Prior to its recent rise in popularity, golf, rightly or wrongly, had the reputation of being exclusive and excessive. It was described as a sport for the wealthy that was played on grounds that were "artificial." Environmentalists frequently portrayed golf courses as "chemical wastelands." With no other frame of reference, the general public had no choice but to believe what it was hearing.
Then participation in the sport grew and the media began to communicate more aspects of it to the masses. Suddenly the stereotypes that surrounded golf began to dissipate, not the least of which concerned the sport's relationship with the environment. The story began to be told about the emerging stewardship employed in designing and managing golf courses. The public began to learn what science had been telling us for some time: Golf courses can be community assets. Not only can they elevate property values, create jobs and provide tax revenues, they can also provide green spaces, filter air, purify water and create wildlife habitat.
Course designers and developers as a group have in the last decade taken an even more responsible approach to the environment. At Greg Norman Golf Course Design, we believe that by being sensitive to environmental issues we can actually increase the playability of a course and make the golf experience more enjoyable.
We begin each new course design with a least-disturbance approach. Our team puts a lot of time and effort into finding the most desirable natural features of a site and incorporating them into the routing. Streams, rock outcroppings, vegetation and undulating topography—even archaeological sites, in some instances—are a few elements that can provide a golf course with its own unique feel at a fraction of the cost of many of today's elaborately re-created courses.
I'm a big fan of Alister MacKenzie and A.W. Tillinghast, mainly because they didn't push a lot of dirt. Interestingly, MacKenzie served as a field surgeon in the Boer War and became an expert in battlefield camouflage. Later he helped design trenches in World War I. The architectural ideas that emerged from these unlikely experiences can be found on many of his most famous designs.
In any event, back in the 1970s and '80s, a time when the design business was booming, I saw considerable expensive golf course construction taking place. I also saw great amounts of money being spent trying to maintain these courses after completion. With all the artificial mounds and steep slopes, those courses were labor-intensive, and that expense got passed along to members. So when I started designing, my philosophy was to make my courses demanding but playable while keeping construction and maintenance costs down.
Golf course maintenance practices have improved to the point where it is hard to imagine they can get much better. Superintendents are better educated and have more resources than ever before. Even so, new technologies will enhance the game in ways that many players will never consciously notice.
Significant advances have been made in the area of water use. In the 1970s, it was accepted that fairways would eventually turn brown and uneven. But irrigation technology has been such that we are able to provide consistent, enjoyable conditions with the same amount of water being distributed to a larger area of turf. Irrigation in the future will become even more precise—we are now on the verge of seeing subsurface irrigation, where water is supplied directly to the roots of the plants. Already many new courses are relying on nonpotable (effluent) water for irrigation, and I believe in the next fifty years many more courses will go that route. For one thing, the turf serves as a good filter of impurities, and thus the golf course can act as a step in the water purification process.
Also, new grasses have been developed that better withstand the vagaries of the weather—heat, drought, high humidity, freezing—as well as of disease and traffic. Paspalum, a grass that tolerates water with a high salt content, has recently been introduced to coastal courses. I envision the continued development of turf that will address the challenges of specific regions. In the desert Southwest, a grass might not need much water to remain playable. In the Northeast, another variety might withstand disease brought on by high humidity.
One of the toughest design challenges that my team has faced was at Doonbeg, situated on Ireland's southwest coast, one of the last great links sites remaining on the Emerald Isle. Doonbeg presented a number of environmental concerns, the biggest of which was also the smallest: a microscopic species of snail. Some fifty-one acres of "gray dunes" were permanently fenced off for the preservation of these creatures, whose habitat will be continuously monitored.
I told my guys when I first saw the site that we had to discover the course, not create it. Working around the gray dunes, we just had to keep looking until we found it. I probably walked more than two hundred miles during site visits trying to find the routing that made the most sense.
There were many ways to go. Sometimes we could visualize three or four different ways to route one hole. It was just a matter of being patient, working with the project team and the environmentalists and taking everyone's suggestions into consideration to find the best routing. In the end we moved only 26,000 cubic yards of soil. It's a course built with shovels and mowers, not bulldozers.