Greening the Golf Course

The restoration of historic Pinehurst #2 golf course, site of the 2014 U.S. Open, to its original design is a model of golf going green. The course, filled with native plants needing less care, matches the Sandhills environment, using less water and chemicals. The USGA and PGA say it's a model of golf going back to nature.

PINEHURST - The Pinehurst #2 golf course is one of the world’s best-known golf courses. It’s a place you would expect to see eagles and birdies as golfers navigate rolling greens and steep-sided bunkers.

Pinehurst Hole 7 - Pre-RenovationYou may not expect to find wiregrass and wild flowers, pine straw and bare sand, or even flowering weeds such as toadflax. That’s right — tall, wild growing weeds on a golf course. But toadflax is all over Pinehurst #2 these days.

You will also find cactus.

“This prickly pear cactus is native to this area, the Sandhills,” says Kevin Robinson, Superintendent of Pinehurst #2. “This is a beautiful cactus that has a really pretty yellow flower so it will look nice. It is also not in the fairway. It’s out of bounds and most of the golfers hit past this.”

Welcome to the renovated Pinehurst #2 course. It is a nod to the past as well as a vision for the future of golf. It’s a place where you can safely say everything old is new again.

“Before all of the renovations, we had irrigation from the tree line where I am standing throwing back out onto the fairway,” says Ferguson, standing in the out-of-bounds area along the left side of Hole #1 fairway. “Where we are standing was all Bermuda grass. It was beautiful, but this is so much better. I really love this because this is the way the course was intended to look.”

The renovation work was guided by the original 1907 designs of the course’s architect, the legendary Donald Ross. Planners also used archival photos to guide their work. The result is a new look that embraces the tradition of golf in the North Carolina Sandhills.

“I think we identified the fact and heard a lot of talk that the golf course had lost some of its character,” says Bob Farren, the Director of Grounds and Golf Course Maintenance at Pinehurst.

Pinehurst Hole 7 - Post-RenovationThe course has won rave reviews from golfers. Not only is the new look eye-catching, it is also grounded in science. The work has created an environmentally-friendly course that also has dramatically cut costs. More than 40 acres of turf was removed and donated to local schools. In addition, 700 sprinkler heads are gone. Roughly 20,000 plugs of wiregrass were planted to complement the natural terrain of sand and pine trees, native vegetation, scrub brush, wiregrass and flowering wild flowers. Only the fairways and greens are maintained. 

“My students would absolutely call this messy and I think a lot of people who are used to the traditional lush, green golf course would agree,” Dr. Denesha Seth Carley tells me as we walk through an area of high wiregrass and sand.  Dr. Carley is an Assistant Professor of Crop Science-Sustainable Landscapes at North Carolina State University. “But to me it’s a beautiful, biologically diverse, native area. There are new pine trees starting to grow, which will be left alone. And that’s the beauty of this system, you wait and see what comes and manage it as you go.”

The key to managing this new-look course is that caretakers need to know what species they are dealing with. To help accomplish that, Dr. Carley led a team of researchers from NC State in a two-year inventory of native vegetation to guide the project. It’s created a more sustainable golf course ecosystem.

Fewer chemicals are needed. There is not as much mowing required and there is no need for over-seeding. Most important, water use was cut in half.

“Water is a huge issue, but it’s not just water because the cost of all inputs is going up and courses simply can’t sustain that,” says Dr. Tom Rufty, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Plant Biology in the Department of Crop Science at North Carolina State University. “The cost of pesticides, fertilizers, everything is costing more and so there's constant economic pressure in the golf course industry. And since all of those rising costs are becoming a factor, you can gain a huge advantage by going into the natural environment mode and merging with the natural ecology more effectively.”

The United States Golf Association believes the cost and scarcity of water is one of the greatest threats to the game. The Association hopes the more sustainable Pinehurst #2 will be a model for courses around the nation.

“In this case, it's all about precision management of native areas,” adds Dr. Richard Rees, Senior Principal Scientist with the Environmental Science Division of Bayer Crop Science. Dr. Rees consulted on the renovation plans. “It's all about taking out the unwanted species and leaving those that are desired by the superintendent to create that look of the natural course. That natural look can be achieved at any course as long as you study and understand the local ecosystem.”

“It’s a different culture for how we manage course #2 and some of the other courses we have renovated,” adds Farren. “It’s more old school. We manage them but not too closely because we want to fit into the environment and not make them something they are not.”

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