Every golf course relies on sunlight to grow healthy grass, but surprisingly few have harnessed the sun to provide electricity. That's why Golf Digest is awarding its 2015 Green Star Award to Northport (Mich.) Creek Golf Course.

The new nine-hole layout—it opened in July 2014—is the first course in the nation designed and built to be totally solar-powered. Its solar cells provide more than enough energy to operate the clubhouse, recharge the golf carts and, most important, pump the wells and irrigation system.

The idea of a 100-percent-renewable golf course was that of Bill Collins, an 83-year-old retired automobile engineer best known for being part of the 1960s Dream Team that conceived the Pontiac Firebird, GTO and Grand Am. (Collins later became the chief engineer behind John DeLorean's ill-fated automobile.) A longtime Northport resident but nongolfer, Collins witnessed a drop in tourism after the local 18-hole course, Matheson Greens, closed in 2000, so when a 63-acre cherry farm was foreclosed in 2011, he and some minority investors bought it. He brought in 81-year-old Michigan golf architect Jerry Matthews, who told him that given the wetlands and other restrictions, there was just enough room for nine holes.

Nine holes was better than nothing. Indeed, new nine-hole courses are a modest trend, as witnessed by the recent Sweetens Cove, Sewanee and The River Club courses in Tennessee, Thousand Acres in Maryland, Rising Sun in Montana and Skyway in New Jersey.

Collins turned to another retired automobile engineer, Tom Gallery, who operates Leelanau Solar. Gallery devised a system so the golf course might never have an electric bill.

Phase One was a "solar farm" of 16 12-panel units installed left of the second fairway, generating an annual energy output of 64,000 kilowatt hours, enough electricity to operate seven average-size homes. It went active in December 2013 to run the state-of-the-art irrigation system installed by Carol Colein, Matthews' wife.

Phase Two, which went online in spring 2014, consists of two arrays of 48 solar panels with computerized tracking to follow the path of the sun. Its output is 21,000 kilowatt hours per year.

In his research, Collins came up with only five courses in America that had retrofit with solar cells to power at least a portion of their operation. One of those, Stevinson Ranch in California, has since closed. "I think the reason most golf courses never considered solar power was cost," Collins says. "Only in recent years has the price of solar cells dropped enough to make it reasonable."

The Phase One solar farm cost $150,000; the Phase Two computerized tracking panels cost $60,000. Collins estimates they'll pay for themselves within 10 years.

Northport Creek has no mammoth array of storage batteries. Instead, it generates electricity and deposits it directly into the local electrical grid. During the winter, when the course is not operating, electrical credits build up. During months of operation, Northport Creek taps into the grid and pays for its use through credit reductions. Thus far, the solar panels have produced more electricity than the course has used. (The club must pay a $25-per-month distribution fee, so it does receive a monthly electric bill after all.)

Collins and his partners paid for the solar-cell system and the $1 million construction costs of the golf course, then turned it over to the village after agreeing to operate it (and absorb any loss) for the next five years.

Because Matthews designed the 3,000-yard, par-36 layout with the sixth hole returning to the clubhouse, the course offers six-, nine- and 18-hole green fees at $12, $17 and $23 weekdays and $17, $26 and $34 weekends (carts $5, $6 and $12). Matthews has been urging the club to also offer late-evening three-hole rounds. To wring out the last few bits of sunlight at twilight, so to speak. Much as the solar panels do each evening.


PAST WINNERS

2009: Barton Creek Resort & Spa (Austin), Kiawah Island (S.C.) Golf Resort, Pebble Beach Resorts, Sunriver (Ore.) Resort

2010: Madden's on Gull Lake, Brainerd, Minn.

2011: Barona Resort & Casino, Lakeside, Calif.

2012: Bandon (Ore.) Dunes Golf Resort

2013: Bear Trace at Harrison (Tenn.) Bay

2014: Pinehurst (N.C.) No. 2 and Pasatiempo G.C., Santa Cruz, Calif

To nominate a course for a Green Star award, email us at editors@golfdigest.com


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