For The Greener Good

By Keri Schwab

In an era focused on sustainability, golf courses get a bad rap. No matter how much recycled water is used, or how many drought-tolerant grasses are in place, golf courses are often panned for not being environmentally friendly. Additionally, when courses occupy precious acreage in urban areas, they are criticized for serving an exclusive few, rather than the communal “many.” And during financial downturns, when discretionary income dries up, courses are left unused and unappreciated—losing both revenue and public favor.

But there are several simple ways golf courses can be on par with the three pillars of sustainability—economic, environmental, and social—and curry favor with public and private stakeholders. The following ideas from around the world illustrate a variety of ways to improve and maximize space, time, profit, and public perception on a golf course.

Take Flight
Golfers have only two avian friends—eagles and birdies. But for those whose hobby involves all types of birds, a golf course is a prime area in which to spot unique, local friends of flight. Bird watching may be an even slower activity than golf, and that’s a good thing because small groups of slowly shuffling birders won’t damage the greens. Golf courses on the edge of town—closer to quiet, open spaces, patches of forest, or with multiple water features—are ideal habitats for native species. In San Luis Obispo, Calif., for example, amateur birders have seen Say’s and black phoebes, grackles, and red-winged blackbirds on the municipal course a few miles north of the city center. In addition, attracting birds of prey—such as owls and raptors—is a good way to control ground rodents, gophers, or squirrels that can tear up the greens. In another example, an artificial lake at the privately owned Lake Tamarisk Desert Resort in Desert Center, Calif., boasts egret, verdin, and yellow-rumped warbler sightings. Whether near water or dry land, birders with dawn and dusk access could draw a new flock of users and supporters to a golf course.

Snag The Big One
Water might be a hazard to golfers, but among anglers, golf course ponds are legendary for having “lunkers,” or very large fish. These ponds are also known for being a good challenge, one, to catch fish in sunny, open conditions and the bragging rights for doing so, and two, to get on the course if not a member. By opening the course to anglers, management can charge and regulate pond use, and reduce the lure of late-night stealth fishing. However, much of the thrill of fishing golf course ponds is the forbidden fruit. Because courses are members-only, closed after dark, or closed to fishing all together, the best locations, types of lures, and times of day is information shared only in whispers among the closest of angler friends, who also want to keep their fishing hole a secret. But this can be a financial advantage, to bait anglers with a limited number of permits on select days of the month. Or permits can be sold for night fishing, but also in limited release. Many anglers enjoy trading the glare of sunlight for the challenge of sensing and feeling the fish in unlit waters. Another tip to keep the sense of stealth: require anglers to dress in golf attire, not tacky fly-laden vests, and they must practice catch and release. Finally, there is no need to advertise. Word of mouth will spread news of the limited, legal access, and stories of hooking a permit will be told and bragged about just like catching a big one.

Graze For A Good Cause
Weed whacking, cutting grass, and disposing of clippings all take time and money. But a flock of sheep can trim weeds and overgrown brush in a matter of hours and without noisy disturbance to golfers. Legend has it that sheep were among the first golf course designers on the famed St. Andrew’s course in Scotland, carving out bunkers by huddling together to protect each other from strong winds. Now, sheep are increasingly common on courses in England and Scotland as their dining habits help thin out rough grasses during the summer months and help clear the fairway in the winter. A thin electric wire lets sheep know which grasses are available when golfers are on the course. While herding and tending to sheep takes time and money, partnering with a local farmer to allow for grazing in lieu of a greenskeeper could yield benefits for both parties.

Search For Shrooms
Similar to sheep working for free, people can pay to keep the course weed- and fungus-free. Mushroom hunting on golf courses is a niche activity, but those interested are a passionate, dedicated lot. Mushrooms can grow year-round, depending on the climate. Morels are found only in early spring, whereas poisonous galerinas can grow most any time on wet, decaying wood. Opening forested areas of the course or its surroundings to mushroom hunters is the safest option, as hunters are less likely to be hit by errant golf balls, and mushrooms growing in the forest will be less affected by course fertilizers. If there is an abundance of mushrooms on the course, the local shroomery organization can be invited to hunt and identify them. Often, due to the fertilizers or pesticides used on courses, unique-looking mushrooms can emerge. Hunters should not eat the shrooms and should wear gloves while hunting.

Embrace Solar Capabilities
Instead of covering those lush, long fairways with solar panels, they can be installed on the low-profile, flat-top roof of the clubhouse, cart storage facility, or even the top of golf carts. Citrus Hills Golf & Country Club in Florida installed thin, lightweight solar panels on the top of its carts and is now enjoying nearly free cart-charging. The panels weigh only nine pounds and do not require retrofitting of the cart. Most electric carts have to be plugged in each night, but solar-powered carts charge while in use, and can last about a week as they are constantly recharging. And since the battery never fully drains, it lasts even longer than those in non-solar-powered carts.

Whether it’s for not being “green” or for pandering to an exclusive audience, golf courses often struggle to win public favor. But, by adding programs, activities, or equipment that serves several groups’ needs and interests, courses can increase revenue and improve public perception. And that is a hole in one.

Keri Schwab, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor for the Department of Experience Industry Management at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, Calif. Reach her at