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It's All in The Water

USGA summit outlines golf's No. 1 priority

February 2013

The United States Golf Association buried its lead. It waited until the last session of its two-day conference, "Golf's Use of Water: Solutions for a More Sustainable Game," to have veteran golf-course architect Bill Love describe his design of Hunting Hawk Golf Club near Richmond, Va., an 18-hole public course that is irrigated solely with rainfall that is captured and stored within its property.

Hunting Hawk could have been--maybe should have been--the centerpiece of the water summit, because its solution went to the heart of the issue. The volume of water in the world remains finite, yet the demands for it continue to escalate. Golf courses are so far down the list of priorities that USGA president Glen Nager says that golf's use of water is a more pressing issue than even declining participation.

Faced with trying to build the Hunting Hawk course with no source of water--no groundwater pumped from a well, no surface water pumped from a nearby river, no water piped in from a city treatment plant--Love and the developers looked to the skies and decided they'd have to collect every drop of rainwater they could. Luckily, the site is bowl-shaped, so Love designed four interconnected lakes at the low end to serve as storage ponds. Man-made streams along golf holes carry runoff directly to the lakes. Mounds and swales do so indirectly, transferring rain into drains, and underground pipes then deliver it to the ponds.

Hunting Hawk uses a drought-tolerant bentgrass on its greens and a hybrid Bermuda for fairways. It is never lush and plush. Water is used sparingly, because it is so precious. Only tees, fairways, greens and a narrow band of primary rough are irrigated. Secondary rough and "conservation areas" are indigenous grasses, never watered except by nature, rarely mowed. The club refers to the conservation areas as pasture mix; critics might call them fields of weeds. The point is, they're only in locations where golfers aren't expected to hit a golf ball.

There were several other compelling case studies presented at the water summit. Though none seemed to have the primacy of Hunting Hawk, they did provide answers to a variety of water issues.

Certified golf superintendent Tim Hiers spoke of his Old Collier Golf Club in Naples, Fla., the first course in the continental United States built with wall-to-wall salt-tolerant Paspalum turfgrass and the first course anywhere in the world irrigated solely with brackish water. Over time, salts will build up within the soil. If not periodically flushed, the salts could eventually kill the Paspalum at its roots. Luckily, Florida rainfalls provide periodic freshwater flushes of the soil. But Paspalum is less attractive as a potential course turf in arid areas like Texas and Arizona.

Bob Farren, director of golf courses and grounds management at North Carolina's Pinehurst Resort, detailed the restoration of its legendary No. 2 course, which will be on display in 2014 when it hosts the men's and women's U.S. Opens in consecutive weeks. After examining aerial photos of the course taken in 1943, consulting architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw decided to return the layout to that era. They stripped away most of the Bermuda roughs, exposing hardpan sand, and transplanted 100,000 plugs of native wiregrass to those areas. Fairways are now framed with belts of sand dotted with tufts of vegetation and patches of pine needles.

They also removed all perimeter irrigation heads, cutting the number from 1,150 to 450, so that only tees, greens and centerlines of fairways receive irrigation. They established a single height of mowing on everything but greens, which are bentgrass with a tighter cut. Fairways now seem twice as wide, but the closer to the centerline, the more predictable will be the lie. Over-seeding was abolished. Farren now adds colorants to the dormant Bermuda fairways during winter months.

A number of governmental representatives spoke at the water summit, all providing dire predictions and early warnings. Water shortages are expected in at least 36 states during the next few years.

Skeptics might scoff at the suggestion of Hunting Hawk as a role model because it exists in a climate where the average annual rainfall can exceed 40 inches. That misses the point, which is that golf courses must adopt a mind-set of using water with extreme restraint. As USGA senior agronomist Chris Hartwiger says, over the next 20 years, it won't be possible to maintain golf courses the way they've been maintained for the past 20, in part because of the scarcity and cost of water. We golfers are going to have to learn to live with that fact.

I guess I buried the lead, too.

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