Withdrawals of many pesticides and other turf chemicals, tighter regulations governing the use of those remaining and increasing costs are focusing the minds of the greenkeeping industry on lower-input, more sustainable course maintenance. Not easy when year-round golf has become the norm and the weather is increasingly erratic.
One course that typifies such concerns is Ogbourne Downs near Marlborough, Wiltshire. Head greenkeeper Nick Pusey has been at the course for 20 years, having also served his apprenticeship there, and currently heads a greenkeeping team of five. He believes maintenance input can be reduced without compromising playing quality.
"The course manager is keen to go down the sustainable route," he explains. "He's hoping to see a long-term benefit - not least in money saved. Chemicals are hideously expensive."
He points out that, by one estimate, green spaces account for only three per cent of pesticide use, and the sports turf sector accounts for only three per cent of that three per cent. "Golf gets a bad press, but we've used no fungicide in 10 years," he says. "That said, newbuilds are more keen to go down this route. The older ones have a more head-in-the-sand attitude."
Situated on an exposed hillside far from the sea leaves the course two to four weeks behind the rest of the country climate-wise, with no real plant growth occurring until early May. But despite being subjected to the worst of the weather, the course remains open year-round.
This has consequences for the species mix in the turf as well as for its maintenance. While Poa annua annual meadow grass can give a good surface six months of the year, a more consistent surface is required for year-round playing.
Instead, fairways are predominantly natural fescue, while bentgrass is encouraged on the greens. "We like finer grasses, so we can't let nature take its course," says Pusey. "And 12-month-a-year golf means there's no quiet time for green-keeping."
The fairways have also been extended, he adds. "Golfers are hitting shots much farther than they used to, thanks to improvements in clubs and balls, but no more accurately. So we had to widen the fairway."
The challenge is to manage this greater playing area with less maintenance input and no more staff time. "Gone are the days when you blanket-spray," he says. "We hand-weed the greens - that way they're straight out, rather than taking weeks to die."
The free-draining chalk geology contains a high soil pH. Turf additives supplier Indigrow's UK sales manager John Smart, who has worked with the course for a number of years, says: "High pH encourages disease. But you will never change the base pH."
Indigrow has carried out soil and tissue tests for the course. "The feed programme will differ a great deal from course to course," says Smart, who likes to use water conditioner Re-Phlex to bring the pH down during applications and to control minerals that reduce the effectiveness of pesticides.
He says such additives bring improved performance and economy by making a given chemical volume go further. "You might spend £600-700 per hectare spraying - a further £60 for a buffer would neutralise the chlorine and fluorine," he says. "And a translocation agent would get it flowing quicker through the xylem of the grass."
Covered-in booms on sprayers prevent drift, so they can be used closer to water.
Free-draining soil means keeping on top of irrigation is a must. But while rain is naturally acidic, mains water has a higher pH, adding to the disease problem. "It's also very expensive," says Pusey.
The course has its own borehole, but so far this supplies only the washing-down area. A £4,500 investment will shortly turn this into a closed loop, as run-off passes through three purification tanks, to be re-used rather than leech into the water table.
A reservoir for the course is also in the pipeline, as it were. In seasons of low rainfall, such as during 2006, a ban on irrigation on golf courses was a real possibility, Pusey points out.
An irrigation system for greens and tees was installed in the 1970s. Once turned on every night, it is now used much more selectively, he says, thanks in part to the recent installation of a weather station.
This keeps a record of variables such as evapo-transpiration of weather over the course of a year, and will even predict the climate. "The longer you have it on-site, the better its predictions," explains Pusey.
"It also means I can justify what I've done. The Environment Agency might want to know why I've used 3,000cu m of water in 2008. I can say, it's not just based on my opinion. It also helps you time when to use fertilisers."
Another growing pressure on greenkeepers is to provide a habitat for wildlife on the course. "I think golfers subliminally appreciate wildlife - things like skylarks overhead," says Pusey. Also regularly seen on the course are buzzards, hares, rabbits, pheasants, partridges, deer - and also some less welcome visitors.
"We trap moles - 100 every winter, and every winter they're back," says Pusey. "Badgers also dig up the turf looking for chafer grubs, but Defra says, live with it."
Smart adds: "Golf used to be more of a monoculture. Now the council and the Government like it if you increase the biodiversity of the site. You leave roughs rough."
The course's roughs were previously grazed by sheep, but recent wetter weather has given farmers enough green grass of their own, Pusey adds. "We have looked into keeping our own sheep, but there's a lot of work involved, with dipping and so on - it's not worth the hassle."
Pusey and Smart agree that lower ground-care input need not compromise playing quality or diminish customers' enjoyment of the game. "There's an aesthetic element," says Pusey. "People won't putt on a brown green - you still have to maintain it. And we never ban golf trolleys, though they do cause wear and tear."
Pusey regularly measures the greens for performance, analysing ball roll, the effect of impact, and thatch density.
According to Smart: "People see lush greens and fairways on TV, and that's what they want. But they're likely to be full of nitrogen, so more susceptible to disease, and are not necessarily the best playing surfaces either. You need to educate the members that what matters is not what it looks like but how it plays."
DISPUTE IN THE DUNES
While the golf industry as a whole moves towards more sustainable practices, one development in particular is heading in the opposite direction, according to the Golf Environment Organisation (GEO).
The proposed Trump International Golf Links - consisting of two championship courses complete with 500 houses, around 1,000 holiday homes and a five-star hotel - was granted outline planning permission subject to conditions in November. But critics argue that the site - an expanse of dunes on the Scottish coast north of Aberdeen - is a rare and valuable habitat that should be left alone.
According to GEO chief executive officer Jonathan Smith: "This is not sustainable development. The irreversible loss of internationally important habitats and uniquely adapted species of plant and animal is a high and unnecessary price to pay for this form of poorly substantiated economic development," he points out.
But local Liberal Democrat MP Malcolm Bruce has given a cautious welcome to the development, saying: "I would urge both parties to engage constructively to ensure that the legitimate environmental concerns are addressed as far as possible and that the resulting development is a credit to the north-east of Scotland."
Several housing and business development proposals in neighbouring areas have been announced in the wake of the decision.