golf, water & the future

(A speech given at the V Jornadas Técnicas Campos de Golf Municipales, a conference held in San Roque, Spain on March 6th, 2009)

Good Morning. It is a great pleasure to be here. Spain is a wonderful country, and it is not only your terrific land, your great food and your wonderful culture — but it is you — the great people — that make Spain so rich and interesting. I thank you for inviting me here, and I hope we can share even more great ideas as we continue to discuss golf and its future at this important conference. My apologies for not addressing you in Spanish. You must know that my command of Spanish is mostly associated with building golf courses in Mexico. While I know such words as excavadora, tierra, and such commands as mas tierra, and no mas tierra,  — and a few words I cannot repeat here — I am not good at speaking your beautiful language. And so, I thank you for bearing with the translation.

You should know that I have been around golf most of my life. Believe it or not, I designed my first golf course more than 40 years ago. It was in my back yard and consisted of just three simply pitch-and-putt holes.

This morning I want to talk to you about “golf” — just “golf”. You know, it really is a simple game. But we have all done a good job to make it very complicated. Why have we done this?

Well, in the U.S. we now call ourselves the “Golf Industry”. Last year in the U.S. the “Golf Industry” contributed 150 Billion Euros to the U.S. economy. So, I guess we can all agree it has become very complicated.

These slides show what happened in the U.S.  As you can see, we built a lot of golf courses in a very short period of time. This created a situation where we now have too many private courses in some areas, but not enough public courses — in other areas, it is the opposite. We have management companies, trade associations, lobbyists, and even complicated tax regulations to govern the development of golf. But, should it be that complicated? After all, the game itself is very simple: You hit a small white ball, in the least number of strokes, until you reach a small hole that is not much larger than a wine glass.

Let’s think for a minute about golf. Is anyone here from Holland? Good, then I can speak freely. The Dutch claim they invented golf, but I have a better theory — Golf was invented by whoever invented the golf course. And, with all due respect to the Dutch, they did not invent golf courses when they played their ancient game called Het Kolven.

Not only was Het Kolven played on ice, but it was a game of teams — like ice Hockey — that used only one stick and only one ball. Golf, on the other hand, began as a game where each player has his own ball and each player used several sticks — clubs — to execute different shots of skill. No, golf is truly unique among games. It belongs, rightly, to Scotland, for it is in Scotland that golf courses were invented along the windswept coasts.

In the early days, golf courses were 100% natural. No irrigation. No mowing. And no complaining. The obstacle course was set among natural terrain. Hazards were whatever nature provided. A “course” was no set length, no particular number of holes and there were no standards. The first mention of golf, by the way, was in 1457 when King James II of England banned golf because it interfered with the practice of archery. I think this is good evidence that golf originated in Scotland.

So, here we are, nearly 500 years later, and what has golf become? What have we created? I will tell you. We have created a monster. The game of golf costs too much money. It requires too many natural resources. It takes too much time. And it is often too difficult for people to enjoy. Other than that, golf is perfect!

Let me share with you my “Top 9” problems I see with golf in our modern world …

1.  We seem to have forgotten that golf is a NATURAL game played across NATURAL land with NATURAL features. In the past few decades we have gravitated to some of the worst land imaginable for golf. We have created courses that cost far too much to build because we have begun with terrain that is not suited for golf. Some examples are land that is too flat, land that is too hilly, and land that simply requires too much work to sustain golf. All this costs money … far too much money in many cases. And when we spend too much money, we have an uphill battle. The best land for golf — the best sites — are those on which golf holes fit naturally. Please, let us not forget this. It is the number one rule in golf design, and it costs millions and millions of Euros when we forget this simple thought.

2.  Next, we seem to have forgotten to build the correct type of golf courses. In many parts of the U.S., and also here in Spain, we have too many of one type of course and not enough of another. We need to make sure that we are building golf courses that fit the player and courses that will be profitable. It is, after all, very costly to change a course once it is constructed and open for play, and it is devastating to build a course that no one wants to play.

3. We have done an awful job, in my opinion, of believing that everything in golf needs to be perfect. People all over the world look at Augusta National Golf Club and want their course to be the same … extremely fast greens … lush fairways … and perfect conditions. Well, let me tell you, we have gone too far. We need to remember that the game is natural, that “perfect” is for tennis, soccer or other sports, but not for golf. “Brown is beautiful”. “Perfection” in golf should be whatever is natural and whatever fits the land and the climate. We need to stop the “nail clipper precision” that we have come to expect in golf. Let’s go back to the days when a golf course does not have to be 100% perfect, because perfect costs too much and it is a big problem for golf. Today, greens are too fast, fairways are too low, and bunkers — remember, they are hazards! — are too smooth. Let us return “natural” to golf and, along the way, save money so we do not have to charge an arm and a leg for people to play. This is, by the way, a photo of Chambers Bay, not only a new golf course, but a course with lots of “Brown” and lots of imperfect areas. It was developed by a municipality and it will host the United States Open Championship in 2015.

 

4. Not only does it cost too much to take care of our golf courses, but we are also  using too much fertilizer, too much pesticides, and too much water. The cost to maintain golf courses translates to higher fees to players. Imagine if the film industry became so costly that it had to charge 30 Euro to see a movie? No one would go to the movies. Well, in golf we have done just that — all across the world we have begun to price ourselves beyond the market.

5. Water — We use too much. The ways to limit water use are to have less turf, better suited turf to the climate, and more control on how we irrigate. And, we must also relax our standards — remember, “Brown is beautiful” Not every square meter of our golf courses need to be lush green. The perception that green is the only color in golf must change — “green” in terms of the environment, yes, but green at all cost — no. When it comes to water we should use less, use wisely and help nature wherever possible. The new ideas are to recycle water, re-charge it back into the ground, and to conserve by using less — and using it more wisely. Here is a photo of the most famous golf course in the world — St. Andrews. Please note that it is not only brown in some places, but it is brown all over! “Brown is beautiful.”

6. Time is also a problem for golf. We live in a world where time is one of our most precious assets. Today, nearly everywhere you go people are more “Time Urgent”. We live with e-mail, voice mail, too many things to do and too little time. To spend four or five hours playing golf is not a recipe for bringing more people into the game. The time it takes to play a round of golf is driving people away from the game. Golf needs creative ideas to allow people to experience golf in different ways. While most all of us have been busy building 18-hole courses, we have ignored the 9-hole layouts, the short courses, and the par-3 courses. I think the people who make beer are smart. When the consumer wants a beer he does not have to buy a keg! Nor a case. You can get what you want, even a simple glass. In golf, however, we have insisted on 18-holes, and we may not be giving the customer what they want — or need.

7. In golf we can also be better at planning. Golf courses do not last forever, but many people think they do. Things wear out on golf courses. Irrigation lasts about 20 years, drainage lines need to be replaced after 10-15 years, bunker sand lasts only a few years. Many of our courses today are suffering from a lack of planning. No one has been putting away enough money to repair, replace and re-build our older golf courses. A golf course is like a new baby, the cost of having the baby is very small compared to the cost of raising it. I am always surprised when my clients focus on “how much the course will cost” — when I know that the more important cost is how much it will cost to maintain the course year after year … after year.

8. Numero ocho (see, I do know a little Spanish…) is the problem of failing to grow the game of golf.  All of us here need to encourage people to play golf and to learn the game. We need to reach out and bring new players into the game. It is our future. The young player of today will be the customer who pays for golf in the future. This is an area in which we can all become better. We need to grow the game for the next generation.

9. Lastly on my list is the element of fun. Golf is a game meant to be fun and enjoyable. Golf is a treasure hunt, an obstacle course, and an adventure. It is competition, but among friends. It is a challenge, but also a game against one’s self. Let’s build courses that are enjoyable. Let’s build golf courses that encourage people to come back to play more. How many terribly difficult courses do we need? Fun golf is best. Make sure your courses are fun, unique and memorable. Now, you should know that I have written an entire book on hazards. So, let me explain that golf should not necessarily be easy. It needs to be challenging, but not too intimidating. I do not want you to think that “fun” means easy.

I have three projects to share with you. They demonstrate how we conserve water, how we design with the land, and how we try and meet all of the goals I have covered. All of these are related — water is essential, designing with the land allows us to conserve water, and both of these aspects, when done properly, make our projects more efficient, more affordable to build, and more likely to be profitable.

The first is The Hideout. This is a course that we created for the small town of Monticello located in the Southwest United States, in Utah. It is a public course, the green fee is about 13 Euro. Kids can play for just a few Euro, and seniors can play for half the cost.
The story of the course began when the town needed to clean up an old Uranium mill. Our job was to help the town plan the course, figure out how to restore a natural stream, and to make sure the course could be affordable. We also spent a great deal of time working with the environment, studying water use and what types of grasses would be best for the region. We built the entire golf course (18-holes) for less than 2 million Euro. At every opportunity we looked to save money, knowing that the course would need time to gain momentum. We also were creative in how much turf was used. Instead of 60 hectares, we created fairways and holes that used only 30 hectares. It takes just five workers to maintain the 18-holes. It takes much less water than most courses, and what water is used is recaptured in the town’s aquifer where it replenishes the water used by homes and businesses. I am very proud of The Hideout … it is ranked No. 2 in all of Utah, a state with more than 200 golf courses.

The second course I would like to share is Olivas Links, which is located just outside of Los Angeles, California in the City of Ventura. Here we were given an old course, worn out and in very bad condition. Everything was worn out and needed to be replaced.

The City, who owns the course, needed to figure out what to do. Our solution was to reduce turf, celebrate nature, and adapt a “new” course to the land. Does this sound familiar? It is what makes sense for golf — fitting the golf course to the land in a natural way that is sensible for both the environment and the economics.

At Olivas Links we use 100% treated effluent water. We use less water than before, and we have created a natural buffer between the City and the adjacent river. We also used a percentage of Paspalum grass which saves water and holds up better to the water quality.

Golf courses are perfect companions to rivers, lakes and oceans because they are wonderful filters for the water that flows off our city streets, our rooftops and our urban areas. As you can see, we have created a course that is not only a home for golfers, but is also a habitat for birds and wildlife. Many people are unaware that golf courses around the world account for one of the largest inventories of wetlands habitat on earth. Think about that: Land that is providing recreation, but is also open space that serves nature.

And, when we use treated effluent water, the golf course is serving as a “factory” to clean and filter the water before it continues to other areas, such as rivers, lakes and oceans. This is an amazing benefit of golf courses, but very often those who oppose golf development have no idea about this benefit.

My final example is The Links at Las Palomas located in the state of Sonora, Mexico, in a small town known as Puerto Peñasco. Here we took natural coastal land and discovered golf holes — natural golf holes — that are reminiscent of the original links regions of Scotland. In the process we filled in an old landfill that was an environmental problem for the town. We cleaned up the landfill, helped the town construct a proper landfill, and we replaced the area with a beautiful golf course. And, here we are also using treated effluent. In fact, we built a sewage treatment plant that now serves the City of Puerto Peñasco and its 50,000 people.

Before the golf course it was common to see raw sewage flowing into the Sea. Now, through the creation of a golf course, we have improved the environment and have demonstrated to the town how golf can be a good partner.

I mentioned Paspalum Grass earlier. At Las Palomas we used 100% Sea Dwarf Paspalum, a grass that accepts the salt, does well with the effluent, and can last a very long time with no water at all. We even allow the grass to go drmant in cold months. As you can see, it looks a lot like St. Andrews.

Today, Puerto Peñasco is a model for golf and the environment — and it goes far beyond the golf course. Golf is changing the town and how they look at the environment. Old ways are being replaced with new ideas. And it is all thanks to golf. And, for the economy in Peñasco, we have provided jobs, created new opportunities and are bringing more visitors to the region. The real estate values have grown by a factor of ten, and all this has been possible because of golf.

The message I want to leave you with is as follows …

Remember, it’s only a game — let’s make it fun and enjoyable. Spending too much is not a good direction for golf — throughout the world we have spent far too much on developing golf courses. Golf needs to appeal to all people, not just a few. Let’s all do our part to make golf affordable. We all need to remember that golf is a natural game. Forget Augusta National. Wwhile I love to watch the Masters every April, that famous course should not set the standard, especially for public golf.

Let’s return golf to nature … Let’s remember that golf is a recreation that celebrates what is natural. And  when we celebrate nature in golf design, we use less water and we are more in tune with the natural land. This may be the most important lesson we can learn.

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