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Deep Culture Travel:

Back To Nature: Golfers and Wildlife
Share Turf on Environmentally Sensitive Courses

by Karen Misuraca, published in Alaska Airlines Magazine

More than a hundred years ago when the sport of golf was born on the Scottish coast, golf courses were simply bits of turf planted between naturally occurring trees and plants. The first designers walked the breezy seaside dunes and hillocks, shaping their layouts not with bulldozers, but according to the lay of the land. About the middle of the twentieth century, as golf experienced a growth spurt in the United States, vast stretches of freshly mowed, "manicured" grass became the norm, and new courses were carved out of the landscape, rather than blending into it.

Due to public demand, the natural look is returning to golf, and the golf industry is responding with enthusiasm and creativity. Protection of water sources and wildlife habitat are top issues. The edges of fairways are left to grow knee-high with native grasses and wildflowers. Playing surfaces are often islands between wild places, and a forced carry over a patch of cacti, a creek or a rocky canyon is not uncommon.

Golf legend and course designer, Jack Nicklaus, said, "When I first look at designing a hole, I consider what Mother Nature has already created on that property... I don't believe in forcing an idea on a piece of land, but rather, I blend my ideas with the natural environment and let it help me shape the design. I guess you could say that Mother Nature is a co-designer of each of my courses."

The only Nicklaus-designed course that bears his name, Nicklaus North Golf Course in British Columbia lies in a pristine valley below a crown of snow-capped peaks and Whistler Mountain. Part of Whistler Resort, the highest rated golf resort in Western Canada, Nicklaus North was lightly laid on a rugged, densely forested site. A quarter of the property was left untouched, including a large lake, ponds and streams. The remnant of an ancient glacier, Green Lake is an icy hazard, and a landing site for float planes. Whistler's famous "River of Golden Dreams" meanders through the fairways and feisty Fitzsimmons Creek creates havoc for golfers on the eighteenth hole, where it fronts the green along with a huge cottonwood tree.

Creamy white and bright red water lilies bloom on the pond near the fifth hole, where blue-winged teal chatter and hide in the bulrushes. Great Blue herons stalk about, fishing in the tall reeds, rising on six-foot wingspans to fly off when a golf balls land in the water.

Superintendent Darren Burns said, "Wildlife is part of our everyday life, here. Of our three resident black bears, one of them often sleeps between the third and fourth holes, and he sits on top of a garbage can, there, watching the players. I like to see the wood ducks swimming around behind the first hole, and the ospreys, fishing for Dolly Varden trout in the lake. We build brush piles and leave snags for small animals and birds, and keep bird boxes for a variety of species. Bald eagles are very common."

The golfing season at Whistler runs from May through the middle of October, when the alders blaze red and aspens are golden against the firs lining the fairways. Another Whistler course, Chateau Whistler Golf Club at the base of Blackcomb Mountain was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., to let nature take its course in a tilting, high-altitude terrain studded with dramatic granite outcroppings. Cascading across the course are three glacier-fed streams, spawning grounds for Rainbow and Kokanee trout. Black bears gorge on wild berries in the summertime, while coyotes and deer stand their ground on the edges of the forest. Golfers in the know bring their binoculars and cameras for the daily pageant of golden eagles, swooping osprey, and a resident pileated woodpecker.

About forty of the Nicklaus Design courses in the United States are involved in Audubon International programs. A leading partner with the golf industry, the independent environmental organization, Audubon International (AI) offers education and conservation assistance to more than 2300 courses throughout the United States, Canada and around the world.

Two hundred seventy-five courses have achieved the coveted AI certification, meeting criteria for environmental planning, wildlife and habitat management, pest management, water quality and water conservation.

According to Joellen Zeh, AI Staff Ecologist, "Since 1991, we have had a steady increase in interest from established golf clubs and those in design. The superintendents I work with are lovers of the outdoors and very positive about protecting the environment. In a recent managed land survey, ninety-nine percent of them said that their turf is in the same or better condition, after instituting water conservation and integrated pest programs, and almost half believe their turf to be better than ever.

"They tell us that their golfers are appreciative of what the clubs are doing to expand wildlife habitat. The average golfer on an AI-certified course will notice more birds, butterflies and other wildlife, and likely, higher rough, with wide buffers of native grasses and other natural flora around water features."

Sand dunes and wetlands on The Links at Spanish Bay are fringed with native plants, which act as natural water filters and protect fragile dunes from golfers' footsteps. In a spectacular oceanside site on Monterey Bay at Pebble Beach, Spanish Bay was the first California course to be certified by AI. In the lee of the brooding Del Monte cypress forest, the layout is marked by waves of low, sandy mounds, fescue grass fairways and few trees, with blue and yellow lupine, sage and thistle supplying soft color against the dazzling blue Pacific, which borders all but four holes.

The original Robert Trent Jones, Jr./Tom Watson plan involved extensive dune restoration and the replacement of native plantings. A fearsome slope of rating of 74.8/146 and true Scottish links conditions test the golfer's mettle , with windswept dunes up to twenty-four feet high, platoons of merciless pot bunkers, often damp, cool weather and prevailing sea winds.

Called "Missing Link", the fifteenth hole demands true target golf, with a landing area and a green completely surrounded by gorse and dunes, and a marsh and tall reeds to the right of the green, a perfect hiding place for herons and egrets. Dunescape carries are also required on 417-yard "Whale Watch", the seventeenth, draped right along the ocean, within view of sea otters floating in the kelp beds offshore. If the sun is setting when golfers reach the eighteenth, they will hear the eerie keen of a kilted bagpiper as he makes his nightly rounds. As Tom Watson said, "Spanish Bay is so much like Scotland, you can almost hear the bagpipes."

Developers and designers of new courses run a gauntlet of environmental impact restrictions. Ten years of negotiations preceded approval of Squaw Creek Golf Course, an AI certified club in Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe. Surrounded by the Tahoe National Forest in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, the valley is covered with a magical alpine meadow and wetlands, lush with wildflowers and crisscrossed by Squaw Creek. No fungicides, insecticides or herbicides are used on the course, and fertilizers are restricted. Architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr., took the creek and the underground aquifer into account by having charcoal filters installed under the greens and buffering the creek and three ponds with several feet of native grasses. With only eighty playable acres, landing zones are small. Wooden cart paths protect the fragile meadows.

At 6,500 feet elevation, spring golf starts on Memorial Day weekend, after shovels, snowblowers and rakes have carefully removed the last foot of snow. Perpetual sunshine makes Southern California's Coachella Valley a golf mecca, with more than a hundred courses. The more recently they were designed, the more skillfully united with the desert they are. Using fewer acres of the perfect turf typical of most Western courses, Mountain View and Firecliff at Desert Willow Golf Resort in the city of Palm Desert are carpeted with natural vegetation, and huge sand and crushed granite waste bunkers guarded by magnificent palm groves and red and golden barrel cactus. Firecliff is the brainchild of architect, Michael Hurdzan, who ingeniously shaped the holes to echo the surrounding dunes and existing flora, complying with the city's demands for a minimum of irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides. He said, "it is the most important project of my life... here, golfers will know they have been in the desert."

Across the Coachella Valley, the newest course in the La Quinta PGA West complex was designed by Aussie golf great Greg Norman, who severely limited turf and merged native grasses and wildflowers into a dramatic, low desert setting surrounded by a crescent of mountains. Absent are the palm trees and exotic water features typical of Western courses. Indigenous mesquite, paloverde and acacia trees, goldeneye, desert marigold and white brittle brush bloom along the fairways. The site is actually an ancient seabed, forty feet below today's sea level.

Describing his "least disturbance" approach, Norman said, "I believe that making the best use of the existing landscape not only produces an aesthetically pleasing course, but reduces maintenance costs."

Distinguishing the design are one hundred twenty-two "Great White Shark" bunkers filled with brilliant white crushed marble. Replacing traditional grass rough, tan-colored decomposed granite is tough on golf clubs, requiring a deft touch to pluck the ball off the crunchy surface.

Norman's favorite is the 431-yard fifteenth hole, where sixteen bunkers create a double fairway. He said, "It's characteristic of the whole course, a real risk versus reward hole with lots of bunkers and native vegetation. On this course, I go through everything from a two-iron to a driver off the tee, and hit everything from a two-iron to a sand wedge for approach shots."

Of the estimated sixteen thousand golf courses in the United States, most have between 110 and 140 acres of turf grass. The Norman Course has just sixty-two acres of turf between prickly shrubs and native trees in a wilderness of desert.

Farther south, in Baja, California, between San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, more than a dozen upscale resorts are strategically located on the curvaceous coastline of the Sea of Cortez. Gray whales are winter visitors every year, swimming south from the icy Bering Sea in Alaska to the warm, protected bays of Baja, arriving in late December, about when "Snow Birds" begin to arrive from chilly climes, golf clubs in hand.

The Jack Nicklaus-designed Palmilla Golf Course lies along the rocky coastline and in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna, the mountain barrier looming above the Cape. Nicklaus said, "I let the surroundings shape the holes... to avoid disrupting the natural setting as much as possible".

Respecting the dramatic elevation changes and a distractingly beautiful shoreline, he deftly arranged Palmilla's three nines, placing fairways, greens and tee boxes between mature cacti and oak, pine and pinyon woodlands, with forced carries over deep ravines, and giving nearly every hole a sea view. On the Mountain nine from a slightly elevated tee, the golfer is faced with a steep drop-off to a canyon in front and a sandy arroyo along the right side and fronting the green, which is surrounded by wild desert. On the Ocean nine, the Pacific sparkles cerulean behind a battalion of century-old Cardon cacti and Torote trees, and every putt breaks toward the water. The scorecard reads, "Please be careful of desert vegetation as contact with it could cause injury."

The iguanas and the roadrunners ignore the warning, while golfers dodge cactus spines and consider that the best golf courses look as if they just grew up where they lie.
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