IPM Helps Makes Golf Courses Green
There was a time when golf courses were expected to look perfect – lush green flawless fairways, spotless smooth putting greens, shimmering water hazards and no weeds in sight.
Some players still expect unnatural perfection and judge courses by their looks. But a growing number – especially younger players – judge courses by their environmental practices as well, an area where most courses have made dramatic improvements over the past 10 to 20 years.
“The 50-and-under players are a lot more accepting of less-than-perfect conditions,” said Daniel Mayfield, the director of agronomy at La Paloma Country Club in Tucson, Arizona. “They know we’re managing things differently and a few weeds are no problem. It bodes well for the future.”
Golf still has its critics, of course, who see the sport as a heavy user of water, herbicides, fertilizer and insecticides. But for many courses that view is dated, especially since the Great Recession when courses worldwide had to improve their management, reduce their costs or go out of business.
Integrated pest management was integral to those improvements.
“Most golf course superintendents today are doing IPM at a pretty high level,” said David Stout, the general manager at La Paloma. “It doesn’t pay not to. If we don’t practice IPM, we don’t make it.”
Perception and Reality
In a dry climate like Arizona and California, golf will always be scrutinized for its water use. During the recent five-year drought in California, even almond orchards came under attack for their use of water, and almonds are food and highly profitable.
Golf, after all, is just a game.
While true, a recent University of Arizona study found it was an economically important game to the state, generating $3.9 billion annually to Arizona’s economy while using 1.9 percent of the state’s fresh water.
University of Arizona Extension turfgrass area agent Kai Umeda said golf courses have become the state economy’s sixth “C,” with courses joining the traditional economic drivers of copper, cattle, cotton, citrus and climate.
"That's something people don’t recognize,” he said. “The turf industry and growing grass is a big attractant for visitors that come to the state to play golf, recreate or go to watch golf and other sports.”
Pitchers and catchers report in early February to Major League Baseball spring training, for example.
At La Paloma, water usage varies year-to-year depending on weather, but usually ranges from 500 to 700 acre-feet a year. (An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons of water, or enough to cover one acre of land in one foot of water.)
That’s a lot, but it’s all reclaimed wastewater from the city of Tucson, and it’s expensive at $950 per acre-foot. There are no ponds or water features on the course where water evaporates away.
“Here, 92 percent of our expenses are labor and water,” Stout said. “So if we don’t have to water, we don’t.”
What the course has to manage instead are the effects that wastewater has on its soil as high salinity and dissolved solids block up the surface pores of the soil and can keep it from draining properly. The course does a lot of aeration – pulling plugs of soil out with mechanical tines – and Mayfield is continually experimenting with the proper diameter, depth and spacing of those tines to maximize the benefits and minimize the damage.
University of Arizona partners like turfgrass specialist David Kopec help them bring science to the system.
“Turfgrass management is a unique system,” Kopec explained. “At the university, we’ve done a lot of applied research to improve it and develop best management practices and IPM practices specifically for turf.”
One of those unique practices is overseeding – planting one variety of grass over another, typically a winter-growing variety like ryegrass over a winter-dormant variety like bermudagrass. Most courses overseed to some level, Kopec said, and the university does variety trials to identify grasses that maintain their color with less fertilizer and give way gracefully in the spring to the bermudagrass.
But even that’s not universal.
“Some course have very little summer play and the late-spring tournaments are their most important events,” he said. “So we’re also testing varieties that last deep into the spring. Some course are closed in the summer and don’t care about having Bermuda at all. They’re interested in heat-tolerant ryegrasses.”
La Paloma overseeds its fairways but not its greens. The putting surface in the winter months is dormant bermudagrass, dyed with plant-based materials to maintain a green surface in the winter.
Insects aren’t a major management issue, but Mayfield does have to treat the greens for white grubs in the spring. He also has to chase off young coyotes, who like to paw at the tight grass on the greens.
Fungicides are the most-used pesticide.
“Most diseases, even in the desert, are due to water,” Mayfield said. “We only treat the greens and accept disease on the fairways.”
Like many environmentally focused courses, La Paloma is certified by the Audubon Society as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, which educates about and verifies compliance with sound environmental practices. La Paloma also adopted an environmental management system developed by its corporate parent in Australia. That system, called e-Par, documents all of a course’s environmental practices and impacts. It’s part record-keeping system, part ongoing improvement plan and part compliance document.
It’s IPM, and it’s good business, Stout said.
“I think people think we’re not in tune with nature and have no idea we manage things as carefully as we do and with less impact than 90 percent of people have managing their lawns,” he said. “There are three reasons we have to: We have a moral obligation to be good stewards of this land, it will be cheaper to do so and it results in a more-playable golf course.”
If that’s not a hole-in-one, it’s at least an easy tap-in for eagle.