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Global Warming Threatens Courses

The evolution and devolution of dunes is nothing if not unpredictable. Sometimes the sea will simply "borrow" sand from a collapsed dune and redeposit it on the beach during another storm; other times it will sweep the sand away, rendering the original dune complex even more vulnerable to the next storm. Sand swept off by longshore drift eventually accretes somewhere else. Where it goes, exactly, is often a mystery, but Rye Golf Club in the south of England has been gaining new coastline almost since its inception in 1894. The receding sea allowed the club to redesign its original course in 1907 and even open an additional nine holes in 1975.

For decades, the beach along the eighteenth hole at the Ocean course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina was another area that actually gathered sand. But that has changed over the past ten years. "Since Hurricane Floyd in 1999, we've watched 120 feet of sandy beach along the eighteenth disappear," said Kiawah's president, Roger Warren, referring to the impact of a channel created by the storm. By August of 2005, only twenty feet of beach remained to protect a hole that had been the center of so much drama in the 1991 Ryder Cup. "I stood near the eighteenth during a storm and just watched as the water ripped the soil away," Warren said.

Kiawah didn't have immediate recourse from state and local government—"the policies in place were really limiting for a private business that wanted to protect its beachfront," Warren noted—leading ownership to bring together a variety of civic leaders whose interests were aligned when it came to saving the beach. Citing the significance of the golf operation to the local economy, the resort successfully lobbied South Carolina's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management to approve and jointly fund a project to deal with the erosion. More than 550,000 cubic yards of sand was redistributed through a renourishment program, and the channel creating the erosion was altered.

"We looked at a lot of different options, and this was the best when it came to being environmentally sensitive," Warren said. "We tried to balance the needs of the golf course with the needs of the environment." But that came at a considerable cost: $3 million. And in another decade, the beach adjacent to the Ocean course may need to have its sand restored again. That is one thing almost all solutions combating erosion have in common: The fix, even if it lasts fifty years, is essentially temporary. Seaside courses will have to budget for continued coastal work, raising the cost of maintenance and likely upping greens fees as well.

John Duncan said Royal Dornoch's newly reinforced beach is expected to last for decades, but he admitted that the course could still be vulnerable. "When we talk about a 'fifty-year storm,' we're not talking about a storm in fifty years' time," he said. "We're talking about a storm that happens once every fifty years. It could happen five years from now or in year forty-five."

Duncan added, "We're not kidding ourselves," a statement born from the fact that waves have occasionally flooded over the area protecting the ninth hole. The club has taken the possibility of future erosion seriously enough to acquire property farther inland in case holes need to be relocated. "We are getting higher winds and stronger storms, but it is too early to tell if this is a long-term or short-term cycle," Duncan concluded.

What many conservationists don't take into account when discussing erosion is that seaside courses in places like Scotland and California account for significant tourism and tax dollars. Just imagine what would happen to the economy of a town such as Dornoch if the character of its world-famous course were materially altered by rising tides. It may take a disaster that irreparably damages a famed course to force golf and political organizations to confront the issue head-on.

As for Crowbush Cove, it embarked in 2005 on a major engineering project designed to replace and secure its remaining dunes and protect its fairways from storm surges like the one that ravaged it two and a half years ago. At a cost of almost $1 million, the ramparts should withstand whatever nature throws at them, Dukart said. But he acknowledged that there are no guarantees.

"We are hopeful that what we've done will hold up," he said, with a hint of apprehension in his voice. "Everything that can be done has been done. But you never really know."

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