A blueprint for a sustainable future

High-consumption water-use is likely to become a thing of the past.We talk to The R&A's Director of Golf Course Management, Steve Isaac, about why golf courses need to show themselves to be sustainable, and how they can do it.

So, Steve, what does it mean to be ‘sustainable’?

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that there are many ways to define sustainability. To some, it will be as simple as a golf club that is profitable and, therefore, a viable business concern. To others, it will be a course that earns more through green fees than it costs to maintain. The R&A, however, view the concept of ‘sustainability’ differently.

The amount of money that the course generates is, naturally, one piece of the jigsaw, but that is just a part of a picture which, we hope, can take golf safely and successfully into the years ahead.

We consider the challenges being faced as fourfold: playing performance, economic performance, environmental stewardship and social responsibility. Only when all four of these issues are considered by all clubs can golf begin to count on a bright future.

Hoylake's golden fairways in 2006.How does playing performance affect sustainability?

Detaching playing performance from aesthetic appearance is, perhaps, the most critical factor in determining golf’s sustainability.

With the impact of climate change being felt around the world, golf courses are having to deal with record heat waves, cold-snaps, downpours and droughts on an increasingly frequent basis. Couple that with stringent legislation regulating water and pesticide use and one quickly reaches the conclusion that lush green fairways and soft receptive greens have to become a thing of the past.

But that need not necessarily impact playing performance. We want to see firm, fast and healthy golf courses, with emphasis being placed on good drainage, viable water supplies and correct grass selection.

For example, if your course is in an area susceptible to drought, use tolerant grass species rather than ones that require regular watering to survive. It seems simple and logical. Year-round playing performance will be improved, maintenance bills will be reduced and the course will be healthier overall. We believe that, for the game to thrive, there needs to be a sea-change in opinion away from seeing lush, green courses as being wholly desirable.

Golf can offer valuable habitats for wildlife.Presumably Royal Liverpool in 2006 was a good example of playing performance over aesthetics?

It was. To have the best players in the world speaking so highly of a course which was almost uniformly golden yellow in appearance was a major fillip for our cause. To produce a course of that quality in drought conditions with almost no fairway watering and minimal use of pesticides and fertilisers showed just what could be done by following best practice guidance.

Tiger Woods, who won that year, said: “This is how it all started and how I think it should be played.” If the world number one can adapt his game to those kinds of conditions, then the rest of us should be prepared to follow suit if we are able to produce turf that can survive under such extremes.

So in addition to playing performance, we have economic performance, environmental stewardship and social responsibility. It’s easy to understand the role of economic performance, but where do the other two fit in?

Could your course be used for alternative recreation?Generally, when we talk about environmental stewardship and social responsibility, we’re talking about golf becoming a more responsible user of the large amounts of land that it occupies. That covers a host of different issues from creating habitats for local wildlife; to handling, using and disposing of potential pollutants appropriately, and making sure that the club and course are assets to their local non-playing community.

Could rough be managed to encourage and protect wildlife? Could areas of the course be used for recreation by the public? These and other such questions can usefully be asked of a course by its custodians to assess whether they could do more with the land in its possession.

Not only are there obvious positives for the beneficiaries of these schemes, but, if golf can show itself to be an asset to its community and its surroundings, it is more likely to be looked upon favourably as governmental regulations on land and resource usage become more restrictive.

So where would you like to see the game in 20 years’ time?

I’d like to see golf being mentioned in a favourable light whenever questions arise about how we use our land, or how we work with the community. Basically, as a game, we should be making positive contributions to as many different aspects of society as possible. Only then will we truly be on the road to sustainability.