The Golf-Course Architect: Mike Hurdzan

By John Barton Photos by Kagan McLeod
March 24, 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.

Golf can sometimes have a positive impact -- on degraded land, for instance.

Very positive. Right now we're doing a little project on a landfill right at the end of the airport runway [in Columbus]. When you came in today, you flew right over it. It was an abandoned landfill. We're going to cap the landfill and put a golf facility on it. It's going to be a big driving range, a nine-hole par-3 course and a pitch-and-putt. We're building this facility on a piece of ground that couldn't have any other use for the next 40, 60, 80 years. All it would have done is to grow weeds and be a dumping ground for junk. It would have become an eyesore. Now it's going to become the central focus for the recreation of that community. We can do that also with floodplain lands that have previously been used for farming, industrial sites that have had a lot of petroleum products put onto the ground, old mines or quarries.

Do you think the pesticides used on golf courses today are safe?

I do. They've got to be properly used. It's a very fine line between a medicine and a poison -- we're trying to walk that line, to treat a pesticide as a medicine to get rid of these pests that are causing us a problem, but if we abuse them, then they can be poisons. The proper use of pesticides presents no problems at all. I started as a greenkeeper in 1957, at Beacon Light, a little golf course where I grew up. My dad was a teaching pro. Back in the mid-'50s we were using cadmium, lead, arsenic, mercury; we were using all these heavy metals. We were using farm-grade fertilizers. Well, those things are gone. We didn't know any better back then. Science has showed us a better way to do things. When I went to school, Ohio State, Rachel Carson had just written Silent Spring, and that started me thinking.[Note: Silent Spring, published in 1962, documented the effect of pesticides on the environment, especially birds. It was one of the most powerful books of the 20th century and is widely credited with kick-starting the environmental movement in America.] And then I went to the University of Vermont, which was even more environmentally oriented. So when I started in golf architecture in the early '70s, I was like, why don't we try to do this in a more eco-friendly way? And honestly, no one cared until the 1990s. It was the environmentalists in the 1990s who really woke us up and said, come on, guys, you've got to do better. So we started to do it better. They deserve a lot of credit.

There's a great shortage of clean water, worldwide. There are droughts in Australia, Spain and here in the United States in Georgia, South Florida, Alabama, the Southwest. How do you reconcile that with the massive amounts of water golf courses use for irrigation?

Back in the '50s we had much less sophisticated irrigation. Then in the '70s and '80s we started putting automatic irrigation systems in, which had the capacity to deliver a lot of water, and so we really started to overwater and waste water. What's happened now is that the technology in irrigation has improved. We can irrigate a bigger area with less water. At Scioto, we have sensors in the soil that measure the moisture, temperature and salinity at the four-inch level and the eight-inch level. That information feeds back to a computer, and at any given time the superintendent can pull up those readings and base his irrigation on them rather than simply guessing. It's important to choose a grass that's well-adapted to that site. There are new, high-tech grasses that require less water. We can use treated gray water or effluent water that isn't fit for human consumption, rather than freshwater. But probably less than 20 percent of the golf courses in the United States are doing that. There's a lot of room for improvement. We need to find ways to more judiciously use our water, to do more with less. We don't need to maintain all of the golf course to the same extent. We need to change the perception that golf must be played on green grass. When that grass goes brown it's not dead, it's dormant. It's a natural cycle -- there are times of the year when the grass is going to be green, and other times when it's going to be brown, and if we allow that to happen, we won't need to use as much water. If there's some brown grass, it's not so bad; it's still a fun game. Nowhere does it say in the rules that golf has to be played on green grass.

What about the practice of overseeding in winter in the South? Is it necessary?

No. That's a prime example of changing golfers' attitudes. If people went to play golf in the South in the winter and found dormant Bermuda or zoysia or paspalum instead of green grass, it's a perfectly good playing surface. You need to irrigate the greens, yes, but that's a small amount of water. So I think overseeding is going away.

You do?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. It's costly, it's time-consuming and it uses too many resources. We're seeing it happen.

There's no argument that dormant grass that gets a lot of traffic could be damaged or killed?

No. It's dormant. It'll heal. And dormant grass that is not overseeded will come back to life in the spring faster than grass that has been overseeded -- overseeding retards the re-establishment of the natural grasses.

A lot of course owners in places like Las Vegas would say that if they didn't overseed, their revenue would take a massive nose dive.

I concur that that's what most operators would say. If you asked golfers 20 years ago if they would consider playing on a golf course that's not all green, they would probably have said no. But if you asked golfers today, and explained that it's saving millions of gallons of water, they'd probably say, "Yeah, I would do that." They'd say, "Well, you know it might not be as green as I'd like, but it's good enough, and the game is still fun, and we saved all that water." You know, I've heard sociologists talk about the effect the color green has on people. Some say that we're just hardwired to appreciate green, back to the days of the savanna when we were learning to walk on two legs. But I think that the American golfer is becoming more sophisticated and recognizing that golf on firm, fast playing conditions is probably more enjoyable than playing on lush, green conditions. It becomes a much more cerebral game -- it isn't just yard darts where you hit it out there and the ball stops. Now you have to land the ball and think, OK, the ball's going to release and run 30 yards; where do I want the ball to land?

So you think golfers' tastes are changing a little bit and getting away from the Augusta look?

I definitely think that. The USGA, for example, has taken such an interest in Erin Hills, a fescue course with bent-grass greens that will have the playing conditions that you find in Great Britain. [Note: It was designed by the Hurdzan-Dana Fry partnership and Golf Digest's Ron Whitten.] Previously USGA events were always played on very highly manicured courses. Now they're more inclined to go to a Shinnecock or a Newport or an Erin Hills, because they recognize that golf in those kinds of conditions is a better brand of golf. I think that's helping to shift the emphasis. When we gussy up a course too much, we lose some of its natural beauty. Take the natural beauty of a lovely Irish lass, for instance -- if she puts too much makeup and jewelry on, some of the real beauty is masked. When we make a golf course all one continuous sea of green, we lose some of that natural variety. The best photographs of golf courses always have lots of changes in color and texture and elevation; those are the things that make courses visually interesting. When we water them and mow them and make them verdant green all over, they lose that texture.

What about the practice of painting the dormant turf green instead of overseeding?

It's an old technique that's coming back. It's a very good practice, very intelligent. You use a dye that goes down into the leaf structure of the plant itself. Sometimes you have to apply it twice or three times over the winter, but it's relatively inexpensive, and the impact is minimal.

Any other innovations?

We're going to keep developing better grasses that require less water, pesticide, fertilizer; that's the trend. Seashore paspalum is the biggest miracle in the last 10 or 15 years. You can irrigate it with seawater, and it will do perfectly well in some climates. People are going to figure out how to take this grass and start to grow it farther and farther north, so pretty soon we might have paspalum growing in Maine. We've really just begun with this stuff. We're going to develop better non-synthetic pesticides that have a more natural base. We're going to see all sorts of other technological innovations. GPS-controlled mowers, for instance, so golf courses can be mowed at night, without an operator. There are going to be a lot of changes.

You've said that you hope to see American golf courses achieve the same lack of environmental impact as they had in 1920. What was the impact in those days, and is it possible to go back to that?

Yes, it is possible. We had very few or no synthetic chemicals back then. The golfers' perception of the golf courses was much different. I think we can achieve the same playing conditions we have now but with the environmental impact of the 1920s, and we'll do it with technology. Let's say that golf in Old Tom Morris' day was about as natural as could possibly be. There was no environmental impact. So we'll give that a score of 100 out of 100. In the 1920s it might have been at 80. In the 1950s and the 1960s, it might have been at about the 40 level. Now we're heading back up again. We're at the 70 or 75 level now, and I think we'll get back up to that 80 or 90.