Ohio State Golf Courses Score Hole-in-One for Sustainability

Golf courses provide environmental benefits by creating urban green spaces, protecting coastal areas, and providing soil stabilization and habitats for wildlife. According to the United States Golf Association (USGA), until as recently as the 1990s, many courses used negative practices including the removal of native vegetation leading to runoff and soil erosion; over-irrigation or use of scarce water resources for irrigation; and the frequent use of harmful pesticides and other chemicals that pollute waterways.

At The Ohio State University Golf Club, functioning sustainably is an everyday objective. Groundskeepers at Ohio State’s Scarlet and Gray courses fulfill their responsibility to the environment by mixing appropriate sustainability efforts into each section of the 300-acre facility, which is located in a residential neighborhood just three miles from the university’s Columbus campus.

In the United States, the Organic Consumers Association estimates that golf courses take up about 1.7 million total acres of land. Establishing these courses can require deforestation and the clearing of native vegetation and species, which can ultimately lead to soil erosion and sediment runoff into nearby bodies of water. As the runoff flows along the ground, it picks up soil contaminants, such as pesticides and fertilizers that become nonpoint source pollution, and deposits excess nutrients into streams and lakes, creating health risks for humans as well as wildlife that live on and near golf courses.

The USGA provides guidelines geared toward establishing more environmentally friendly courses and offers resources such as the Environmental Stewardship Program and the USGA Turfgrass and Environmental Research Committee. While not every course follows these guidelines, plenty strive for greener practices and work to correct misconceptions about golf courses and their environmental impact. Ohio State’s golf courses are well on their way to being ahead of that game. To combat soil and rainwater runoff, the golf courses at Ohio State maintain vegetation buffer strips of 8-30 feet around the course’s lake and streams to filter surface runoff before it enters the waterway.

Golf course maintenance can present problems also. Some irrigation systems are inefficient and can lead to overwatering. Audubon International, a not-for-profit environmental education organization, estimates that an average golf course soaks up 312,000 gallons of water each day to maintain the lush landscaping that makes a golf course — well, a golf course.The irrigation system at Ohio State’s Golf Club uses a pump house, supplied by the courses’ own lake and streams, and roughly 3,000 sprinkler heads scattered across the landscape of both golf courses.

“The idea is to use less water with more heads,” general manager Marc Lucas says. This $4.3 million project uses less energy and is more efficient, especially with the use of moisture meters to monitor soil moisture, saving water where it is not necessary to irrigate. Additionally, Lucas says, to reduce water use, greens keepers adjust sprinklers to avoid overspray onto asphalt or into lakes and streams.

“We still try to conserve what (water) we have,” he adds, noting workers have adjusted watering times to 8:30 p.m. through 6:30 a.m. Watering at night is the most efficient time to irrigate, as this eliminates sun absorption. All of these small, conscious efforts collectively make big steps in decreasing the courses’ water footprint.

In order to preserve the manicured greens that golf courses are known for, managers may rely on excessive use of harmful pesticides such as synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. A survey conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency found that on average, 18 pounds of these harmful chemicals are used per acre on a given golf course each year.

Opting for organic fertilizers is one of several ways Ohio State’s golf courses combat these controversial pesticide uses. Another includes not collecting the grass clippings on fairways. This method actually returns nutrients to the turf and reduces the need for fertilizers. According to Lucas, collecting grass clippings from mowing the green and putting them into a top dresser, a means of applying compost, soil or sand over the ground’s surface, and spreading the clippings into the rough all act as a fertilizer and can reduce waste in the landfill. And leaves collected in the fall are ground for use as organic material to improve soil structure in landscape beds. Other leaves are mulched and used to return nutrients to soil in the rough.

Additional measures taken by Ohio State’s golf courses reduce soil erosion and pesticide use. Plant tissue and soil samples are taken for laboratory analysis, where the results are then interpreted to plan fertilizer applications with only the required nutrients for good soil and plant health.

Just as many people become more informed about sustainability and are on par with supporting long-term ecological balance, so are more and more golf courses. While “green and pristine” are a part of the game, there are still many ways to achieve a beautiful landscape without increasing a golf course’s environmental footprint. 

Written by Natalie Michalski