so successful, Chambers Bay hosted the 2015 U.S. Open Tournament, with Puget Sound, Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains as its backdrop — the youngest course ever to host the event.
As with many Scottish links, public jogging trails and walking paths meander through the course. “Our challenge was to make paths without errant golf balls hitting people,” Jones says. They made dunes out of sand leftover from the mine. “We modeled the wind patterns to see how wind and rain would have created dunes,” he says.
The fescue turf is the driving force behind the ecosystem at Chambers Bay, says Eric Johnson, director of agronomy. “It has a lower requirement for water, fertilizers and pesticides,” he says of the deep-rooted grass that’s native to the British Isles.
Additionally, the water treatment plant on the property converts biosolid wastes — nutrient-rich organic matter from sewage treatment — into fertilizer that’s used around the course. And because the 950-acre Chambers Bay is a walking-only facility, the energy and maintenance needs of golf carts are eliminated.
6320 Grandview Dr., University Place, Wash.; 253-460-4653; chambersbaygolf.com
Mossy Oak Golf Club; West Point, Mississippi
When the outfitters company Mossy Oak wanted to build a golf course not far from its headquarters, management chose architect Gil Hanse, a leading minimalist who also created the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic course. Mossy Oak wanted to represent a sustainable, mindful approach, leaving a gentle footprint on the habitat while delivering a world-class experience. Set in the Black Prairie region, the land had been a dairy farm with flowing hills and ponds.
“We opened earlier than we expected, because we didn’t have to move dirt around,” says Chris Jester, the director of golf. The only major dirt moved was for a 7.5-acre irrigation lake. The goal was to restore the natural areas to the prairie grasses in a walkable format, with native grasses around the buildings. The course sports 103 bunkers, all using sand pulled from the local riverbed.
“We reclaim a lot of the water through gravity,” Jester says. “The native areas are not irrigated — they are out of maintenance. We have a commitment to not overwatering. Our fertilizers are all organic, slow-release.”
1 Mossy Oak Dr., West Point, Miss.; 662-524-1000; mossyoakgolf.com