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Under Par: How Golf Courses Are Fighting for Survival

Golf course designer Andy Staples says the industry needs to embrace its new reality, part of which is influenced by water scarcity, by changing expectations and carving out room for non-golfers.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Hole No. 16 at Rockwind Community Links in Hobbs, New Mexico, a course redesigned by Andy Staples with low-water use in mind.Photo Courtesy Tony Roberts

It’s hard times in the golf industry, especially in drought-plagued western states.

Golf participation in the U.S. declined 20 percent from 2003 to 2014, and the number of golfers aged 34 and under declined 30 percent. Add the fact that many courses are suffering water shortages, and it becomes even harder to attract players long accustomed to lush green fairways.

This probably isn’t the end of golf. But it does mean players have to change their expectations, and golf course owners must adapt. This could mean shrinking course size from the traditional 18 holes to 9 holes to accommodate both water shortages and players who have less time.

Historically, that sort of move was unthinkable. Now it’s a survival strategy.

Golf course architect Andy Staples is one person working to change the golf industry. He recently completed a redesign of Rockwind Community Links, owned by the city of Hobbs, New Mexico, earning it recognition from Golf Digest as one of the top 10 new courses in North America.

The redesign was intended not only to save water, but to welcome women and youth golfers. It also opened the grounds to non-golfers with amenities such as hiking trails, an events hall, picnic areas and public access to a 5-acre lake.

Now Staples has been hired to redesign Dairy Creek Golf Course, owned by San Luis Obispo County on California’s Central Coast. The county thought it had reliable irrigation in the form of reclaimed wastewater from the nearby California Men’s Colony, a state prison. But even that source has diminished as the prison population has shrunk. Water Deeply recently spoke with Staples, a longtime golfer himself, to discuss the future of golf in a water-scarce world.

Water Deeply: What are the water problems at Dairy Creek?

Andy Staples at one of his recent golf course redesign projects. (Photo Courtesy Andy Staples)

Andy Staples: Dairy Creek was built in 1995, originally, to take reclaimed effluent water from the local prison there, the Men’s Colony, right down the street. But since the prison has reduced its population by half over the years, that coupled with sensitivities to the drought in the area means the golf course has to irrigate with 60 percent less water than what they were originally approved for.

This didn’t happen yesterday. It’s been kind of a slow decrease, and they’ve tried to figure out what the future holds. So over the past couple of seasons, they actually already took their own measures, on a worst-case scenario, to just stop irrigating the golf course. They’ve tried to keep the putting greens alive and used the rest of the water to irrigate tees, and the rest of the golf course just got shut off. The golf course saw play and revenue diminish right along with that.

Water Deeply: How can this be fixed?

Staples: The good news for the golf course is it’s already somewhat located within a fairly popular county park. So it has some additional support through camping, a botanical garden, a dog park, ballfields and access to some more open space. The golf course also has a zero-waste aspect to it. The golf superintendent [Josh Heptig] is very progressive and he opened up the country’s first zero-waste park to try to show how golf courses can reduce their environmental footprint through composting, recycling and other measures.

So what we’re looking to do is pretty much bring the entire community together to educate them on the issues and plan for the future. We’re hoping to do some things that attract 100 percent of the community by expanding the alternate uses: camping, hiking, annual event opportunities. We’re looking at changing the purpose of the golf clubhouse so it might actually be used as a main check-in center for the entire park, not just the golf course.

Also, the golf course is looking to reduce its overall footprint. The exact size and shape is yet to be determined. We’re looking at keeping as many holes in play as possible, but focusing on the newer, beginner golfer and the golfer that likes to play in less time.

Water Deeply: How will the course shrink its water use?

Staples: We’re still in the process of determining what the best use of that water is. But more than likely, the footprint that receives irrigation is going to be reduced. We’ve been toying around with 30–35 acres (12–14 hectares) of overall irrigation. Currently, the entire property of the golf course is in excess of 90 acres (36 hectares) with reclaimed irrigation.

The irrigation system has been designed to irrigate the overall golf course. It’s currently pretty efficient for that use. It’s all single-head control, it’s got a central computer. But what we’ll do is probably take out sprinkler heads, turn off some heads and make modifications. Golf sprinklers are high pressure, and they can spray upwards of 60–70ft (18–21m). Many of them are set to spray a full circle. We’ll go through and convert the 360-degree sprinklers to part-circles, and really refine where that water is being thrown, so we don’t over-irrigate.

We’re also toying with – it’s very expensive – but we’re toying with integrating some subsurface drip to irrigate in some turf areas, maybe even in the tees.

Water Deeply: What about switching grass types?

Staples: That answer really varies as you go across the country. If you take the country and divide it in half from, say, California to South Carolina, there’s a middle transition zone, where the top requires cold-season grasses and the bottom is warm season. San Luis Obispo runs right through the middle of that transition. So what we’re trying to do is make sure all of the golf course has as much warm-season grasses as possible, which are typically Bermuda grasses. Those will be as drought-tolerant in the summer as possible.

But the difficulty of those grasses is they go dormant in the wintertime. So that’s what we’ll have to deal with.

Water Deeply: How common is this problem of balancing water use with aesthetics?

Staples: It’s an industry-wide discussion. I would say it’s an incredibly important discussion. Golf courses throughout California have done a huge amount of turf reduction and reducing irrigation because of the drought. There is a transition that’s happening, from baby boomers and the traditional golfer that always wanted a green golf course, down toward the Gen-Xers and hopefully down into the millennials, where the expectation of golfing doesn’t have to be completely green courses. But that expectation hasn’t completely changed. The typical golfer is still looking for a green-grass golf course. The typical example is in Arizona, where I live, where the course overseeds in winter to maintain a green-grass course.

I’d like to believe my kids are not going to be as obsessive about a green course. They’re learning to play, and I hope when they grow up they’re not going to be as focused on playing a green course.

Water Deeply: Historically, non-golfers have felt unwelcome at golf courses, even where the course might be a taxpayer-funded recreation facility. What’s wrong with that?

Hikers enjoy a trail alongside Rockwind Community Links in Hobbs, New Mexico, a golf course redesigned by Andy Staples for low water use and to encourage a range of public uses. (Andy Staples)

Staples: I’ve spent a good portion of my career focusing on changing that. There are issues of golf balls flying. There are very specific liability discussions and safety discussions that need to happen. But there are many examples where non-golf uses coexist beautifully with golf courses. If nothing else, there can be a restaurant or an event area that can be rented out by anybody. I’ve trademarked this concept, actually – it’s called Community Links – and it’s about linking the community with the golf course. It revolves around inclusivity and public access. At Dairy Creek, they like that story and feel this is just a perfect opportunity to evolve for their next 20 years of existence or more.

I’ve focused on municipally owned public golf courses – I think it’s about 4,500 of them around the country – because they are under increased pressure to provide economically sustainable assets and amenities to their communities. The public ballfields might cost $500,000 a year to operate, and it’s a general fund subsidy, but it’s viewed as an asset that 100 percent of the community uses. A golf course doesn’t get the same investment because only 10 percent of the community plays golf. So I think Community Links fits perfectly for municipally owned public courses.

I have been getting some calls – from private clubs included – asking: What concepts can we integrate into our course? But to me this is about a taxpayer, this is about a vote on a city council, helping to increase quality recreation facilities for everyone. For me, it’s about getting it exactly right for 100 percent of the people who live in the city or county that has invested in a golf course.

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