Synthetics Still the Natural Choice; Golf Courses Suffer with Only an Organic Approach

Article excerpt

Byline: Barker Davis, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In 2001, a year before Tiger Woods galvanized one of the more raucous galleries in the game's history by winning the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, a small group of students began a research study at the Long Island state park that could make a far more profound impact on golf by leaving no chemical footprint on the property.

Cornell turfgrass professor Frank Rossi and his team of students arrived at Bethpage to attempt a synthetic-free approach to managing the greens on one of the facility's five courses (Bethpage Green).

The project is still ongoing, but what Rossi and Co. discovered and reported to the USGA in 2004 was that greens receiving no synthetic pesticide treatment suffered significantly in all three seasons, with many dropping below playability standards by midsummer.

The study produced such convincing results that Long Island softened legislation proposing a pesticide ban on Suffolk County-owned golf courses.

"What we basically discovered is that there is a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between using very little and no pesticides," Rossi says. "We're getting closer, using less synthetic product every year as we get more familiar with the challenges. But the issue is also very climate specific. In a more forgiving climate [from a turf-growing perspective] like New England, a pure organic approach is within reach. In a transition zone like the Mid-Atlantic, I don't see how you could ever [eliminate pesticides] without completely overseeding every three or four years."

Translation: At this point, an exclusively organic approach to golf course maintenance simply isn't a viable option from either a playability or financial perspective.

That's the primary reason fewer than 10 of the approximately 19,400 courses in North America are completely organic, meaning they use no synthetic pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers. And almost all of those are low-end facilities where playing conditions have been sacrificed.

One commonly referenced exception is Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Mass., an organic club that opened on Cape Cod in 2002. While the Vineyard is a beacon for the future, at least two major factors make the club more of a novelty than a true template.

First, geographically it's suited to an organic approach. In general, cooler climates like New England and lower-humidity regions like much of the western United States afford far fewer turfgrass challenges than humid regions like the deep South or the worst-of-both-worlds combination of the transition zone (a greenskeeping nightmare that stretches roughly from the Mid-Atlantic to St. Louis). The only real turfgrass bugaboo of those cooler climates is snow mold, which has no known deterrent other than a synthetic pesticide. Martha's Vineyard, however, experiences little annual snowfall.

Second, the Vineyard has the luxury of a virtually unlimited maintenance budget. The club boasts a $350,000 initiation fee, and its annual dues are $12,000. Given such a war chest, superintendent Jeff Carlson can afford many of the extra personnel and man-hour requirements generally associated with a heightened organic approach to maintenance.

For a growing majority of courses, however, the solution is a strategy known as Integrated Pest Management - the concept of each facility tailoring a turfgrass maintenance plan specific to its own challenges with the goal of using as little synthetic chemicals as possible.

"I'll give you a perfect example of why an IPM approach is often preferable to a strict organic approach," says Stuart Cohen, president of Environmental and Turf Services Inc. …