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Publication: GCA Pamphlets, The New American Golf Course

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The New American Golf Course

Golf is unlike sports that use a standardized playing field. Golf uses the landscape and the environment. Golf courses are opening at a rate of 1 per day for a current total of more than 16,000. Most courses average 165 acres and approximately 50% of new golf courses have real estate development surrounding the course.

Since 1913, The Garden Club of America has worked to improve the quality of the environment. This brochure is intended to increase awareness of the benefits of an environmentally managed golf course. This stewardship will result in:

  • Providing habitat for wildlife;
  • Providing greenspace benefits;
  • Managing natural resources more efficiently, especially water;
  • Impacting surrounding land by encouraging conservation efforts;
  • Providing conditions with reduced risk of cancers and endocrine disruption for players and grounds crew.

Benefits of the New American Golf Course

One of our goals is to encourage developers to work with regulations to understand the benefits of designing environmentally sound golf courses. Golf courses with this approach are in the best interests of the grounds crew because of their exposure to pesticides. Another benefit is environmentally friendly greenspace for humans and wildlife.

Our second goal is to encourage managers of established courses to become environmental stewards. Older courses can work with the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the U.S.G.A. Turfgrass Advisory Service, Soil Consultants, and other experts to create and implement environmental management practices. The Southwest course is a good example of an environmentally managed older course.

Education of the golfer about environmental practices will encourage similar turf care at home. Golfers will respect the designated environmentally sensitive areas, accept turf grass imperfections and longer length, and understand that a few weeds are the exchange for a healthy environment.

The following information can be used at any course and should be encouraged by the golfers and golf committees.

Soil Sustainability: The microbiology of the soil is critical for an environmentally friendly golf course. Soil chemistry and physical properties are also very important, but these will usually occur if golf course superintendents focus their primary efforts on practices to build a strong, broad-based population of microorganisms that will maintain a healthy balance in the plant root zone. A series of chemical, physical, and microbiological analyses should be done to the soil on a regular basis. Any required remedial programs to balance the soil under the local conditions should be done using small modifications rather than making radical changes through the use of chemicals. A well-balanced soil will create an environment for the growth of a healthy, stress-resistant turfgrass carpet and a reduction in insect populations, diseases, and weeds. Another benefit is the lack of disease and insect problems manifesting themselves overnight. Soil consultants and companies offering environmentally friendly products are listed on the back of this brochure.

Turfgrass: A healthy turfgrass plant is its own best pesticide. Turfgrasses should be adapted to local conditions and should support aerification, reduced fertilization, and reduced watering. Grasses are being bred for pest and drought resistance. Limiting play and cart usage in sensitive turf areas also reduces fertilizer and water needs.

Land Use: It is important that new golf courses choose areas that are not wetlands, prime and unique farmland, endangered species habitat, or aquatic habitat that is environmentally sensitive. Degraded sites such as Superfund sites (Old Works Course) or gravel pits (Widow’s Walk Golf Course) can be reclaimed for golf course use.

Golf courses can highlight regional topography and retain the natural ecosystems in their design. Natural areas can be designed to feature indigenous vegetation that protects existing wildlife habitat.

Natives: Golf courses have land called out-of-play areas, which can serve as important refuges for native plants and pollinators. This interaction is essential to native habitats or ecosystems. There has been a drastic decline in the numbers of wild insect pollinators, which are necessary for the seed production of 2/3 of the world’s flowering plant species. Native plants are part of our heritage and control erosion, survive severe weather, and provide habitat to native birds, animals, and insects, all of which are part of the biodiversity necessary to keep ecosystems intact.

Native plants have been used at the golf courses featured in this brochure because of their many benefits, including lower maintenance costs and elimination of pesticides. Native grasses planted at the edge of ponds and streams can provide bird habitat, reduce run-off from fertilizers, and even discourage nonmigrating Canada geese. However, tall grasses can slow down play due to lost balls. Invasive plants should NOT be used, for example: Lythrum salicaria, Purple Loosestrife, is known for its rampant destruction of native water habitat.

Water Usage: Efficient irrigation systems using weather satellites and sprinklerhead sensors are employed to reduce water usage. A good organic and microbial program is one of the most significant ways to reduce water usage. Such a program will also buffer soil moisture and allow excess water (from heavy rains) to move through the soil profile. Other methods include: grouping plants with similar water needs; using natives; using effluent water; and timing the watering to minimize evaporation, which also reduces the potential for disease. Reducing grassy areas by enlarging bunkers, water hazards, and native plantings also lowers water usage. Storm drain retention systems are used for irrigation. Slow-release soluble fertilizers are used in the watering systems. These are some of the environmental methods employed by the courses featured in this brochure.

Reducing Waste: A composting area should be established for grass clippings not left on the fairways, tees, and greens. These clippings can be left to decompose naturally. Chemicals and other products should be purchased in recyclable containers. After chemical use, equipment should be rinsed by recycling rinsate. Care should be taken to spray or rinse in areas that will not result in point or non-point pollution. All waste should be recycled or disposed of properly.

Pesticides: There is a growing concern about the dangers of chemicals and pesticides. Learn what is being applied to your golf course and its effects on you and wildlife. Encourage your superintendent and golf committees to reduce or eliminate harmful chemical and pesticide usage.

Golfers: Golfers should cooperate in the management of environmentally sensitive golf courses. They should educate themselves about the many benefits for themselves and wildlife that occur from reducing pesticides. Golfers should fix ball marks, replace divots or fill with soil/sand mixes, use cart paths, and be more tolerant of weeds and higher rough or turf levels. Golfers should be encouraged to walk, because the wear and tear of carts causes increased maintenance efforts and pesticide use.

Golf Courses: The following golf courses are examples of environmentally managed properties across the country. They have different problems, solutions, methods and topography. It is hoped that golfers and grounds crew can benefit from this diverse information in the pursuit of more user-friendly golf courses.

Northeast---Widow's Walk, Scituate, MA 781.544.7777 Winner of Golf Digest’s 1997 Environmental Leaders in Golf Award, designed by Michael Hurdzan on 121 acres; 47 are wetlands, 74 turf on a former gravel pit. The beautiful views and windy conditions make its narrow fairways (which conserve water) hard to hit. The posted environmentally sensitive areas catch a lot of balls, but protect the native heather and bayberry, invite migrating birds. The course is a test bed for environmentally sound course construction. The heat tolerant G-1 colonial bent grass and chewing fescue use less fertilizer, less water, and allow the fast greens to be cut at 1/8 inch. This course boasts recycled asphalt in the cart paths and old carpet to stabilize the sides of pot bunkers. A biological microbe injection system is used against fungal disease. They are testing different types of subsoil under the greens to find the environmental winner. The course guide points out the wildlife, natural beauty, and tips for the golfer.

Southeast---Old Tabby Links, Spring Island, SC 843.987.2013 Designed by Arnold Palmer. Opened in 1992, this course was designed to adhere to environmental regulations. The weather system aids the reduction of water usage. Mostly biological controls are used on the golf course. Spot treatments for molecrickets, army worms, sod webworms, and biological nematicides are used on greens that are maintained between 1/8 and 3/16 inch. The greens are Tifdwarf Bermuda grass overseeded with bent grass. They are aerated twice during the summer, after a heavy fertilizer one week before, and topdressed afterwards. A plethora of aquatic plantings surround the lake banks to help filter pollutants in the waterways which all connect back to the irrigation pond. No close mowing is done near waterways. 419 Bermuda grass is used on the fairways, roughs, and tees and overseeded with ryegrass in September. Cart paths are crushed shell. Beautiful views and wildlife abound, benefiting from the efforts to be environmentally friendly.

Florida---Celebration Golf Club, Orlando, FL 407.566.4653 This course, built by Disney, is 95 acres, including a cypress swamp and environmentally sensitive areas, with 67 acres irrigated and under high maintenance. Bermuda grass is predominant until it goes dormant in November, when the course is overseeded with winter rye. Bahia and cord grasses need little fertilizer or irrigation and are used next to cart paths and around ponds. Fertilizer is needed year-round in Florida and the majority are slow release. The 47 acres of fairway are pitched to drain into the middle and act as turf filter for the effluent irrigation that goes into the ponds. 800,000 gals/night might be used when the weather is dry. The effluent (from a sewage treatment plant) contains salt, so gypsum is applied monthly to combat the salteffect. The driving range is an aqua range, because of space constraints. The floating golf balls go 10 yards less, but the pond holds a one-month supply of effluent as a reservoir. Insect problems come and go in Florida and the worst ones require pesticides. Many of the grasses used are not susceptible to turf disease. Some grasses have a fungus called an endophyte, which prevents damage from leaf chewing insects. This however, is not present in Bermuda grass. The environmentally sensitive areas are home to snakes, wild turkeys, hawks, osprey, kite, fox, deer, and otters.

Midwest---Blackwolf Run, Kohler, WI 800.618.5535 Four 18 hole courses Pete Dye designed these courses to blend with Kohler’s existing nature preserve. There are 25 acres of fairways per course with natural areas encompassing each hole. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) avoids reliance on any one control measure. The need to control weeds is minimized, because fertility and irrigation are carefully managed to ensure a healthy, thick turf that chokes out weeds. In native areas, Sweet Clover and Thistle species are hand chopped. To combat fungal disease, a long chain is dragged down the fairway to remove the dew, which is the preferred environment for fungal disease development. Weather data is collected 24 hours a day and is compared to a computer model to forecast disease outbreaks. The naturalist on staff keeps track of the badgers, fox, birds and particularly the frogs. Frogs are an indicator species in terms of water toxicity. The golf courses are integrated into the land with native grasses and forbs, not ornamental beds. The habitat created is ideal for the wildlife and makes the golf course nearly maintenance-free.

West---Old Works, Anaconda, MT 888.229.4833 or 406.563.5989 Designed by Jack Nicklaus, Old Works received a regional environmental stewardship award. This course was built on an Arco superfund site designed to be a barrier between people and the tailings from the mine. The area was contoured and capped with limestone and clay, which protects the ground water by preventing any more percolation. There are 300 acres, of which only 100 are watered. The arid conditions can require up to 950,000 gals/day. A complex watering system with sensors for rainfall, sun intensity, humidity, wind, and temperature calculates the evaporation, transpiration, and plant usage during the day and tries to replace the exact water needed. The lower amount of water keeps the soil biology correct and prevents anaerobic conditions. There is constant human monitoring and hand pulling of weeds or spot treatment is used, but no broadcasting is done. Fertilizer and irrigation are not allowed to enter the trout stream running through the course. 95% fescue and 5% colonial bentgrass combine to make a phenomenal playing surface, and mowers carry a 1 quart spray bottle with them, stopping to spray weeds one at a time. Fungicides are used only when needed through the close monitoring program. The greens are bentgrass and, while some diseases are tolerable, others require a change in the turfgrass height or possibly a light foliar fertilizer, as long as it won’t encourage pathogen growth. In areas that are not maintained, native grasses are used to simulate a high mountain prairie. The rodent population exploded with these grasses and, as a result, the fox, mountain lion, bear, deer, and elk moved in to balance it.

Northwest---Bandon Dunes, Bandon, OR 541.347.4380 Designed by David McLay Kidd, open year round with average temperatures in the 60’s and 2 miles of oceanfront, this course has spectacular views competing with the golfer’s attention to shooting par. Efforts were made to maintain existing topography. The course is 260 acres with 75 acres maintained. The indigenous beach grasses contribute to the natural surrounding of this links course. The water usage will be a closed loop with effluent from development. Up to 500,000 gals/day are used. The weather station uses software that controls the irrigation after measuring transpiration, evaporation, and timing to avoid wind drift. The huge greens, cut to 3/16 inch, are a blend of fescues and colonial bent which measure 8 ! -9 on a stimp meter. The roughs are the same blend of fescues with the intermediate roughs being 15-30 feet wide and cut to 1! inches. The deep roughs are unwatered and straw-colored like Scottish links rough. Since the course is built on sand, a light feeding of a slow release organic fertilizer is used to lessen the potential of leaching. Carts and their paths are considered a disruption and distraction and neither are used. This is a walking-only course with caddies available and will give golfers a Scottish experience closer to home.

California---Ocean Trails, Palos Verdes, CA 310.265.5522 Architects Pete & Perry Dye designed an 18 hole course in a residential development covering 300 acres on the ocean. The course has only 62 acres of fairway turf, with another 20 acres of semi-arid turf, local fescue, which uses less water and fertilizer, while giving the golfer a Scottish links look and feel. A weather station and computer system is used for monitoring evaporation transfer (ET) readings, plant watering requirements, and wind patterns resulting in a minimal amount of water usage while maintaining healthy weed-free turf. The closed drainage system recycles up to 15% of nuisance surface water after it cycles through almost 1 acre of aquatic plants, where any remaining nutrients have been absorbed. The aquatic plants and newly planted coastal sage create habitat for many species, including the endangered gnatcatcher. New fertigation techniques, spoon feeding of pesticides, and spot spraying will be used to maintain high quality Bermuda and bent grass on the greens. In addition, GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) tracking and monthly recording of diseased areas will substantially further reduce pesticide use. This course is designed to be environmentally sound and enhances the ecosystem of the surrounding habitat and development for both golfer and nature.

Southwest----Paradise Valley CC, Paradise Valley, AZ 602.840.8100 Built in 1953, there are 122 acres, all maintained. The biggest issue is water, because golf courses have a regulated allotment. During the summer, 1 million gals/day might be used. A weather station measures evapotranspiration and a computer regulates the runtime per station, which can manipulate the soak time for efficiency. Ecoagriculture is practiced, using microbes and maintaining the soil biology they thrive in. This well-balanced soil contains 3-5% organic matter in the top 6 inches of soil. Fertigation is used along with granular and composted poultry manure. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) works well and ensures minimal pesticide usage. The numerous clippings, that can’t be left on the course when overseeding is done, are sold as food to a cattle business. This is an example of an older course that continues to reduce pesticide use by understanding the importance of soil sustainability and using sound environmental practices.


  • out-of-play areas: areas where the typical golfer will not hit balls; designed to avoid slow play by golfers searching for balls. These areas should not include long grasses that need cutting or pesticides for normal maintenance. They can include aquatic ponds with islands planted with natives, or wooded areas planted with native shrubs and trees that won’t need maintenance when mature.
  • prime farmland: soil and other characteristics that enable the farmland to produce the highest crop yields at the lowest production costs and fewest environmental impacts 
  • native plant: a plant which has evolved naturally in a particular ecological region. A plant species is considered native to North America if it evolved on this continent.
  • ecosystem: a complex community of living and non-living things which function together as an ecological unit in nature 
  • habitat: the natural environment of a particular living plant or animal, or a place distinguished by the set of organisms which occupy it


  • ‘An Environmental Approach to Golf Course Development’ by William R. Love, Chairman, Environmental Committee, American Society of Golf Course Architects, 10/92, Being updated, available after 1/99 for $12, 312.372.7090
  • Audubon International, 518.767.9051
  • ‘Golf and the Environment; Environmental Principles for Golf Courses in the U.S’, available from The Center for Resource Management, Suite 210, Salt Lake City, Utah 84106, 801.466.3600
  • PlantStar, fertigation equipment, 800.277.7827 or
  • ‘Restoring Pollinator Habitat,’ Xerces Society, 503.232.6639
  • USGA Turfgrass Advisory Service, 908.234.2300 (Green Section)
  • Xeriscape, a plant guide by St. Johns River Water Management District, Florida, 800.451.7106

Soil Consultants:

  • Brookside Laboratories, 419.753.2448 or 
  • Soil First Consulting, 800.732.turf or
  • Wilbur Turf & Soil Services, 916.630.7600 

Organic and Microbial Products: 

  • Earthworks Natural Organic Products, 800.732.turf
  • Humate International Inc., 800.3WE.GROW

February 1999 Reprint Permission Granted