The Golf-Course Superintendent: Jeff Carlson

How Green Is Golf?

May 2008

On a bright, sharp December day, I am standing with Jeff Carlson, 59, on the 17th green at the Vineyard Golf Club on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. The six-year-old course, designed by British architects Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie, is absolutely gorgeous, a natural, fast-running, heathland layout that looks like the handiwork of Donald Ross, or possibly Old Tom Morris. What is truly remarkable about it, however, is that it's America's only truly organic golf course. By decree from the Martha's Vineyard County Commission, no pesticides or synthetic chemical treatments are allowed. (Visitors, in fact, must have their golf shoes cleansed before a round to ensure that no weeds are tracked onto the course.) Carlson, the superintendent, is the man who has to make that work. "Our mantra is, 'We strive for excellent playability,' " he says as we inspect the putting surface. "But that doesn't necessarily mean visual perfection." The rolling 17th green, by the way, looks perfect.

Before joining the Vineyard, Carlson worked with Mike Hurdzan in building and managing Widow's Walk (see The Golf-Course Architect"). He was a recipient of a 2003 GCSAA/Golf Digest Environmental Leaders in Golf Award and is the 2008 winner of the President's Award for Environmental Stewardship from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. During a tour of the course, in the clubhouse afterward, and over lunch at the restaurant inside the tiny Martha's Vineyard airport, Carlson explained how he does it.

Golf Digest: So what's the story of the Vineyard Golf Club -- what was the local opposition, and how was it overcome?
Jeff Carlson: It was very controversial to build a new golf course here. It was the first new one on the island for 30 years. The opposition was very strong, and it was for primarily environmental reasons. Water quality is the big issue here. There's a single-source aquifer for the whole island. They felt that any pesticides would poison the water.

Was that a legitimate concern?
You know, it's very hard with pesticides to say it isn't. It's like trying to prove a negative. It's a difficult thing to say. Pesticides have chemicals in them, and if the chemicals get into the water in certain concentrations, they can cause problems. Do they? No. They haven't been shown to do that. Golf-course superintendents use very small amounts of pesticides. So generally, properly used, it's virtually impossible to affect the groundwater, but "virtually" is not a 100-percent guarantee. And that's where the opponents were coming from. We had trouble with that argument because we could never say categorically that a pesticide would never get in the groundwater in quantities that would cause a problem. We couldn't absolutely guarantee that, so they didn't want it. Period. There wasn't going to be a lot of discussion about it. The opposition was so strong that they even wrote folk songs in opposition to the golf course. Even more outrageous, they were allowed to sing them to the kids in the schools on the island.

Have you heard the songs?
No, I haven't. I would give anything to hear a recording of them. But they were basically, you know, "The new Vineyard Golf Club is going to ruin the world." The opposition was very strong, emotional and passionate. Someone told us that we were deader than a snake in a wagon-wheel rut.

The course was eventually given the go-ahead by the Martha's Vineyard County Commission, but only with several stringent conditions.
Right. One of the biggest reasons that we were successful was that this land was permitted to be a 148-lot subdivision. And I think they just weighed the two things -- 148 houses and all that that brings and demands of the town, versus a 100-percent organic golf course. There was a condition that we had to have 125 low-cost memberships for islanders. We have our local high school golf team play here. We do charity events. We support the community. The golf club has done a lot to overcome the fears that this was going to be a very cloistered, private, stay-away place. It's very inclusive. And Martha's Vineyard is a very inclusive kind of place. [Note: Vineyard Golf Club is private. The initiation fee for the club's 290 members is $350,000 with annual dues of $12,000; the additional 125 island members pay just $400 a year.]

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