Special Report: Golf's green teams

Precious few golf courses just say no to chemicals

December 2008

I'd never really thought about a golf course being chemically dependent, until I played one that wasn't.

Not that appearances made the difference. Quite the contrary. When I played Applewood Golf Course in Golden, Colo. -- the granddaddy of so-called "organic" golf courses -- in September, it looked and played like any other golf course. Its bluegrass fairways were tightly mowed and provided decent lies, its bent-grass greens were firm, swift and pure to putt. Sure, there were somepatches of clover along the edges of a few fairways, and the far rough beyond the reach of irrigation was brown and clumpy. But Applewood cost me just $23 to play that weekday morning. At that price, it would have been foolish to expect country-club perfection.

I knew going in that Applewood was a chemical-free golf course. But after my round, I wasn't so sure it was still on the program. I had expected to see bugs hopping around unrestrained, splotches of dead grass ravaged by disease and fields of dandelions. Instead, I saw a regular golf course with turfgrass that shouldn't look that good without artificial stimulants.

So I got in touch with Applewood's superintendent, Matt Rusch, who laughed when I asked him if he still maintained the course without any pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.

"That's exactly the kind of feedback I like to hear," he said. "Come check my shed -- I don't even own a spray rig."

Applewood is a pleasant little public course, par 71, not even 6,000 yards from its back tees, and playing even shorter at its mile-high altitude. It sits on rather bland terrain on the northeast edge of Golden, the clubhouse and a few holes atop a plateau, the remainder of the course in a floodplain dotted by cottonwoods. The Rockies loom to the west, but only a couple of holes play toward them. It was built in 1961 for Adolph Coors Co. brewery, atop an aquifer that Coors (now MillerCoors) still uses to provide water for its beverages. In 1988, the company decided to quit running the risk of contaminating the aquifer and ordered its golf-course personnel to figure out a way to maintain the course without chemicals. They did, and Applewood became the example for "holistic golf-course maintenance."

Rusch, now 27, had no idea of the radical ongoing program at Applewood until the day he interviewed for the job in 2005. It was a program that had been in place since he was 8 years old; if he wanted the job, he'd have to abandon his "spray-every-other-week" training and learn a new culture.

He figured he was up to the challenge, and now, completing his third season at Applewood, he's proud and enthusiastic about his golf course and honest about its limitations. He fights bugs, weeds and disease without chemicals but does feed his turfgrass some fertilizers.

"We're a chemical-free golf course, not an organic golf course," he says. "Being organic means using absolutely nothing but organic fertilizers.

All the fertilizers I use have to be approved by the Coors Water Board. About 8 percent of those fertilizers are organic, but we do occasionally use a commercial quick-release nitrogen fertilizer, ammonium sulfate, with Coors' approval. It's granular, applied with spreaders, and it's taken up by the plant so quickly that there's no time for it to get past the root zone into the groundwater."

There's a debate on what constitutes a truly organic golf course. The Center for Resource Management in Salt Lake City, the organization that has coordinated various Golf & the Environment summits since 1995, has a subcommittee of environmentalists and golfers trying to define the term. After two years of meetings, a consensus has yet to be reached.

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