GCSAA: A sustainable approach

Using a business model that encourages sustainability is paying off for two LPGA Tour tournament courses and the environment.

By Angela Nitz

Locust Hill Country Club, site of the 2010 LPGA Championship Presented by Wegmans, has been charming golfers for more than eight decades. And if Rick Slattery has his way, it will be around for generations to come.

Slattery, Locust Hill's Golf Course Superintendents Association of America's Class A superintendent, is among a growing number of superintendents embracing the principles of sustainability, which is about ensuring profitable businesses while making decisions that are in the long-term interest of the environment and communities. Sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

For Slattery, this has been a nearly life-long approach to his craft. A former captain of his high school golf team, he originally planned to earn a degree in environmental management at Rutgers University. But after talking with those in the golf business, he switched to a degree path that could combine his interest in the environment with his love of golf. 

"Low-input maintenance has been the cornerstone of my career," Slattery said.

After stints in New Hampshire and other New York state courses, Slattery came to Locust Hill in Pittsford, N.Y., in 1995 with a unique proposition for his potential employer.

"I was confident in what I could do in taking Locust Hill from a high-input course to a low-input course. Nature rewards long-term commitment, and I told them it would take them three to four years to make that transition," Slattery said. "I asked them to just give me three to four years to show what I could do. Fifteen years later, I am still here."

And in his 15 years, there is no doubt Slattery's efforts made a difference at Locust Hill. In his first seven years, he reduced the pesticide budget line item by 75 percent. And while many courses in the area use 16-20 million gallons of water a year, Locust Hill's world-class course uses just 3-4 million gallons. 

"Turfgrass wants to survive as much as we want it to," he said. "If you put a tough-love program in place (low-inputs), the turf will survive and thrive."

With the support of his employers, Slattery was able to put his plan in place at Locust Hill. Across the country at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., Steve Auckland's sustainable practices aren't just supported - they are part of the corporate culture.

La Costa Resort and Spa, home of the Kia Classic Presented by J Golf, is one of the properties of KSL Resorts where everything from irrigation on the golf course to composting food waste from the resort operations are part of the company's "green" practices.

Auckland, a GCSAA Class A superintendent, has been at La Costa nearly a decade and said perusing sustainability is all in day's work.

"It's always been part of what I do," Auckland said. "There is a lot of cost savings with it. Using reclaimed water, recycling, if you can reduce it's going to be an environmentally sound and economically sound decision. It has so many benefits: cost savings, positive exposure and positive impact on the environment."

La Costa was one of the first users of reclaimed water in the San Diego area, having used it for nearly 30 years. And even that effluent water is managed carefully with a computerized irrigation system that works on an as-needed basis by adjusting to daily conditions such as temperature, rain and wind. On the course, other sustainable practices include composting of clippings and other waste, using chips from dead or dying on trees on the course as ground cover, any sod that is removed and repurposed as organic filler on the greens, and all golf course maintenance equipment uses biodegradable oil. Throughout the resort, LED lighting, recycling the water from laundry services and even eliminating the use of solvent-based paints are all part of the effort to reduce consumption and waste.

"We scout and we watch to see where there are other opportunities (for sustainable practices)," Auckland said. "I think it's the only way you can move forward. I am very proud of that fact."

Like the La Costa Resort and its parent company, the golf industry has recognized how taking a sustainable approach is good for business. The members of Golf 20/20, a collaboration of golf organizations (including the LPGA and GCSAA), called upon GCSAA's philanthropic organization, The Environmental Institute for Golf, to head up an initiative to improve sustainability efforts in the industry. 

The result, launched in January, is Golf's Drive Toward Sustainability. The program, which is collaborative effort backed by industry leaders to improve the future of golf for everyone, features information and tools to help facilities take a sustainable approach to facility management. A sustainable approach to golf facility management is not a short-term program, but rather a continuously evolving way of doing business. For more information about Golf's Drive Toward Sustainability, visit www.eifg.org/sustainability.

Programs like Golf's Drive Toward Sustainability and other efforts that make golfers and the general public more aware of the good things happening on golf courses are vital, Slattery said.

"Golfer expectations keep rising," he said. "We need the support from the golf community."

Without that Slattery said, many misconceptions can arise. During the LPGA Championship tournament week, Locust Hill was also the site of a fundraiser walk for uterine cancer. A local activist called Slattery enraged that a cancer awareness event would be happening at a "place where so many chemicals are sprayed." The woman even threatened to picket the event. When Slattery was able to discuss his management style with her and to show her the very minimal inputs he had leading up to the tournament, the event went off with no protests and he did not hear from the woman again. But he did hear from some LPGA greats.

"I am very proud of what I do," Slattery said. "I can tell you this, Betsy Rawls and Judy Rankin told LPGA officials that the greens were perfect (during the LPGA Championship) - that's the highest compliment I could ever receive.

Likewise, Auckland's interaction with the ladies of the LPGA was positive during the Kia Classic.

"They were outstanding and very helpful," Auckland said. "They always give great insight."

But when the excitement of tournament hosting dies down, it's back to business as usual and always making Mother Nature a factor in the business plan.

"Like most superintendents, it's just built into our nature. Everyone is doing what they can," he said.

If there is a misconception that striving to manage golf courses in sustainable manner can't coincide with outstanding course conditions, the host superintendents of the LPGA Tour are doing their best to dispel that myth.

"I think many people tend to associate low-input courses with 'mom and pop' operations," Slattery said. "I think if we can host the LPGA Championship here, we have shown that that just isn't true."

Angela Nitz is the manager, corporate communications for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. GCSAA is a leading golf organization, which has as its focus golf course management. Since 1926, GCSAA has been the top professional association for the men and women who manage golf courses in the United States and worldwide. From its headquarters in Lawrence, Kan., the association provides education, information and representation to more than 20,000 members in more than 72 countries. GCSAA's mission is to serve its members, advance their profession and enhance the enjoyment, growth and vitality of the game of golf. The association's philanthropic organization, the Environmental Institute for Golf, works to strengthen the compatibility of golf with the natural environment through research grants, support for education programs and outreach efforts. Visit GCSAA at www.gcsaa.org.

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