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Global Warming Threatens Courses

On Boxing Day in 2004, Greg Dukart, the general manager of the Links at Crowbush Cove on Prince Edward Island, watched as high winds and heavy surf hammered the coast near his home on the isolated Canadian island and knew this winter storm would be like none he had ever experienced. This time, his course was in trouble.

Resting on the southern shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Crowbush Cove had long been protected by a sheet of ice that formed annually along the north end of the course. But that winter had been unusually warm and the ice had never arrived, leaving the course, considered among the best in Canada, exposed to the force of increasingly powerful storms. Dukart was worried about what he'd face when he arrived at work the following day, but the damage exceeded even his worst fears. The surging nor'easter had ripped into the dune protecting the par-three eighth and the sixteenth fairway and swept it out to sea.

"We had rock thrown across the sixteenth fairway and onto the eighteenth hole," Dukart said. "That's not a short distance—it must be a hundred yards. The power of the sea was amazing."

Cleaning up the mess was easy, but Crowbush Cove still faced the risk of further damage from storm surges, leaving the club with a choice: abandon the seaside holes that had come to define the course or spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to protect them—without any certainty of success.

Crowbush Cove is far from alone when it comes to confronting the disastrous consequences of shifting weather patterns and the resulting coastal erosion. Many of the world's best and most revered courses—St. Andrews and Cypress Point, Royal Portrush and Kiawah Island's Ocean course—are situated on majestic seaside properties. All of these clubs are dealing with similarly difficult and expensive decisions.

To some, the future of golf alongside the ocean looks bleak. "Many courses, in the short term, are spending money on projects that won't work," said Dr. Jim Hansom, a geomorphologist at the University of Glasgow who consults with clubs on coastal issues. "They are just looking at a stay of execution."

Still, some clubs have developed elaborately engineered projects designed to prevent their courses from slipping into the sea. Royal Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands faces issues related to erosion near its ninth through eleventh holes, a section of land that runs along the coast of the North Sea. "Though we'd been working on the area since the early 1990s, it was becoming clear that if we didn't do something we could lose the tenth hole," said John Duncan, the club's general manager. "We were getting the full brunt of the waves. After all, there's not much between us and Norway."

By the winter of 2002, the situation had become dire, with nearly seven feet of dunes having been swept out into the mouth of the Dornoch Firth. With the beachfront disappearing, the club hired an engineering firm that specializes in erosion issues to advise it on its options. The firm's solution involved reprofiling the bank along the tenth and eleventh holes as well as bringing in new gravel for drainage and installing geotextile fabric to keep it in place. Dornoch may have saved its tenth hole for future generations to enjoy, but the cost was high—close to $700,000.

Most ocean courses have faced some degree of erosion during the past century, but the problem has grown in recent years. In 1996, Pebble Beach, amid concerns that it could lose part of its eighteenth green, undertook a $3 million renovation of the seawall on its final holes. That project involved using steel rods to add stability to the wall's structure and using a protective barrier of artificial rocks on the coastline to limit the effect of the sea. According to Steve Aitchison, senior vice president of capital services for the Pebble Beach Company, the work is expected to shore up the cliffs for the next hundred years. Unfortunately, erosion on other areas of the cliffs means Pebble Beach's management will have to continually pump money into anti-erosion projects. And the course still faced problems in early 2005, when storms caused part of the rough adjacent to the eighteenth fairway to collapse.

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