What an organic golf course looks like



Good news from the world of golf!  No, I'm not thinking of the huge decline in its popularity over the last decade or so, though many lawn-haters see that as a good thing.  I'm thinking of the move toward more naturalistic and less thirsty links-style courses, especially out West but even here in the East.  And having recently heard Jeff Carlson speak, I'm thinking of golf courses that are going all-organic – Carlson being the superintendent of the now-famous Vineyard Golf Club that's winning awards and great press.    IMG_2304

(Here he is in a big hurry to get to the airport immediately after his talk – no time for Q&A!)

How the Vineyard course became organic in the first place is surely a sign of the times – the locals demanded it.  They didn't really want 235 acres of pristine island property developed at all, but decided that golf was preferable to the other alternative – 148 new homes.

So organic it is, and here's how Carlson manages does it – by focussing on playability over visual perfection, for one thing.  (The occasional "dollar patch" flaw?  Get over it!)  But there's lots more to it.

Now you won't like this at all but producing decent turfgrass organically requires full sun, no shade at all, so all nearby trees had to go – 30,000 of them!  (Could I have heard that right?  For 235 acres, maybe so.)

Still, where there's moisture there will be fungal disease, and Carlson's team works hard to keep the grass as dry as possible.   That means "dew control," accomplished by frequent mowing and daily rolling, which pushes the dew into the ground – and has the nice side effect of making the course faster.

When all else fails, they use organic fungicides.

The best organic weed control available, as we all know, is a nice thick turf, but until it filled in, Carlson's crew did a whole lotta hand-weeding, which cost $2,800 per acre.  For killing off all vegetation before seeding Carlson recommends the Waipuna machine, which spews foam and hot water.  (Hopefully it'll eventually replace Roundup as the primary method of removing invasive plants.)  Carlson says that for large jobs, vinegar is too expensive an herbicide.

Caddyshack His biggest challenge?  Insects, especially white grubs, for which he uses nematobes and pheromones, which disrupt their mating.  But there are far larger animals out there tearing up the turf – not groundhogs or gophers but black crows and skunks.  (Since being introduced to the island in the '60s, skunks have been breeding like crazy.)  So the local sheriff has been hired to capture and kill skunks for the golfers, for which he earns $40 each, and killed 150 of them last year for a tidy $6K.

Bill Murray, shown here in a scene from Caddyshack, has actually played this course, no doubt to much hilarity and some great photo-ops.

Member reaction
Carlson says the female members have become great supporters of the all-organic methods, but what about the men?  "Environmental harm doesn't register with the men golfers at the club".  The fairways aren't perfect-looking but they ARE a great play surface, so even the men have adjusted.

Here's the official version of the member reaction from the club's website

As a result of consistent communication and education from Carlson's team, Club members have embraced the program. Players' shoes and equipment are sterilized regularly to limit the spread of disease and fungus; and members understand that if disease pressure is severe, the layout may not be as pristine, putting surfaces may not be lightening-quick and pathogens such a dollar spot may leave their mark. Nature's challenges enhance the complexity of play at the Vineyard Golf Club. (Italics added.)

In selling organic methods to typically Augusta-loving golfers, it's obviously fair game to employ a little PR bullshit wordsmithing.

Jeff Carlson is shown leaving the home of Rachel Carson in Silver Spring, MD.  It's now headquarters of the Rachel Carson Council.


  1. In Washington State, golf courses are allowed to use clopyralid (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clopyralid) which is bad for composting because it does not break down and thus can affect large batches of compost. Clopyralid was banned for home use but the golf courses and hay growers are still allowed to use it.

  2. My husband needs to see this. He aspires to a golf course lawn. I’ve been complemented on my nice patch of sand prairie out by the mailbox. He is very pleased by the turf in our back yard. I call him the “Lawn Ranger” and I know you all have seen a local variation of this guy out riding the range on his 4-wheeler mower.

  3. you’re kidding Right? the country and the world is going through a real economic crisis and these guys are paying to have organic golf? Really? It costs this much? and for unorganic golf? And the trees!? The whole concept reminds me of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. So Sad. D

  4. I have mixed feelings about this. The loss of 30K trees is terrible, but if the land had become 148 homes, the trees would at least mostly been lost, too. And though some think it’s terrible to spend money on an organic golf course when there are bigger fish to fry, I am glad at least SOME people have the money to spend to take a step in the organic direction. On the other hand, how ‘organic’ is running all that machinery to maintain the turf. Are they running on electricity and/or bio-diesel? I hope so.

Comments are closed.