Green greens are a new environment for golf
The Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown opened its doors in May of 2002, charged by the Martha's Vineyard Commission with organic management conditions that many thought were impossibly difficult. Now in its sixth season, barely a day goes by when course superintendent Jeff Carlson does not get a call from another course superintendent, a golf industry official, or a local permitting authority.
Some callers are skeptical, others are envious, but it is a fair bet to say that almost all are amazed that he keeps the course playable and the membership happy without using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
When Mr. Carlson began his stewardship of the course, he was among those most skeptical. "I thought there was a good chance we'd be playing on dirt," said Mr. Carlson. "It was either a leap of faith or not thinking things through properly. I've been known for that," he added with typical self-deprecating humor. Actually, Mr. Carlson is known, after 30 years of experience managing golf courses, for responsible administration with an eye toward the environment.
The Vineyard Golf Club successfully emerged from the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) regulatory process after one of the fiercest regulatory battles in recent memory.
Throughout the long process, the developers repeatedly promised that the course would be among the most environmentally sensitive ever built.
The club developers also forged a strategic business relationship with the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, a respected Island conservation group, which would prove beneficial to both parties.
As part of the original agreement, Sheriff's Meadow continues to exercise environmental oversight over some areas of the golf club, in particular a 25-acre frost bottom that is protected from any development.
Photos by Steve Myrick
Although the conditions the Martha's Vineyard Commission imposed on the course were daunting, starting from scratch had its advantages.
"Every variety of seed we used on the golf course was selected for resistance to diseases common to our area," said Mr. Carlson. "The golf course you see has a lot of open areas - we made sure we had good drainage, good air circulation. We took our topsoil and we piled it up and composted it so it had a lot of natural resistance to disease. We try to use as little water as possible, try to keep our nitrogen use low, and keep the turf dryer. If you run your golf course like that, you'll have fewer diseases. Most diseases need water to develop."
Golf course beauty, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. Looking out over the 18 hole course just off the West Tisbury Road in Edgartown on a recent June afternoon, an experienced eye might notice the difference between this organically managed course, and a more conventional course managed with synthetic turf products. A less experienced eye might not. The fairways and greens seem a shade less lush, but not much. The cart paths are sand, or gravel, not pavement. Tees and fairways are not lined with leafy canopies, instead the holes are designed in a more open layout. The vegetation, including the course's signature shimmering fescue grass, or field hay, blends into the surrounding landscape.
"It's important for golf as an industry to try and focus on playability as opposed to visual perfection," said Mr. Carlson. "If every blade of grass in a hundred acres has to be perfect all the time regardless of weather conditions, regardless of disease, then that's going to require a lot of chemicals. If you can accept some blemishes here and there and still have great playing conditions, then you have the potential to use a lot fewer pesticides."
Managing member expectations
Managing a course without synthetic pesticides goes far beyond the maintenance sheds. Mr. Carlson says he tries to keep an open line of communications with members of the private club, through newsletters, announcements, and conversations. Managing their expectations may be as important as anything he puts down on the turf. "People are becoming much more sensitive to the environment, and everybody's impact," said Mr. Carlson. "A lot of that is up to the golfer. These members are way ahead of the curve as far as perception of that, and living with it, and being supportive of it."
Members are also mindful of expense. If organic course management was a lot more expensive, it would have a tougher time gaining acceptance. Mr. Carlson has come to the conclusion that organic and conventional course management cost about the same, though the money goes to different places. Instead of paying for a synthetic product to kill weeds, much of the weed control at the Vineyard Golf Club is done by hand. In general, labor expenses are higher with organic management, but product costs are lower.