Fruit and vegetables can be certified organic. Buildings have their LEED certification. And golf courses have Audubon International’s Cooperative Sanctuary Program. More than 2300 courses throughout the country and abroad have signed up to get certified. The Ryder Cup course Valhalla has just joined the rigorous five-step program. And the public course Charlie Vettiner in southeastern Louisville is close to certification. Superintendent Kirk Dolan says it’s taken two years to reduce fertilizer use and improve the water quality in course ponds. They’ve also created more habitat by letting wooded areas run wild.
“This just provides food and shelter for animals. There’s no maintenance involved because we don’t have to fertilize it, we don’t have to mow it, you know, we don’t have to do anything. That’s a bluebird box there,” Dolan says.
The little bird house was host to a family this year. There are boxes for bats, owls, and ducks. Coyotes and red foxes are frequent visitors – drawn to the areas the course no longer mows or fertilizes. Dolan says this might be a last refuge.
“They keep building houses around us and it’s pushing the wildlife away, and I think this is kind of giving them a home,” says Dolan.
That’s true of courses around the country, most of which are in urban or suburban areas. Golf courses that participate are also finding they can serve another purpose: improving community water quality. Dolan says the development and paved areas surrounding his course send dirty run-off onto the turf. On a traditional course, that run off might pick up polluting fertilizers and pesticides before ending up in local streams. But because they’re using a different, less harmful kind of fertilizer, Dolan says that doesn’t happen.
“And our last water sample showed that the water running on was dirtier than it was running off…comes in and it kind of gets filtered by the golf course and the vegetation and runs out of the property cleaner,” Dolan says.
Dolan and others in the certification program are challenging old notions that golf courses are water hogs, polluters, and wildlife haters—Caddy Shack, anyone? Audubon International’s Kevin Fletcher says it’s about a change in attitudes.
“We’ve found that on average, golf courses that join our program increase wildlife habitat by 22 acres per course. And largely that’s because golf course superintendents and their staff are looking at their property differently, and asking, ‘Well, do we have to mow everything?’” says Fletcher.
The answer, of course, is no. And they don’t have to water everything, either. But Golf Course Superintendents Association of America research director Clark Throssell says water consumption is still an issue.
…Which explains why the U.S. Golf Association is funding research into varieties of turfgrasses that need less water. And more courses are looking into ways to irrigate more efficiently, reducing their dependence on a city’s drinking water. The Charlie Vettiner course captures what it needs to keep the greens green in rain barrels, for instance. It might sound like a lot of work, but course managers say they’re saving time and money in the long run.