A Grass Menagerie

March 04, 2010

The Little River (Calif.) Inn Golf & Tennis was named the National Resort and Overall Winner of the 2009 Environmental Leaders in Golf Award. View more photos of Little River Inn Golf & Tennis.

One easy and enjoyable way of determining if a golf course is compatible with its environment is to look for wildlife. If you see lots of birds and animals hopping, jumping, scurrying, soaring or even slithering about the place, it's a pretty good bet the golf course doesn't use toxic chemicals.

So why was I surprised when, while taking a practice swing on the first tee at the Little River (Calif.) Inn Golf & Tennis

a few weeks ago, a bobcat trotted across the fairway? After all, I was there, teeing it up with Little River's superintendent, Terry Stratton, and three other employees, specifically because they had just been named the National Resort and Overall Winner of the 2009 Environmental Leaders in Golf Award. The annual awards, co-sponsored by Golf Digest and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, recognize the highest commitment to environmental stewardship. I should have expected a wild animal on my opening tee shot.

Still, I was surprised, even a bit skeptical. I turned and accused Stratton of orchestrating that cat walk, having someone in the thick pines to the right give it a nudge at precisely the proper moment. Stratton laughed and reminded me we weren't anywhere near Hollywood or Disneyland. We were 150 miles north of San Francisco, a few hundred yards inland from the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean, in a mountainside forest of pines, firs and redwoods. Bobcats run wild here, and the Little River Inn golf course is the perfect habitat for bobcats, as well as lots of other critters.

Stratton works hard to preserve and protect them. In the dozen years he's been at Little River, he hasn't used 20 gallons of pesticides, doesn't even have a spray rig, just spot-treats with a backpack sprayer when he absolutely has to. He's created "no treatment" buffer zones of native grasses around the creeks and ponds on the course. He's established wildlife corridors across the Little River Inn property that lead to the adjacent Van Damme State Park. As he cuts down timber, he leaves the logs out in the rough, to serve as nesting grounds.

The bobcat was not the only wildlife I'd see that day. Around the corner on the dogleg par-5 fourth, a pair of young deer were busy trimming the left edge of native rough, oblivious to golfers. On the downhill par-3 ninth, a gaggle of wild turkeys thoroughly scrutinized the turfgrass to the right of the green in search of something to nibble, but showed no interest in my errant tee shot. I also saw some birdies -- three as the result of long putts by Stratton; and an eagle -- a hole-out from the fairway on the par-4 sixth by Stratton's mechanic, Scott Cail. Which is proof that a golf course can double a grass menagerie without sacrificing playing conditions.

After our round, twice around the 9-hole course (or 11-hole course, as Stratton prefers to call it; there are alternate greens serving the 16th and 18th holes), the superintendent filled me in on other regulars we hadn't spotted that day. There are a pair of Black Redtailed Hawks somewhere in those trees, a Pigmy Owl that often perches on the telephone wires behind the fifth tee, ospreys, buzzards, and a show-stopping river otter that loves to slide down the steep bank in front of the fourth tee on its belly and eat crawdads while resting on its back.

There's a long-tailed weasel that keeps the property clear of voles (a small ground rodent that can damage fairways and greens much like gophers and moles) and flocks of flickers and blackbirds that, every spring, cover the greens and consume thousands of larvae of the European crane fly, a nasty grass-eating pest that migrated from Washington State in 2004 and is so tough to kill it's been nicknamed "leatherjackets."

"Saves me two chemical applications a season," says Stratton, who'd otherwise have to spot spray some pesticide to kill the larvae. Use of animals to eat other animals or insects is one component of what superintendents call Integrated Pest Management. Another component is the use, whenever possible, of natural organic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in lieu of synthetic chemicals. So Stratton fights Anguina nematodes, microscopic worms that feast on the roots of his Poa Annua greens, with a plant food made from Irish kelp. It somehow suppresses nematode development. (Most chemical nematicides are toxic and banned in California. Nematodes are a serious problem to any course with Poa Annua greens, including Pebble Beach, site of this year's U.S. Open.)

Little River Inn is not Pebble Beach

, although it overlooks an ocean cove that rivals anything on the Monterey Peninsula. The Inn, dating from the 1920s, is quaint and casual, with just 65 rooms (some with Jacuzzis) spread among several buildings, a charming bar and superb dining room. The course, designed in 1957 by Ole Hervilla (grandfather of the present innkeeper, Cally Dym), is modest in length, 5,458 yards par 71, but fairways are tight and greens are tiny. It sees 24,000 rounds annually, with green fees of $35 (for 18) weekdays, $40 weekends.

I suspect what especially impressed the EGLA judges about Little River Inn is that Stratton does all his environmental work on an extremely limited budget, $180,000 annually, using just three full-time employees: Stratton, Cail and irrigation tech Darryl Lowe.

Stratton admits many of the programs he instituted were originally money-saving devices. He uses no groundwater for irrigation, just rainwater captured in three holding ponds atop the hill above the course, and moves water between the ponds using only siphons and gravity. He irrigates his turfgrass sparingly. "I found if you cut back on water, you experience less turf disease and find less need for fungicides," he says.

He began recycling everything from grass clippings (to make mulch) to bottles, batteries and old brass fittings. Much of it can be sold, and his 2009 recycling raised nearly $3,000, enough to pay for him and five others to attend the Golf Industry Show in San Diego this month, where Stratton will accept the top EGLA as only the second 9-hole course ever afforded that honor. (The first was the 9-hole Colonial Acres Golf Club

in Glenmont, N.Y., headed by superintendent Patrick Blum, in 2002.)

Playing the Little River course, Stratton pointed out (but did not apologize for) certain imperfections in the turf: a patch of pineapple weed on the corner of one tee, a stretch of soggy fairway caused by a spring that emerges after heavy rain, a spot on a green caused by animal urine. "We're not a country club," he says. "We don't aspire to be more than we are."

Actually, country clubs might want to aspire to be what Little River Inn is, particularly in these tough economic times. The lesson of Little River Inn is clear: the planet is more important than perfection.