There are some golf course developers who swear environmental concern from one side of their mouths -- and then swear at "those $%#@ treehuggers!" from the other. And there are those, like real estate developer Lowell Schulman, who are learning to do the right thing.
In the summer of 1988, Schulman, a real-estate developer, bought a 203-acre parcel of land in Bridgehampton, New York, on the South Fork of Long Island. It seemed a perfect place to build his Atlantic Golf Club. The stretch of gently rolling, windswept farmland features a string of glacially formed "kettlehole" ponds harboring birds and other wildlife.
The South Fork is a scenic area of farms and well-to-do resort communities. (It's also rich in top-flight golf courses -- several miles west lies Shinnecock Hills, a U.S. Open course, which adjoins National Golf Links; Maidstone, a true linksland course, perches on the ocean to the east.) Community environmental groups in the area have fought to protect land resources and wildlife, so state and local controls over wetlands zoning are strict, mandating a 200-foot no-man's land around the wetlands.
Which is why the first blueprints that Schulman produced in the fall of 1988 aroused objection from local environmental watchdog groups and the Southampton zoning board. "We were quite dismayed," said Mike Bottini, of the Group for the South Fork. Some holes were perilously close to the wetlands, conflicting with state and local regulations. And the design lacked a public walkway, an easement the town had sought as part of a long-term trail project.
But the project had a lot going for it. Conservationists prefer standalone golf courses -- without housing, that is -- to other sorts of open-space development. (Farms preserve scenic vistas, but can overload the soil and wetlands with nutrients and pesticides. This, in fact, had occurred on the Atlantic site.) Schulman was committed to building a course to rival its neighbors. And his architect, Rees Jones, unlike some big-name architects, never takes on more courses than he can personally guide from start to finish. But things didn't really begin to move until May of 1989, when, with the project halted, Schulman replaced his his project manager with Tom Julius, of the Legacy Group.
Julius brought enthusiasm and a sympathy for the town's concerns. His first step was to ask watchdog agencies and state and local authorities what they wanted. "We made them participants in the design process," he says. With the advice of the Group for the South Fork, a local environmental organization, he hired a dozen environmental authorities as consultants, an "ist"-list that included a geologist, a herpetologist, an ornithologist, a hydrologist, a turf specialist -- even an archaeologist, to inspect the site for ancient artifacts. "I frequently hire consultants who work for the opposition. The theory is that I'm sure what we're doing is the right thing."
The experts performed thorough tests on the site, including seining the ponds to find out what fish lived in them and using infrared light to watch for nocturnal animals. The results of the study, according to Bottini, were "in many ways as comprehensive as an environmental impact statement." Julius was able to reach agreement with the town on what would and wouldn't be done to the site -- guaranteeing, for instance, that endangered species would be protected (see Golf Illustrated, October, 1990).
Meanwhile Julius had updated Rees Jones and his designer, Greg Muirhead, on how the course would have to change. So when the Group for the South Fork wanted to plant a local maritime community of grasses, Julius asked his botanist's advice on grass types, even sending to Denmark for a grass seed unavailable in the U.S. He then asked Rees Jones to set aside areas out of play that wouldn't be cut more than once a year.
By midsummer 1989, Julius was able to present the town with new plans. Jones had slightly condensed the original design, moving a par-three cut into the side of a large kettlehole pond. To accommodate the town's request for a trail, one dogleg was opened slightly and another was closed. The most drastic change was Jones's new design for the 18th hole, originally a 460-yard par-four with a short carry over water, which would have meant dredging an extension of an existing pond. Jones set the tee back behind the wetlands buffer to make a 560-yard par-five with a daunting carry.
In August, 1989, the town granted approval. Construction began immediately, and the Atlantic Golf Club, scheduled to open in May of 1992, is near completion. It's a challenging links- type course of remarkable beauty and variety. Ever-changing local wind conditions will make it play even longer than its 6880 yards (100 yards shorter than the first design). And depending on the season, the tapestry of grasses will give many of the unplayed areas a mottled or tawny look -- a relief from the typical monotonous bright green of many courses.
"It's a good and sensitive plan," said Mike Bottini.
"If there's one lesson to this," says Tom Julius, "it's that course architects shouldn't be pulled into the orbit until after the environmental homework has been done."
Rees Jones sums up: "If architects are willing to work within the framework of environmental laws and environmental groups, then, if there's enough land, it's going to work. But if you go in there with a confrontational attitude, it's either not going to work or it's going to take forever. We believe that working with the environment really turns out a better golf course."