September 16, 2009

Letter From Denmark

Click here to view more photos of Denmark

Click here to view more photos of Denmark

In 1997, the Danish government decided that to protect the nation's groundwater, it wanted to eradicate pesticides from all public lands -- including most of the country's 180 golf courses. "There was a lot of pressure," says Torben Kastrup Petersen, 34, the Danish Golf Union chief of golf-course management. "The government said that golf should be pesticide-free, right away."

The DGU argued long and hard that an immediate ban was unworkable. Eventually, as a compromise, in 2005 the DGU made an agreement with the government -- unprecedented in the world of golf -- that within three years, Danish golf courses would reduce their total pesticide use by 75 percent.

"We had some concern about resistance from the clubs," says Petersen. "But the reaction has been very positive. I think everyone agrees that this is the way forward."

Every club was told to take steps to cut back synthetic chemical treatments. Furesø Golf Club, for instance, a half-hour north of Denmark's capital, Copenhagen, switched to fairways and greens that are largely fescue -- drought-tolerant and disease-resistant -- and only very occasionally uses spot applications of one herbicide. One fairway doubles as a giant research field -- unbeknown to the golfers out playing, it has been divided into more than 100 squares where different combinations of ways to harass weeds into submission are being tried, such as verticutting and harrowing, nitrogen applications and top-dressing. (It will be another two years before the results can be assessed.)

In the end, however, the DGU fell well short of its goal, reporting in late 2008 that a reduction of 38 percent had been achieved. A new, broader agreement is being negotiated, one that will include new targets, as well as water and energy provisions.

"Yes, of course it was disappointing," says Petersen. "Maybe we got a little bit optimistic. But we'll continue to make reductions. Pesticide-free golf is still the long-term goal. Our research will help. But maybe the most important thing is to educate the players, explain to them that they can't expect Augusta National. We're not saying you have to get used to a lower quality. It's just going to be a different course -- a browner, drier and firmer course."

• The wilderness area that crosses the first and ninth holes on the Sky Course at the Lübker Golf Resort is home to some extremely rare wildlife: The spadefoot toad, the sharp-nosed frog, the crested newt and five species of orchid. The year-old resort hopes to set a standard not only for golf but for environmentalism.

"This aspect is extremely important to us," says the resort's founder, Poul Anker Lübker. "We involved all the leading environmental groups right from the very earliest stage." On the golf course, as throughout Denmark, grass is grown in as natural a way as possible. (It's admittedly a country blessed with a good climate for turf.) Lübker is one of the few courses here that can do any kind of fairway irrigation, thanks to assiduous harvesting and storage of rainwater and a less-restrictive-than-average municipality. Probably fewer than 15 courses in Denmark water their fairways, estimates Lübker superintendent Derek Grendowicz, a Scotsman whose résumé includes stints working at Gleneagles, Royal Melbourne, Westchester Country Club and one season at Augusta National. As for chemical treatments, the amounts that Grendowicz is able to use are minimal compared to his experiences in the United States. "It's like virtually nothing," he says. "What we're able to use here wouldn't even count over there. But we manage." Grendowicz points out that golf courses are only about 0.2 percent of the landmass of Denmark whereas farms, which face far fewer restrictions, are more than 60 percent. "It's all political," he says.

Nevertheless, for Lübker it's important to be doing the right thing. Many houses on the resort will be "zero homes" that generate as much energy as they use. (Not far away, in Lystrup, is the world's first Active House -- one that generates more energy than it uses, with solar panels for hot water and solar cells for electricity.) Lübker's heat and electricity -- and that for the homes in surrounding towns -- comes from biomass: organic waste from the resort, such as grass clippings, as well as from area farms. It's renewable, carbon-neutral -- and cheap.

"I believe people who are playing golf -- modern people -- they don't want to spoil the nature," says Lübker. "They want to behave ethically. And here we're doing something about that. In 10 years, everyone will be doing these things and thinking in this way."

• It's perhaps not surprising that the Danes are leaders in golf's environmental charge. After the 1973 oil crisis, a farsighted government set about investing in alternative-energy sources -- nuclear power was rejected in 1985 -- and instituting rigorous energy-efficiency standards. Today, Denmark is entirely energy self-sufficient, with 20 percent of its needs coming from renewable sources. Thanks to first-mover advantage, it is far and away the global leader in wind energy -- roughly half of the world's wind turbines are made by Danish companies. It has mastered recycling -- almost all the country's landfill sites have closed. Denmark has shown that it is possible to cut CO2 emissions, prevent energy consumption levels from rising, and at the same time sustain high rates of economic growth.

It's not perfect. "We're a long way from being fossil-fuel-free," says Erik Albertsen in the Copenhagen office of Greenpeace, where a giant "Quit Coal" sign greets you as you emerge from the elevator. In one recent global environmental ranking, Denmark was only 26th, scoring poorly in "biodiversity and habitat." But the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from this tiny, enlightened Scandinavian nation, where the big U.N. climate change conference takes place in December. It has excellent free schools, hospitals and healthcare for everyone, cheap and abundant public transport (gas is $9 a gallon), low crime rates. It gives more of its GDP to foreign aid than almost any other country. It's a civilized, egalitarian (and heavily taxed) society and, according to some surveys, the happiest nation on earth.