Royal Troon: A Walk On the Wild Side

British Open course is a study in a natural, less manicured look

When golf greats tee off tomorrow at the British Open at Scotland's Royal Troon, their interest will be in birdies not birds, bunkers and greens rather than wildflowers, and butterflies thriving in Troon's sand dunes.

Tom Lehman and Tiger Woods will hardly be on their knees studying wild carrots, eider ducks, skylarks, six-spot burnet moths and Isle of Man cabbages - species, some rare, contributing to the valuable biodiversity at Royal Troon's 119-year-old links course.

The "postage stamp" 8th hole - the shortest hole on any Open course - or the preceding 7th hole, which is the longest, are the stuff of legend at Troon. And then there is the 11th hole, "the railway" which - though modified since the last Open at Troon (1989) - may still live up to Arnold Palmer's assessment: "the most dangerous hole I have ever seen."

But one keen golfer and spectator will be keeping one eye on the flora and fauna here while watching the match with the other.

Jonathan Smith is Scotland's first "golf course wildlife adviser." He was appointed by the Scottish Golf Union, and funded by environmental groups, and The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which runs the Opens.

Mr. Smith aims to raise awareness of the environmental possibilities of Scottish golf courses. His job is evidence of a growing awareness of the need for golf clubs to recognize their responsibility to the environment. The trend began in the United States, and has spread to Europe, including the original home of golf itself, Scotland.

"My role is to encourage club members to understand that their course is a site which uniquely dictates what can be done to achieve balances between different vegetation and habitats and the golfing quality," says Smith.

There is, he says, a need to go further than lip-service. Sometimes clubs believe it is enough to leave a rough area untouched. Smith tactfully proposes management instead of neglect. "There might be an area of heather with trees growing through it, killing off the heather. The better thing would be to cut down the trees and manage the heather."

Smith assures clubs that what he advocates will cut, not increase, costs. Better management can obviate the need for expensive chemical treatments.

Part of the attitude-change has been born of public criticism - or the fear of it. This reared its head in the late 1980s and early '90s during the course-building boom in Britain and Europe generally.

"Europe-wide the number of golf courses increased by roughly 200 courses a year - 54 percent - in the last 10 years," says Colin Hegarty who runs the Golf Research Group.

In Great Britain, 520 new courses have opened since 1989, and about 40 a year are still being built. Many, he says, have been located inappropriately in "pretty" countryside instead of near large towns where they are needed.

In some areas inhabitants feel their environment is being taken over by golf courses. Tony Edwards and his neighbors in West Byfleet, southwest of London, feel this. Within a 20-mile drive of their homes are 30 golf courses. Two are close by - and now, in spite of their vigorous opposition, a third has been permitted.

Mr. Edwards is outspoken on the subject: "They aren't just shaving the grass on the wild land. They are putting in a load of new land, totally destroying the shape of the landscape. Then they're adding chemicals to ensure the nongrowth of plant life they don't want. Grass-friendly. But not friendly to any other form of wildlife. Totally sterile land." And the chemicals "run away with rain into the rivers."

The main European organization founded to counter such negative perceptions is the European Golf Association Ecology Unit.

This September at Valderrama, Spain, when the Ryder Cup is held, David Stubbs, the ecologist who runs the Unit, will launch "Committed to Green," an environmental management program for golf courses.

Mr. Stubbs is an articulate advocate for one basic conviction - that "golf is better played in a natural setting than in a manicured one." (Not always appealing to golfers with a "suburban" rather than a truly "countryside" view of nature.)

Stubbs maintains that no one has yet proved that a golf course cannot, by its nature, be "green." He backs his arguments with case studies: Badgers that are flourishing better on a managed golf course in Kent than they were when the land was farmed; scientific data that turf filters out toxic chemicals better than farmland.

He hints that golf on more "natural" courses might benefit from being more of a contest of man with nature, as it was originally.

This, he knows, goes against the "big manicured American" park land courses popularly idealized by "TV coverage, and the star players and commentators. They have a lot to answer for."

So should new courses emulate traditional links like Royal Troon?

No. That, Stubbs says, is a "red herring," born perhaps of a romantic affection for old world courses that hark back to the game's beginnings. To Stubbs, new courses can't be modeled on the old classic courses, even though some, like Royal Troon, have become valued ecological sites.

Golf evolves. And both new courses and modifications to old ones must keep pace. "But," Stubbs insists, "there is absolutely no reason why any golf course ... can't be managed more naturalistically. In a way which encourages wildlife. And enhances the game.''

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