The Golf-Course Architect: Mike Hurdzan

How Green Is Golf?

May 2008

Mike Hurdzan, 64, is riding a cart along the edge of the third fairway at a deserted, wintry Scioto Golf Club in Columbus, Ohio, close to the house where Jack Nicklaus grew up. "When Jack played here as a kid, in the 1950s," says Hurdzan, "the greens would have been at about a quarter of an inch; today they're a tenth of an inch. The fairways would have been three-quarters of an inch; now they're less than half an inch. Back then there would have been fewer than 10 maintenance staff; now there's more like 40." The course has been closed since July and won't open again until May, after a full-blown modernization by Hurdzan, with an assist from Jack.

Like Jack, Hurdzan went to Ohio State University. He studied turf management, then earned a master's degree in landscape architecture and a doctorate in plant physiology. Today he is one of the world's pre-eminent golf-course architects with an extraordinary and varied portfolio of golf courses to his name (see, such as Widow's Walk, where he took an abandoned sand and gravel quarry and garbage landfill south of Boston and, working with environmentalists, transformed it into a thriving, environmentally friendly public golf course. At Scioto, and later in his nearby office -- which is a shrine to his love of the game with a vast collection of books, clubs and golfing ephemera -- Hurdzan spoke at length about his favorite topic: golf and the environment.

Golf Digest: What is the case against golf, environmentally speaking?
Mike Hurdzan: Opponents of golf believe it's an unnatural environment, and that we use too much water, fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels to maintain a plant material in an unnatural state.

How valid are those claims?
Unfortunately golf has become something of a symbol of development, so when people make the case against golf, often what they're really against is development. But maybe 60 percent of the criticism that we use too much water is probably valid -- we could do with a lot less water. The criticism regarding pesticides and fertilizer is almost a nonissue now, because the amount of real contaminant that we put into the environment is really small. The fossil-fuel issue, that's still a 60-percent or 70-percent valid criticism. We're using too much energy. But golf courses sequester a lot of carbon that reduces global warming; they provide oxygen and open space and wildlife habitat. If you think a golf course is bad for the environment, ask yourself, compared to what?

What environmental hoops do you have to jump through to get a golf course built in America today?
All politics are local. And all environmental issues are local. What's important to a community on this side of the river might not be important to a community on the other side of the river. Each site has its parameters. Before we even consider a golf course we usually do a site analysis, looking at all the pluses and minuses. There are some sites, when you do the analysis, you realize that it's simply not worth the impact or cost of proceeding. Along certain seashores, for example.

The permitting process occurs at three or four levels. Usually there's a local agency that has control -- sometimes it's a county or a state, sometimes it's a city. There's at least one state agency, which is generally the Department of Natural Resources, and then the federal government has two agencies that are concerned with this. One is the Environmental Protection Agency, the other is the Army Corps of Engineers. You start with the most local agency, and then when you get approvals from them it goes to the next-higher agency, and it goes through that process until everyone is satisfied up and down the line.

It must be a very time- and money-consuming process.
Fifteen years ago we could go through that process in about two to three months. Now it takes two to three years. You used to spend a matter of $10,000 or $20,000. Now it's not uncommon to spend $500,000.

With no guarantee it will be approved.
With no guarantee.

When there's local opposition, what are the typical objections?
Eight out of 10 times when I go to an environmental hearing, most of the people there are lay people who don't have a scientific background. So they're very easily swayed by someone who says we're going to put down chemicals that will poison the water and the air and your children. There's a lot of misinformation. Ninety percent of the U.S. population doesn't play golf and is easily influenced by all of the scare tactics. But when you boil it down to the hard scientific evidence, there just is not a problem. I'll refute anybody who is not willing to accept that a golf course is a good environment if it's properly designed, constructed and maintained.

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