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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

Is Golf Architecture Environmental Science?

The most intrinsic quality of the game of golf is communing with nature, even when it may be ‘cart path only’. Unlike many other games, golf is played on a surface which not only changes from site to site, but from day to day. Golfers are not limited to a one-hundred yard long field or four points on a diamond separated by ninety feet of base path. The renaissance in stadium design the past few decades has at least provided some character to stadiums and arenas, but none compare to the playing fields of golf and the character derived from the playing fields of the natural environment.

One of the more pointed definitions of the word environment is “the area in which something exists or lives” and is the most relatable definition to the game of golf. Because the game is so tied to the natural environment, golf architecture will always be linked to environmental science, which is best defined as “the branch of science concerned with the physical, chemical, and biological conditions of the environment and their effect on organisms.”

For the golf course architect, the impact golf course design has on the environment shall be minimal yet the impact the environment has on a golf course design shall be at its maximum. Regarding the art of golf architecture, each step, from the initial routing to the strategy of each golf hole, should be determined based upon the lay of the land. Environmentally speaking, the preservation of the ground in its original state is a major step toward preservation of the environment.

Golf architecture is part environmental science because of the effects a golf course design may have on ‘the area in which the golf course exists and lives’. Although a golf course has minimal impact on its environment when compared to such development as a shopping mall, condominiums, or even a school, the footprint it leaves is still different than if no golf course existed at all. The good news is that golf course development as a whole is very respectful of the environment and can even enhance the macro-environment as well as its micro-environment. This is where environmental science becomes a major element of the golf course design process.

Until most recently, golf course development had the negative perception of being harmful to the environment because of major earthwork, tree removal, or wetland infiltration. But with wholesale industry efforts as well as those of affiliated organizations such as The Audubon Society of New York, the public is slowly beginning to see the dedication to the environment displayed by developers, architects, and superintendents alike. Some decriers say ‘going green’ costs money, but not compared to the money one saves in the long run with the proper outlook. Not to mention that proper design is inherently good for the environment. It’s also just good for the game.

There are many ways a golf course architect can enhance, preserve, and improve the environment on which a proposed golf course sits through design. By routing the golf course from high point to high point to high point, one preserves the natural drainage patterns traversing a site and the elements of the larger watershed that include properties critical to the health, welfare and safety of the general public as well. Preserving the natural drainage patterns of the site will also minimize the use of internal drainage pipe. Plastic pipe is not an environmental hazard, but less in the ground the better.

There is little reason a golf architect should look at most environmental constraints as a problem. In fact, they are just challenges which can help to develop character for the golf course. There are many creative ways to preserve wetlands, preserve natural habitats, and maintain the integrity of natural waterways. In fact, I always seek out opportunities to create additional wetlands. This exercise is not only something permitting agencies embrace; it is also a natural step in creating proper drainage patterns. Created wetlands are a vital element to a storm water management system where runoff is filtered naturally before leaving the property. This approach does not dump nutrients directly into off -site water bodies. Created wetlands also provide additional habitat for animals on site.

Tree preservation is another issue, though. The inherent tendency to protect trees is in all of us, but sometimes we have trouble embracing the entire forest for the trees. Thinning out a stand by twenty percent or so can improve the overall health of the remaining eighty percent. Trees preserved (or planted) along a fairway now may seem far enough away from the line of play, but ten years later may create an unplayable golf hole.

The proper removal of trees is crucial to a playable golf course not only strategically, but agronomically speaking as well. The battle between trees and turf for nutrients almost always results in a victory for the arboreal set. I often ask clients, though, if they prefer playing on shaded dirt or sunny grass. The emotional attachment to trees inevitably goes back to the perceived damage one does to the environment with tree removal. When building an apartment complex, that is very true, but not so accurate for a golf course.

For example, whereas one acre of trees absorbs six tons of carbon dioxide and releases four tons of oxygen per year, that same one acre as grass can absorb hundreds of pounds of fossil fuel-created sulfur dioxide in a single year. Others may argue that trees have a cooling effect and moderate ground temperatures, yet a well-maintained turf grass area reduces surface temperatures by 30 to 40 degrees compared to bare soil. The point is that when trees are replaced with turf areas, the environmental advantages are very comparable and not a complete loss.

Environmental science is a major component of any golf course architect’s design methodology. My basic outlook on environmental challenges is “Why eliminate site-specific characteristics of a property just to make it look like another property?” My design philosophy is predicated on the fact that each property provides the golf course’s character and the character of the land determines the design. This is in sharp contrast to allowing one’s design to determine the character of the land. Golf course design can very easily demonstrate to the world that golf and the environment can exist in a harmonious and symbiotic relationship. With the right amount of environmental science added, the result is a walk in the park.

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