As golfers, we could say, with sincere and humble apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘water, water everywhere and still the greens want more to drink’. Of course, if Mr. Coleridge had been in the golf turf management business, these might well have been his own words.
Sustainable and environmentally sensitive golf course designs (or redesigns) and maintenance procedures are going to be an essential part of the golf mix going forward, and water will undoubtedly prove to be a BIG hurdle, especially as the pressures increase to supply quality drinking water.
The early part of my professional golf career was in an era when the golf courses went generally brown, dry and seriously bouncy in the winter and every golfer couldn’t wait until the advent of spring, the first rains and the return of green grass. In fact, I knew many players on the Highveld who packed away their clubs in the garage each June, July and August. Then came the opportunity to over-seed the greens with bent grass and, with it, a new era of expectations was born. Hoping that golfers will play the golf course as they find it just isn’t an option for most green-keepers today, as golfers expect almost perfect and consistent playing conditions year round in spite of Mother Nature’s seasonal cycles. We used to only eat the fruit that was in season, but now you have strawberries (at a price) all year round and this expectation seems to have become firmly established in golf. The origin of this is often referred to as the ‘Augusta effect’ after the example in conditioning set by possibly the most sublime golf course on Earth. Augusta National in Georgia, USA is a golfing Eden and, as every golfer knows, is the home of the annual Masters’ Tournament.
Augusta is regarded by many as the world’s most exclusive club, although some concession has been given to the claim that this title might actually belong to those men who have walked on the surface of the moon! With the advent of televised golf in full colour and the exploits of the Big Three (Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player), Augusta National shone like a perfectly cut, polished and set emerald on television screens around the globe. The faultless manicured teeing areas you could putt on, cross-cut fairways and flowering shrubs and trees would bewitch anyone watching, including non-golfers, and it wasn’t long before professional golf tours everywhere realised that this had to be the benchmark for all of their own tour events. Knowing that their members were watching televised tournaments being played week after week on perfect courses must have made every green-keeper shiver in their shoes – and sure enough, it was not long before every club member was expecting the same conditions and appearance from their course for their Saturday afternoon four-ball game!
New course designers were quick to follow market expectations and the knock-on effect was that golf courses became increasingly thirsty, with vast manicured and evergreen playing areas, all of which required an exponential increase in the volumes of water used to preserve the fine grass. It has almost become a case of too much perfection and, in the process, much of the natural feel of the golf courses, on which the game originated, has been lost.If you look at the links courses on which the Open Championship is played, the mostly dry, brown, running fairways and approaches to the putting surfaces are essential to the type of bump and run shots this type of golf demands. Many of the areas alongside the holes look like a wilderness and more suitable cover for a brigade of infantry rather than the areas just out of play, all of which is a far cry from Augusta, which is just as it should be.
Augusta National’s garden-like environment with avenues of trees, blue water hazards and colourful bushes are unique, just as the brown looking, undulating and running fairways and apparently undefined open spaces of St Andrews give the home of golf its special character and, in general, make links golf the challenge it is.
Every golf course needs to develop its own character and look and feel. Yet, if we don’t address water consumption effectively as a sporting community, are we prepared to pay the downstream price? The potential outcomes are clear and will range from completely unaffordable prices for water to the game becoming regarded as a social pariah and the water ultimately being cut off completely by beleaguered councils and suppliers. Key to achieving this goal will be to understand exactly how much water each course uses. This will provide a base from which to determine how best to implement alternative strategies for each course, whether this is to decrease playing areas, planting grass that requires less irrigation, using grey and run-off water more effectively or a combination of multiple solutions.
Sports’ administrators are not generally renowned for their vision, creativity, initiative and/or speed of reaction. Unless, perhaps, where there is money involved, as the venality and corruption within FIFA (which we have all suspected for some time) has finally been dragged out into the light of day.
‘Glacial’ would be an apt description for the speed at which the really pressing issues are often addressed. The key issues around water consumption are generally understood, but one gets the feeling that golf committees everywhere will spend interminable hours debating issues around the growth of player numbers and whether secret socks should be allowed on the golf course and/or if they are indeed good for the game’s image, when the elephant in the room is pointedly ignored.
A number of initiatives are being undertaken by various individuals and bodies in several regions to help enable us to fully understand the challenges and form a base of knowledge from which to implement alternative golf course design for newer courses and the redesign of existing facilities and more effective maintenance strategies. A change is essential and will help golf courses to consume water more efficiently and cost effectively, which will be in step with the realities of a new millennium where water, especially in drier regions, will become increasingly scarce.
It would be best, at least for the moment, for golf to put aside its concerns around the potentially deleterious impact of cargo pants and jeans on the health of the game and, with the increasing concerns over water usage, take the initiative and lead the way rather than sitting back and waiting to be regulated to, which might result in the taps simply being switched off.