Summer 2016
photo by peter wong

Greener golfing


Golf courses may look like natural oases, but it takes a lot of water and chemicals to keep all that turfgrass in pristine shape. More environmentally friendly strategies may soon be on the way, though, says Brian Horgan, professor and Extension turfgrass horticulturist at the University of Minnesota. And with 4,000 of the nation’s 15,000 aging golf courses in need of renovation over the next decade, the time for change is now.

“Golf courses have a lifespan, and current management strategies won’t work for the future,” says Horgan. In collaboration with other U of M faculty, he’s been studying golf course sustainability and developing solutions as part of a new research initiative. The United States Golf Association (USGA) has provided a five-year renewable $2.5 million research grant for the project, which aims to identify alternatives to traditional turfgrasses that would require less water, fertilizer, pesticides, and mowing—but still meet golfers’ needs.

“People who are passionate about golf have a desire to make sure the game is available for their kids and grandkids, but they’re also excited about environmental aspects of the research.”
Brian Horgan, U of M professor and Extension turfgrass horticulturist

Horgan hopes to turn the U’s Les Bolstad Golf Course, located just north of the St. Paul campus, into a living laboratory that could serve as a national model for more eco-friendly and economically viable golf courses. Funding for the project is being raised privately, and there may be opportunities for NGO (nongovernmental organization) partnerships as well.

“We believe that people will be interested in helping turn the course into a lab, because our research has national implications,” Horgan says.

He’d like to see golf courses become more integrated into their communities, offering functions other than just golf. Like most golf courses, the Les Bolstad course isn’t heavily used every hour of every day, he says. “As an example, maybe from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays, it could be a park for the community. They’re already doing this in Europe and Great Britain, and there’s a course in Chicago that’s trying it. Golf courses could become community assets.”

If fundraising is successful, the Les Bolstad Golf Course will officially become the U’s Golf Lab in 2019. Dana Lonn, ’73 B.S., ’74 M.S., is one of several private donors to the initiative. An avid golfer, Lonn is familiar with the ins and outs of turfgrass as Toro Co.’s longtime managing director for advanced turf technology.

In addition to believing that golf courses can be man- aged so they’re not environmental liabilities, Lonn likes the idea of courses becoming more integrated into urban landscapes. “This research is asking important questions about how golf courses raise their value to communities,” he says. “Obviously, if they demand too many resources, they’re not doing what we want, so we need to find ways to create the types of green spaces that are appropriately managed.”

The average area of a U.S. golf course is about 150 acres—100 of which are intensively managed. Rough areas (about 50 acres) and fairways (about 30 acres) offer the most opportunity for conserving water, fertilizers, pesticide, and labor.

“People who are passionate about golf have a desire to make sure the game is available for their kids and grandkids, but they’re also excited about the envi- ronmental aspects of the research,” says Horgan. “Our donors tell us that water quality and conservation are issues that resonate with them. We are in a leadership position to develop those solutions around golf.”

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.