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Golf Course With a Conscience

AT CUTTING EDGE OF ENVIRONMENTAL DESIGN

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 1997



SCITUATE, MASS.

The minute you pull up to the Widow's Walk Golf Course in Scituate, Mass., something seems different. It's the parking lot made of recycled asphalt. This wouldn't be the norm at most of the estimated 400 new courses built in the United States each year, but here it works perfectly.

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The 118 acres on which the course sits had become an eyesore in this picturesque coastal community south of Boston.

For decades it belonged to a sand and gravel company. Once the site was abandoned in the 1970s, the town bought it. Dirt bikers and dumpers soon moved in, scarring the landscape, leaving it strewn with old tires, discarded refrigerators and washing machines, and scaring off wildlife.

With no public golf course in town, Scituate saw an opportunity to transform part of "the pits" into an upper-end daily-fee course. To make the project a winner with local residents, golf architect Michael Hurdzan was enlisted.

Dr. Hurdzan is at the forefront of an enviro-golf movement that finds the golf community increasingly taking up the ecological banner and working with environmental groups.

In a cooperative effort between the US Golf Association, which conducts extensive environmental research and education, and the Audubon Society of New York State, more than 55 courses nationwide have received full certification for their efforts in six key areas: environmental planning, wildlife and habitat management, member/public involvement, integrated pest management, water conservation, and water quality management.

"Given a choice between a golf course that is forced into the environment, that's made artificially green by excessive use of water, fertilizer, and pesticides and one that has a very natural feel and is in harmony with life forces," Hurdzan says he'd take the latter every time. "I think golf is actually better on an environmentally sensitive golf course. It becomes more enjoyable, relaxing, more pleasant."

Historically, golf design and maintenance have been strongly influenced in the US by the Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club, the emerald-green home of the Masters. "People try to emulate the course's condition," says Nick Seitz, editor-in-chief of Golf Digest. "People want their course too green, but the color doesn't have much to do with the playability. A brown course can play about as well as a green course."

That theory is being put to the test at Widow's Walk, where the course is basically green, but sun-dried areas are not frowned on.

"Our goal," says course superintendent Jeff Carlson, "is to use approximately half the amount of water, fertilizer, and pesticides that a typical course would use."

Greater use has been made of drought-tolerant and disease-resistant fescue grasses, plus the moisture level of each green is automatically monitored to ensure proper, efficient watering.

"Most courses probably have about 100 acres of actual turf," Carlson says. "Because of [protected] wetlands, this one has about 44 to 50 acres."

Hurdzan says the course would "lose some of its visual impact" if turned into a uniform green swath. Color, texture, and height, he says, are important considerations in the design process, and he believes Widow's Walk has all three in abundance.

"In a funny kind of way, the sand and gravel company built this course," Carlson says, "and Dr. Hurdzan was smart enough to know how to use it." After digging stripped the area of building materials, numerous mounds were left. Instead of leveling them, Hurdzan decided to use their topography, creating many elevated tees, including one with a panoramic ocean view that inspired the course's name.

A goodly amount of natural vegetation is also incorporated into the design. The untouched areas can gobble up balls like water hazards do, especially if tee shots don't get airborne or carry far enough.

Bob Sanderson, Widow Walk's golf director, says that generous natural areas, including some marked as environmentally sensitive, contribute to the challenge. The untamed acreage, however, helps to making it a thinking player's course. "It forces golfers to manage their game," he says.

The course has only been open two weeks and so far every tee time has been filled. Players seem to enjoy the interesting, if unforgiving, layout. To gauge its lasting appeal, however, Hurdzan plans to seek golfer feedback via a questionnaire.

Hurdzan doesn't recommend building golf courses on unstable and sometimes malodorous landfills, but he is enthusiastic about the reclamation of old quarries and strip mines. He's started work on a course that mirrors Widow's Walk in North Hempstead, N.Y. Many other designers are getting into the environmental swing, too.

Jack Nicklaus, for example, designed a Montana layout - the Old Works Golf Course - on the site of the Anaconda Mining Company's smelting operation. Black, slag-filled bunkers dot a golfscape still punctuated by a 60-story smokestack.

In many cases, Carlson says, golf courses represent the best possible way to recycle land unsuited for housing or farming while meeting growing recreational demand. "It's not taking virgin land," he says. "It's taking played-out land and improving it."