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Teeing off for sustainability: Pinehurst showcases eco-friendly golf design

Composite image showing before and after the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2, which brought architectural and playability benefits along with significant water savings.
USGA
/
via NC Health News
The restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 brought architectural and playability benefits along with significant water savings.

Because the world's top male golfers are teeing off this week on Pinehurst's renowned No. 2 course for the U.S. Open Golf Championship, more than precision driving and putting are on display. The four-day event is being played on a course that has evolved into a more environmentally friendly facility.

"When I came in, Pinehurst was just transitioning away from what I call that ultra-manicured, very classic Southern golf course," said Danesha Carley, a horticultural science professor at N.C. State University, who began consulting on the redesign of course No. 2 in 2010. "Think of Augusta [National Golf Club], where really it's manicured within an inch of its life.

The U.S. Golf Association has begun shifting its sustainability practices in recent years. "We all need to appreciate the importance of improving golf's sustainability footprint and be committed to identifying new ways to reduce golf's resource consumption," CEO Mike Whan said in a 2022release.

According to a study, roughly 2 million acres in the U.S. were committed to golf in 2021, and the median size of an 18-hole course was 146 acres. The National Golf Foundationreports that as of 2024, there are approximately 16,000 courses in this country spread across 14,000 facilities, representing 42 percent of the world's golf courses.

With the long-term climate forecast predicting more extreme weather, including heat and drought, golf clubs like Pinehurst are embracing a more environmentally friendly approach to golf course management, which includes resource-saving measures like reducing the amount of turf, irrigating with recycled water and providing habitat for local wildlife.

Limiting the amount of pesticides and other additives on the course reduces the risk of runoff that can harm humans and wildlife. Workers handle fewer toxic chemicals, and the threat to beneficial plants and insects is reduced.

‘Rewilding’

Carley said in 2010, Pinhurst's management wanted the No. 2 course to reflect more of Donald Ross' original design, which he completed in the 1930s.

"Donald Ross was highly inspired by the original Scottish golf courses, which were very much just carved out of […] cow pastures or sheep pastures," Carley said. “And so, you know, in terms of leading sustainability efforts, Pinehurst really took the reins and ran with it.”

Taking the reins involved a significant course alteration. Carey said that more than 1,000 sprinkler heads and 40 acres of turf were removed, and the irrigation system was rerouted. “Just by removing 40 acres of turf grass, period, they're enhancing the sustainability element of the courses. … They're no longer irrigating that 40 acres, they're not mowing it, they're not spreading fertilizer, pesticides or anything else,” she said.

“They just let [the area] sort of go wild [...] We use the term ‘rewilding’ now.”

Reducing turf grass areas provides more room to introduce native species in what Carley calls “out of bounds areas.” These areas provide wildlife habitat and decrease the amount of water and chemicals needed to maintain a course.

Jeff Marcus, longleaf applied scientist for the North Carolina Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, recognizes Pinehurst Resort for its water and wildlife conservation efforts. The resort is also one of several North Carolina clubs recognized as an Audubon International-Certified Golf Course because of its environmental sustainability work. What’s more, the club is credited for establishing the first Safe Harbor agreement in the U.S. to protect the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker’s habitat, according to information provided by Visit North Carolina.

Conserving water

Carley pointed out that while eliminating grassy areas can save on water usage, changing the type of grass used can also make a significant difference — something that could be important as climate change drives variations in rainfall.

The switch from bentgrass to ultradwarf bermudagrass greens is one of several subtle, but significant changes to Pinehurst No. 2 since the U.S. Open was last played there in 2014.
USGA
/
via NC Health News
The switch from bentgrass to ultradwarf bermudagrass greens is one of several subtle, but significant changes to Pinehurst No. 2 since the U.S. Open was last played there in 2014.

The majority of grass on golf courses is in fairways, roughs (areas golfers try to avoid hitting into) and putting greens. The type of grasses in these areas has a significant impact on how much water a course uses.

“When we get into fairways and roughs, which is the larger acreage anyway, you know there's potential for 20 to 30 percent water savings off the top just from using a Bermuda grass versus a bluegrass or a bentgrass,” said Cole Thompson, director of green section research for the USGA.

Bermuda grass is also known as a “warm season grass,” and it thrives in the southern U.S. Kentucky Bluegrass and Bentgrass, for instance, are “cool season grasses” and thrive in cooler regions such as the Northeast. However, some Southern courses like to use cooler season grasses on certain areas of the course because Bermuda grass goes dormant in the fall and loses its green color.

To avoid the brown look during the fall and winter months, “a lot of courses, especially the high-end courses, will do what's called overseeding,” Carley said. “All the way up until 2011, Pinehurst did the same thing, where they would overseed with ryegrass at a very heavy rate.”

Carley said the cycle of overseeding with ryegrass in the fall to maintain the green-grass look required more resources, including fertilizer and pesticides, which could run off into nearby waterways and potentially kill beneficial plants.

Using Bermuda grass because of the water-saving benefits is something Thompson said the USGA has been researching and promoting beyond the South.

“A lot of the effort has been to select and breed grasses that require less water, fewer resources overall, and so we have selected and improved Bermuda grasses that have more cold tolerance so they can be grown farther north and you can realize water conservation benefits.”

Ripple effect

Carley and Thompson are excited by the potential that Pinehurst’s commitment to environmental conservation will be noticed by the throngs of golfers who visit the resort each year to have a crack at one of its nine courses — and by the tens of thousands of fans who’ll descend on the course this week. They believe there’s potential that golfing enthusiasts will notice the design elements that Pinehurst has used and encourage the same ideas to be implemented at their home courses.

N.C. State University’s Lonnie Poole Golf Course is one of a group of courses in North Carolina that have adopted environmentally friendly course management practices, such as irrigating with recycled water.
Danesha Carley
/
via NC Health News
N.C. State University’s Lonnie Poole Golf Course is one of a group of courses in North Carolina that have adopted environmentally friendly course management practices, such as irrigating with recycled water.

Carley said that in North Carolina, there are several clubs that have adopted environmentally friendly course management practices, including N.C. State University’s Lonnie Poole Golf Course and UNC Chapel Hill’s Finley Golf Club. Both use recycled water, among other sustainable practices.

As for advice to other golf clubs looking to emulate Pinehurst’s approach to conservation, Carley had a few suggestions.

“Reducing the amount of managed turf grass would be great because it means [courses] need less water, fewer pesticides, less fertilizer and less mowing, in general,” she said.

“Instead of trying to grow cool season grass in Florida or North Carolina, use warm season grasses.”


This article first appeared on North Carolina Health News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.

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