Golf & the EnvironmentSeptember 20, 2009

Green Star Awards

Golf Digest announces the first winners in our annual search for America's best environmental resorts: Barton Creek, Kiawah Island, Pebble Beach + Sunriver

Because you play golf, you love nature. You love the outdoors, fresh air, green grass, the sight of a deer prancing across a fairway and an eagle gliding overhead.

You'd love to have a perfect lie every time, but you grudgingly recognize the quest for perfection can damage the environment. So you're OK that sprinklers don't pop up as often, because water is precious and, frankly, drier turf makes for a better playing surface. And you accept (if not applaud) that many fertilizers, bug sprays and weedkillers have been shelved for the sake of a better tomorrow.

You realize it's in every golfer's interest to preserve, protect and even enhance nature. Without nature, there is no golf.

That's why Golf Digest has established a new award -- the Green Star -- to honor golf resorts that best demonstrate the industry's efforts to do no harm to the environment. A Green Star is meant to certify practices in every phase of operation, from course to clubhouse to lodging and beyond, intended to be protective of the ecology and yet sanguine to the sport.

We've limited this award to resort facilities. Even though many public and private courses are equally as progressive, we believe resorts have the toughest challenge, being the most nationally prominent golf operations and facing increasing inquiries from potential customers about environmental commitments.

One of our judges, Jay Feldman, executive director of the environmental group Beyond Pesticides, insisted we reward only resorts that exceeded, not just met, industry standards. "It should be assumed that all facilities have strict policies and practices for handling pesticides and cleaning of equipment," he says. "In that respect, these things alone should not be an indicator of an environmentally advanced operation."

He's right, of course, but we found nothing "routine" about maintenance operations such as state-of-the-art wash racks for mowers and spray rigs, where grass clippings are captured, gas, oil and chemical residue is filtered and all wash water is recycled. Especially when compared with a typical hometown car wash, where all the grease, grit, grime, mud, oil and flaky bug ephemera pour down an open grate into a city sewer.

Each Green Star facility is a role model for the rest of us, where every golfer can visit -- should visit -- to experience what a comprehensive commitment to nature is really about, from that early-morning cup of coffee to a late-evening dinner.

It's a happy happenstance that our four inaugural winners -- Barton Creek Resort, Kiawah Island Resort, Pebble Beach Resorts and Sunriver Resort -- are among the most popular golf destinations in the nation and include some of the country's most highly ranked courses. What was of greater interest to our judges was the fact that all four exist within eco-sensitive communities -- the arid Texas flint hills, a marshy Atlantic barrier island, the rocky Pacific coastline, a quiet river valley in central Oregon -- making it incumbent on these resorts to be good neighbors.

Barton Creek Resort

All water used to clean maintenance equipment at Barton Creek Resort is filtered through Water Stax-brand bio-remedial water-treatment units (top left), which use microbes to break down oil, grease and chemicals into harmless water and carbon dioxide. Grass clippings can serve as an organic food source to keep microbes active. The 160-yard 13th hole at Barton Creek's Crenshaw Cliffside Course (top right) is typical of the philosophy at all four of the resort's courses: rolling hills slashed by ravines, with tightly mowed Bermuda grass playing surfaces framed by areas of no-mow native grasses.


Barton Creek Resort encompasses 4,000 acres of hardscrabble Hill Country in Austin. Started in the 1980s, it has three 18s on-site -- Fazio Canyons, Fazio Foothills and Crenshaw Cliffside -- and a satellite 18, Palmer Lakeside, west of town near Lake Travis. Water conservation is a primary concern. Barton Creek irrigates three of its courses with effluent water delivered from an on-site treatment plant.  Areas around many tee boxes have been denuded and planted with cactus, yucca, yaupon, Texas sage, bluebonnet and paintbrush that use very little water yet remain aesthetically pleasing. No-mow buffer zones on the fringes of holes -- 30-yard-wide areas of unirrigated, unmaintained native areas along perimeter boundaries -- are marked as wildlife habitat, though golfers aren't prohibited from entering them. Still, they can be hazardous, as the wildlife includes rattlesnakes at certain times.

Yes, some of its courses have waterfalls, but they're not just decorative; they provide oxygenation to minimize algae growth. Yes, it takes electricity to run those recirculation pumps, but Barton Creek purchases as much electricity as it is can from wind-generated turbines in West Texas.

Course conditioning follows an Integrated Pest Management program that involves daily monitoring of pests and potential diseases; continual soil, water and tissue testing to determine when nutrients are needed; and the use of slow-release organic fertilizers to minimize the chance of contaminating watersheds. The overall philosophy on Barton Creek's courses is tolerance of a certain amount of imperfection in the turf to avoid heavy chemical use. The director of golf-course maintenance -- previously Ken Gorzycki, now Roger Goettsch -- doubles as the resort's Environmental Assurance Manager to oversee a wide range of initiatives, training and programs. These include washing 200,000 pounds of laundry each month using an ozone treatment that requires little detergent and rinse water. The ozone decomposes fats as its disinfects, using only cold water, saving natural gas costs. Plus, the wash water is cleansed and recycled onto the golf courses.

The resort recently completed the replacement of all incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones that last 10 times as long, use 75 percent less energy and produce 75 percent less heat, reducing demands on air conditioning. Thirty thermostats in different areas of the resort are controlled during peak summer months directly by the electric company, Austin Energy, to cycle areas off for short periods to avoid brownouts.

In 2008, Barton Creek Resort recycled almost 64 tons of paper, cardboard, plastic, scrap metal, cooking oil and batteries. Using formulas provided by its vendor, Balcones Recycling, the resort estimates its recycling saved 1,075 trees, 443,170 gallons of water, 24,059 gallons of oil, 5,634 cubic feet of landfill space and enough energy to power 63 homes for an entire year.

Development of Kiawah Island, a mile-wide, 10 mile-long South Carolina barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and the Kiawah River, began with controversial Kuwaiti investors in 1974. The Kuwaitis were eventually bought out, and the Kiawah Island Resort became a separate entity in 1988. It now occupies nearly half the island, with a hotel, spa, villas, tennis courts, soccer fields and four courses: Cougar Point, Turtle Point, Osprey Point and its jewel, the Ocean Course, ranked 25th among America's 100 Greatest and site of the 1991 Ryder Cup and 2012 PGA Championship. The resort also owns a fifth 18, Oak Point, across the river on Johns Island.

The Kuwaitis' master plan was heatedly opposed in 1976 even though it took pains to preserve the tender sand dunes, quiet marshland, lush maritime forests and abundant wildlife, and is painstakingly adhered to by the resort today.

All buildings remain behind secondary dunes to protect natural habitat. Roads veer around ancient live oaks to save them. There are no streetlights anywhere because artificial light would lure Loggerhead Sea Turtles away from the beach where they nest for six months a year. Sections of land, including 25 acres next to the Sanctuary Hotel, are maintained in the wild for migrating birds and butterflies.

Kiawah Island Resort

What looks like a robot from a sci-fi movie (bottom left) is actually an Air Cycle brand Bulb Eater, used at Kiawah Island Resort to safely dispose of fluorescent light bulbs. The Bulb Eater can gobble up an eight-foot long bulb in a second, and the residue is recycled. When Kiawah's Ocean Course (bottom right) was built in 1991, designer Pete Dye created 22 acres of freshwater lagoons to store irrigation water pumped from underground, and he restored 80 acres of saltwater marsh around the perimeter of the course. Dye also established sea oats on his manmade sand dunes.


The Ocean Course at Kiawah is the only one in the area with a complete drainage-recapture system, so nothing put onto the course drains into adjacent wetlands. It uses deep well water for irrigation, which proved so briny that officials opted to entirely re-grass the course with paspalum, a turf that thrives on brackish water. There's discussion of converting Osprey Point, its only other course using well water, to paspalum. The other courses are irrigated with treated effluent.

The resort has a full-time Director of Outdoor Programs, Liz King, and seven naturalists who educate guests on a vast array of subjects such as why your monofilament fish line should be properly discarded and why that tiny spider on the porch step should be spared your foot. The resort actively funds and supports the nonprofit Kiawah Conservancy, which serves as a land trust to preserve undisturbed portions of the island, and urges resort guests to donate $2 per night to that effort.

Scott Fister oversees all the recycling at Kiawah Resort, a major undertaking that includes everything from guest-room cans and bottles to tires and wooden pallets from the maintenance facilities, as well as used tennis balls, athletic shoes, batteries and light bulbs. The resort recently purchased a bulb-crushing machine that pulverizes fluorescent bulbs -- even the big, long ones -- filters the mercury vapor and converts it to nonhazardous mercuric sulfide. It also uses reusable food and beverage-service items instead of disposable ones, and all paper products, as well as nets on the tennis courts, are from recycled material. The tennis center sells sweatshirts made from 70 percent recycled cotton scraps.

After weekly summer oyster roasts, Kiawah's workers collect all oyster shells so a state agency can return them to oyster beds to enhance breeding. There are also periodic beach and river sweeps to hand-remove all litter.

Kiawah's chefs participate in the Sustainable Seafood Initiative, serving fish and shrimp caught locally whenever possible and removing from the menu such items as imported shark, orange roughy and Chilean sea bass because of the worldwide over-harvesting of those slow-growing fish.

Pebble Beach Resorts

Ray Von Dohren, general manager of the Carmel (Calif.) Area Wastewater District, says his massive reverse-osmosis treatment plant (bottom left), funded by Pebble Beach Resorts, is "the only one like it in the world." The Links at Spanish Bay (bottom right), on the northern edge of the Del Monte Forest, is one of the best land-reclamation projects in all of golf. What had been a sand quarry was transformed into scenic, eco-sensitive linksland by restoring native vegetation and creating natural-looking dunes with tons of sand transported by conveyor belts.


Pebble Beach Resorts sit on the famed Monterey Peninsula on the California coast, 2,500 acres of the 5,300-acre Del Monte Forest. There are many private homes within the forest, but parent Pebble Beach Co. owns the lodging, recreational facilities, roads, open spaces and even some Pacific shoreline along famous 17 Mile Drive. The resorts have five courses: Pebble Beach Golf Links, ranked sixth among America's 100 Greatest and site of many major championships, including the U.S. Open next summer; Spyglass Hill, ranked 51st; The Links at Spanish Bay, ranked 52nd on Golf Digest's list of America's 100 Greatest Public Courses; Peter Hay, a popular nine-hole pitch-and-putt, and Del Monte, the resorts' oldest course, in Monterey, outside the forest.

In 1992, the Pebble Beach Co., which had always bought "city water" to irrigate its golf courses, decided to use treated wastewater and financed a public water-reclamation project for $34 million. That decision has saved more than 3.7 billion gallons of drinking water for greater Monterey. (Pebble still purchases city water for consumption in its hotels, restaurants and clubhouses.) The wastewater, from the Carmel Area Wastewater District treatment plant just south of the resorts, probably was good enough for most courses. As water conservation in the area increased, so did the salinity of the water. These high sodium levels caused problems for salt-sensitive Poa annua, the most prevalent grass on tees, fairways and greens.

So a few years back, the Pebble Beach Co. agreed to pay an additional $33 million for a plant expansion to further purify the water. Now the wastewater goes through steps beyond the usual biological treatments: first microfiltration and then a process of reverse osmosis, which literally squeezes out the remaining impurities. The result is water so clear it's good enough to drink, though it's still not used for that. Instead, it's piped to all the courses within the forest, not just those of the Pebble Beach Resorts, but also to Cypress Point, Poppy Hills and the two 18s at Monterey Peninsula Country Club. The fees all these courses pay for that water (the same price as they would be for potable water) go not to the resorts but to the Wastewater District for maintenance and operation of the plant.

The plant has always produced more reclaimed water than the courses can use, but the excess is no longer dumped back into the Carmel River and hence into the Pacific, where the water once disrupted delicate marine life. Instead, some 300,000 gallons per day of excess water flow into canals that feed lagoons that maintain water levels to protect the endangered steelhouse trout.

Pebble's Environmental Stewardship Manager is Thomas Quattlebaum, a former paleo-oceanography/climatology researcher who co-chairs the Green Team, an in-house advisory group charged with reducing the resorts' ecological footprint. To that end, it has convinced owners to ban the use of Styrofoam throughout the resorts, to stock the spa with organic products and towels as well as tissues made from recycled paper. And it's pushing for filtered water dispensers to eliminate bottled water.

Quattlebaum has established a recycling program so sophisticated that it generates enough revenue to pay for itself. Housekeeping staff separates all guest-room trash, which is picked up daily by a recycling coordinator. He deposits the items into large bins, which are hauled away at no charge by a recycling company that pays the resorts a small amount per pound for cardboard, glass, aluminum, plastic and even some e-waste (mostly old cathode-ray tubes). Wine-bottle corks are excluded, donated to the Monterey County Youth Museum for use in children's arts and crafts. Used mattresses are donated to a local charity. Food waste -- hundreds of tons annually, including more than a ton just from the week-long AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am -- goes into a compost field at the regional composting center. Additionally, Pebble Beach composts 25 tons of debris from grass clippings and landscape green waste that's used in landscaping restoration projects and the golf courses.

Within the forest, nature is king. Each April, resort employees fence off harbor-seal rookeries along the Pacific coast to allow skittish seals to bear pups without the distraction of tourists. Around the corner at Spanish Bay -- a land-reclamation project with manmade sand dunes -- workers hand-pick weeds to avoid spraying weedkiller.

Up on the hill, foresters tend to 70,000 nursery plants for revegetation, including robust versions of the Monterey pine, the predominant tree in the Del Monte Forest, hit hard in recent decades by pitch canker and beetle infestation. For every pine that is removed for development anywhere in the forest, two new ones are planted, of various ages, to avoid a monoculture of height. At Spyglass Hill, whose personality from the sixth hole onward relies heavily upon tree lines, some 7,000 trees have been transplanted, including many cypress and coastal live oaks.

Sunriver Resort

Under the supervision of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Sunriver reconstructed sloughed-off banks (top left) of the Little Deschutes River, using rock and biodegradable jute. Willow cuttings were planted at different points to provide shade for trout, and boulders were deposited on the river bottom to create riffles for spawning beds. Sunriver's latest project, the nine-hole par-3 Caldera Links (upper right), a collaborative design by architect Bob Cupp and Sunriver's Jim Ramey, reinvigorated a blighted area of the property. New ponds and wetlands serve as a breeding ground for spotted frogs.


Sunriver Resort covers more than 1,800 acres in a pastoral mountain valley of central Oregon. Dating from 1969, it has a lodge, spa, conference center, summer rentals, river marina, horse stables and 66 holes of golf: Meadows, Woodlands, Crosswater (ranked 58th among America's 100 Greatest Public and site of a Champions Tour major, the Tradition) and the year-old Caldera Links, a nine-hole par 3 with three full-size practice holes. When the Crosswater Course was built in the early 1990s, it was reduced from a proposed 36 holes to 18, with fewer surrounding residential lots, to lessen the impact upon the Little Deschutes River. During the recent construction of Caldera, 20 acres of manmade wetlands and wildlife habitat were created from a previously flat, barren landscape.

Two years ago, Sunriver's owner, Destination Hotels and Resorts, instituted Destination Earth, a corporate-wide program of environmental initiatives. Director of Engineering Craig Peterson heads Sunriver's efforts, which include conversion of spa pools and hot tubs to saline to eliminate bulk chemicals, and the purchase of local organic produce, wine and flowers to promote local industry and reduce carbon emissions associated with long-haul trucking. Sunriver's cleaning staff uses only nontoxic cleaning products that are 100 percent natural and  biodegradable. Its Sage Springs Spa carries a line of local organic facial creams and massage oils. Biodegradable cups made from corn and sugar cane are used throughout Sunriver.

The fluffy pillows in the guest rooms are made of recycled plastic, and the resort uses bulk amenity dispensers to eliminate one of any hotel's biggest waste products, those tiny bottles of shampoo, conditioner and mouthwash. Fryer oil from its resort kitchens is recycled to produce bio-fuel. Grass clippings, aerification plugs and wood debris from its courses and bio-solids from its utility plant produce 150 cubic yards of compost every month, used in vegetable gardens and as divot mix on tees and fairways.

As for golf, Sunriver seems idyllic, with hardly any insects, turf disease or headaches for director of golf-course management Jim Ramey, a fixture as laid-back as the resort. Thirty years ago, this golf pro-turned-greenkeeper chopped down lodgepole pine trees and built a log cabin in which he and his wife still reside. Because Sunriver is also a winter ski resort and courses are typically snow-covered from November to April, snow-mold fungus is the only thing Ramey normally fights with fungicide.

Sunriver has its own wastewater treatment facility that provides irrigation for its Woodlands Course and its oat farm, which produces feed for its horses. Its other courses use well water from the Sun River Utilities Water System. When Crosswater was built in 1995, Ramey established buffer zones of natural vegetation along its banks to keep any chemicals applied to the course out of the Little Deschutes River and the wetlands, and the areas have recently been rebuilt to restore eroded riverbanks and improve fish habitats. The zones have never received artificial irrigation, fertilizer or pesticides. Water is tested upstream and downstream twice a year. To date, no negative impact has been detected.

Officials at our Green Star resorts admit there is still much to be accomplished before their operations can be considered totally sustainable, but all are making strides.

One problem is that many programs are expensive. For instance, Sunriver has postponed a plan to immediately replace every incandescent light bulb with compact fluorescent ones, a $250,000 proposition, as being too costly in the present economy. Plus, there were questions about how nature would really benefit from tossing out working light bulbs. Pebble Beach's program of using goats to get rid of noxious ice plant, while charming, is labor-intensive. Each area has to be fenced off before the goats are brought in, then the temporary fencing is moved to another area before the goats are herded to graze the next hillside.

Another problem: Programs are inconvenient to golfers. All the aerifying, verticutting and top-dressing necessary to provide healthy soil and turfgrass with minimal use of chemicals takes a lot of labor and disrupts play more often. No-mow buffer zones at Sunriver and Barton Creek are often in play, and downright unplayable.

To become truly green, hotels must become more energy self-sufficient, and their courses must become a good bit browner. One big step would be solar-paneled golf carts that would recharge themselves, or better yet, a majority of golfers agreeing to forgo golf carts entirely, as they're the biggest aggravation to the propagation of firm, dry, healthy fairways and rough.

At least the game of golf is somewhere on the front nine of the environmental movement. Better yet, our Green Star resorts are the leadoff foursome.