How courses are blending golf with nature

Operation Pollinator

Golf courses worldwide are cutting back on the amount of rough they mow in favour of naturalised areas that benefit the environment and cost less to maintain.

A growing number of turf teams are choosing to mow less rough and instead allow tall grasses, wildflowers, plants and native vegetation to grow naturally. 

This process, known as ‘naturalising’, is increasing as superintendents look to reduce rising fuel, labour and energy costs associated with maintaining large areas of manicured turf.

Bjarni Hanneson is Superintendent at Keilir Golf Club, Iceland, on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Hanneson has gradually reduced mown rough in low-play areas of Keilir’s 18-hole course since 2014.

“The reduction in mowing time is down by 46 per cent to 270 hrs and the savings we are seeing are more than $9,000. On top of that, we are close to replacing our rough mowers, and this time it will be one mower less to replace,” he said.

As well as reducing costs, naturalising low-play areas has yielded significant benefits for the environment, including encouraging new wildlife habitats, supporting pollinator populations and boosting conservation efforts.

“Money aside we have seen increased biodiversity, with birdlife being the most noticeable, and in terms of playability, so far we have not seen any increase in round times either,” said Hanneson.

Forging a closer link between golf and the surrounding environment

Giulia Ferroni is the Founder of Leeds Golf Design and a sustainability verifier for the GEO Foundation for Sustainable Golf.

“New naturalized areas can host protected or threatened species and wildlife and act as internal corridors linking the golf course with the wider network of surrounding natural habitats,” says Ferroni.

Leeds Golf Design advised on the restoration of heather and indigenous flowers at Dartford Golf Club in England, to reestablish its original heathland character and form a wildlife corridor with a neighbouring nature reserve on Dartford Heath.

Native flowers at Dartford Golf Club, Kent

Findings from the USGA suggest that golfers generally support the reduction of managed turf as long as it doesn’t lead to excessive numbers of lost balls and a slower pace of play.

At The Sharon Golf Club in northeast Ohio, architect David Zinkand recently naturalised large areas of its 1967 George Cobb-designed course. 

Works included exposing rock ridgelines, removing thousands of trees, naturalising bunkers, adding wetland shelves and planting more than 40 acres of native shrubs, flowers and fine fescue grasses. 

The improved visual impact has led to a 20 per cent increase in membership, a cap on national member applications and the introduction of a waiting list.

Sharon Golf Club, Ohio, U.S.A

Rewilding low play areas

The GEO Foundation recommends rewilding parts of courses classed as ‘out-of-play,’ such as behind tees and greens, the edges of ditches and streams, in copses and tree plantations and near natural assets such as ponds, lakes and wetlands.

Ferroni says that when done correctly, naturalisation allows courses to focus resources more on primary playing areas and save money on irrigating rough, conserving water, electricity and the manpower needed for mowing large areas. 

Hirsala Golf Club, Finland, cut intensively maintained rough by 13 per cent and says it has saved 500 litres of fuel and extensive labour costs. 

In China, Yishan Golf Club has naturalised 15 hectares of maintained turf and Remuera Golf Club, New Zealand, says its members have responded positively to the naturalisation of 55 square metres of rough into a wildflower area.

A new normal?

A growing number of golf superintendents are choosing to reduce the amount of manicured turf under their stewardship and embrace a naturalised approach in low-play zones.

This is helping clubs control costs, reduce their reliance on resources and enhance biodiversity.

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