Whether or not golfers should be concerned about the potential effects of the pesticides and fertilizers used in course management, it's a fact that the possible impact of these chemicals on surface and underground water is what arouses local opposition to golf courses.
Several years ago, for example, the New York State Attorney General released a blistering attack on golf maintenance practices, citing past leaching of pesticides into Long Island groundwater. Titled, alarmingly, "Toxic Fairways," the report 1) proposed a Federal prohibition of "pesticides containing known or possible carcinogens," 2) urged golf course superintendents to avoid or minimize certain chemicals, and 3) suggested groundwater testing and increased EPA monitoring of chemicals -- including posting notice of applications (already a practice at many golf courses).
Other studies may dispute the finding, but there are still concerns about whether the benefits of chemical application outweigh the risks. According to the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, EPA data shows that of the 34 most commonly used turf pesticides -- which includes insecticides, herbicides (weedkillers, basically), and fungicides -- ten are known carcinogens, and twelve can cause birth defects. Since the process of EPA review is extremely complex and lengthy, not all these chemicals have been banned -- or will be soon.
Manufacturers of these chemicals ferociously dispute such conclusions. But golf course superintendents will tell you that risky or not, "chemical dependence" is a bad habit. Overwatering and overfertilizing to produce a plush green carpet is the cause of most of the trouble, since such practices weaken turf and make it more prone to fungal infestation. And applying chemicals routinely, as "preventive maintenance," can further lower turf's resistance by preserving weaker grass plants and by upsetting the natural balance between various beneficial funguses, for instance. As a consequence, the turf on many American golf courses -- the most celebrated being Augusta National, where the bermuda is always overseeded with rye in the spring to turn the course Masters green -- simply could not maintain themselves without intensive chemical and irrigation practices.
When fungicides and chemicals are applied indiscriminately, turf becomes extremely difficult to maintain: one well-known West Coast golf course became known for chronic fungus attacks -- "toxic avengers," as golf course superintendents call them -- caused by overwatering and over-application of fungicide. In their determination to provide golfers with a pleasing surface, some golf course superintendents may even violate label recommendations, or utilize banned or prohibited chemicals.
American management practices have been chemically intensive since around 1930. Not so in England. Says David Goulding, of the British and International Greenkeepers Association, "You've got the big chemical companies obviously wanting to make a lot of money, but the old greenkeeping traditional practices over here, and the grasses we encourage naturally, are successful with a least amount of chemical usage. And green isn't necessarily good." The British climate makes the British Isles uniquely suited for growing native grasses -- in a way that a place like, say, St. Louis, with its high humidity and temperature variations, is not -- but apart from certain zones in the U.S. where growing golf turf is difficult, the benefits of chemical management seem harder and harder to justify.
If there's a problem, don't blame the golf course superintendent: most every superintendent has to please the players, or lose his job. Listen to one, speaking on condition of anonymity:
"The average Joe Golfer comes back from his trip to St. Andrews and says 'I'll tell you what. That's the oldest course in the world. And they say it's the greatest course in the world. I thought it was horrible! The greens were all dead, the fairways were all brown!' . . . .
"I think it's all a scam. I don't think we need any of the chemicals, it's just something that's just perpetuated by the average golfer. And we're just the implementers. The golf course superintendent either has to give the golfers the golf course they want -- the overly green one that requires all these pesticides and water and does not in any way resemble St. Andrews -- or the golfers are going to find somebody who will. So what it boils down to is us just wanting to feed our families.
"The one thing that I can assure you of, is that were we autonomous, as golf course superintendents, to get out of this mess, we'd get out of it on our own. As I said before, we're just the tools of the American golfer."
One sign that the trend may be reversing is something called "Integrated Pest Management," an attempt to control the use of chemicals by limiting them to an ad-hoc use -- spot spraying against fungus only when there are signs of infestation, for example, instead of blanket pre-emptive application. The Golf Course Superintendents Association (GCSAA), traditionally in the forefront of research in applicator and golfer safety and pesticide fate, is helping to inform its members about IPM. But some dispute IPM, calling it a "catchphase." Even one proponent cautions that IPM can be reduced "to a hollow shell surrounding the same old methods of pest control."
One manager goes even further. "That's just a game," says Dutch (not his real name), an entrepreneur who has maintained his own golf course in northern New England virtually chemically-free for some twenty-five years. (He sheepishly confesses to the use of six pints of fungicide last year -- some golf courses apply well over two thousand pounds of pesticides annually.) A gruff individualist, enemy of most state and federal regulators, politically incorrect enough to prefer Roosevelt, Theodore to Roosevelt, Franklin, Dutch dislikes labels, but if pressed may refer to himself as a naturalist: to him, maintaining a course chemical-free is a matter of common sense -- or, as he says, "What's more important, hotel-lobby conditions, or being able to drink a glass of water out of the tap?"
Ask him how he handles a certain "problem" -- fungus, say -- and he'll likely back off the question, and encourage you instead to see the whole: "We don't kill fungus, we consider fungus to be our ally. Against things like thatch, and other things that apparently are considered to be problems by superintendents generally. See, a lot of problems are often caused by the fact that superintendents spend so much time killing things which in fact would assist them if they understood them properly." He uses a carefully formulated fertilizer program, using not only compost piles but such old-fashioned ingredients such as cottonseed meal, hardwood ash, and seaweed emulsion. And it requires some doing: greens must be hand-weeded, and it isn't easy to get the crew to stay late in the day -- which is the best time for mowing, when the grass is standing straight.
Dutch takes pleasure in every natural aspect of the course, from the feeding activity of starlings and grackles to the tiniest snow fleas. "The game of golf should be a healthy outdoor experience, it should expose one to the elements and to nature. To me that's what it should be, not a source of pollution."
In Squaw Valley, California, Perini, Inc., a construction firm, faced intense opposition to its plans to build a destination resort and golf course for a group of investors. The site for the resort -- a meadow directly above the highly permeable, gravely aquifer -- caused overwhelming concern about Squaw Valley's water supply.
After Placer County approved the resort in April of 1985, a local attorney sued to protect the water, and his court victory several months later created a legally binding plan to provide strict policing of course management practices by the county. Rules were devised -- "etched in granite," as one observer said -- based on the research of a committee of specialists in toxicology, engineering, geology, and water quality. The cost to Perini was upwards of $2,000,000.
Hundreds of chemicals routinely used in modern course maintenance practices were barred. "Anything that was listed as a carcinogen -- anything that had a question mark -- we threw out," said Placer Country health department official Jim Scribner, who headed the committee. In the end the only chemicals permitted were three herbicides, one fungicide for gray snow mold, and six types of one brand of fertilizer (which, thanks to their own tests, the committee found was just as effective at only two-thirds of the manufacturer's suggested application rate.) A non-porous membrane underlies each green, in order to channel the leachate through a drainage system, where it is then recycled. Site wells will be used to monitor any impact on the aquifer, and there are dozens of rules governing various aspects of upkeep and maintenance.
Carl Rygg, superintendent at Squaw Valley, remembers that when he decided to take on the job, "I realized that what was going on here at Squaw Valley was something that we could expect to a certain degree to happen all throughout the country, if not the world." Rygg, too, depends upon hand-removal of weeds and a reliance on natural systems of checks and balances. "In the past we'd see pythium fungus and we'd go into our pesticide room and we'd go out and spray it right away, and that would wipe out the bacteria that caused the pythium. But in doing so, you're also wiping out a lot of other bacteria that may be enemies of pythium in the same hand. . . . It's like in your body, for example -- if your immune systems are working well and you're healthy and you get enough sleep and you take care of yourself you don't get sick as easily."
Rygg cautions that with fewer chemicals, "we're not going to have the kind of turf playing conditions that are perfect all the time. . . . The state of California is constantly taking pesticides off the market for use on turf. And every time they do that, they are in essence creating the likelihood that a golf course's greens, tees, and fairways aren't going to be as lush and beautiful to the eye as they were the year before. And as long as the membership understands and accepts it, that's okay, but the same environmentalist who complains about 2,4-D, probably goes out on his local country club in San Francisco and complains about the weeds that his ball is lying on."
As Dutch likes to say: "We're used to thinking of nature as the enemy. But, as Sir Francis Bacon said, "'In order to command nature you must learn to obey her.'" You might say the fault lies not with our superintendents, but with ourselves.