The bad old days of golf courses being perceived as water-guzzling eyesores are being transformed as more and more clubs adopt sustainable practices that enhance biodiversity while conserving water to create a fairer way to play.
Matthew Perry has no trowel in his hands as he tends to the turf at Dubai Creek golf course. There is no wheelbarrow or shovel – just an electronic device plunged into the earth.
With it, he tests moisture and salinity levels in the ground to find out what water needs replacing and what water not to waste.
“Obviously we have severe heat here in the summer and we can’t just pump on millions of gallons, although that’s precisely what a more traditional golf course might do,” says Mr Perry, head of maintenance at the course.
Golf courses do not have the best reputation for environmental stewardship. A course is large area of land kept unnaturally green, more so in a desert setting.
The common belief is that they soak up water – a commodity set to become more precious than oil – and uses large quantities of pesticide that can end up in rivers and aquifer courses and threaten the food chain.
And building courses causes a loss of biodiversity and is a blot on the landscape, critics say.
But times are changing.
“The fact is that in this region most courses are using new thinking and all sorts of new tech to improve their environmental friendliness,” Mr Perry says.
“When I first came to the Middle East a decade ago, that environmental thinking didn’t exist. If you wanted a green golf course, you just pumped millions of gallons of water on to it. But there’s been a complete turnaround.”
Local links represent the most advanced practices – rechargeable buggies, solar-powered clubhouses, organic fertilisers, run-off water stored in winter for use in summer, advanced irrigation, analytical software, clever use of shade and natural ventilation, even genetic manipulation to create “Frankenstein grasses” that stay greener, grow more slowly and are more tolerant to sunlight.
“You have to recognise that with a very fragile ecosystem such as that in a desert, you have to be very sensitive to the needs of local plant and wildlife, while being conscious that you’re also manipulating that environment,” says Mark Tupling, head of agronomy at Dubai’s Jumeirah Golf Estates.
Those courses were designed by Greg Norman to be ecofriendly and sponsored the Dubai Sustainable Cities Summit in December.
Local sand is used for bunkers, native grasses for fairways and trees due to be destroyed in other construction projects were replanted.
The plants are supported using a seaweed extract and greywater processed from sewage.
“This kind of thinking is the way the world is going,” Mr Tupling says. “But if the UAE wants to be seen as a market leader then its courses have to be market leaders too, and that means moving towards more and more environmental development.
“Our courses are relatively new, but using the latest technology that’s available, which is getting more advanced all the time, we can be right up there with the best courses in the world.”
Some argue that a more holistic approach has been forced on clubs, because the harsh chemicals that used to be applied are no longer available.
Others say that an environmental approach improves the game. Less watering makes the playing surface firmer, so the ball runs faster and smoother. Others say it works for the bottom line.
“A lot of golf courses still don’t report on their environmental standards, or not credibly,” says Jonathan Smith, chief executive of the Golf Environment Organisation, which certifies courses around the world.
The organisation has two UAE courses on its books, Dubai Creek Golf Club and the Emirates Golf Club, with four more working towards certification.
“But others are very good in their practices because they recognise that it’s simply good for business,” Mr Smith says. “It gives cost savings, brings more efficient internal procedures and gives the club better PR.
“I think we can expect a greater use of tech not only to bring more efficiencies, but to phase out the use of unsustainable practices.”
Mr Smith says that while golf courses have not been required to meet standards like other industries, in which certification becomes a licence to operate, more players are asking questions.
“But we still get complaints that the greens aren’t looking good enough,” Mr Perry says. “It’s more a visual issue for them. Even though less water can improve play, some people just want very green grass with neat stripes everywhere, even in a desert.”
James Hutchinson, sustainability executive for the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association, calls it “the Augusta effect” – golfers’ desire for their club to look as pristine as the famed championship course in the US, where environmental management has yet to take hold.
“The biggest challenge is not the adoption of environmental practices but changing golfers’ ideas of what a course should look like,” Mr Hutchinson says.
“Every course is going to need to be more progressive and that means golfers are going to have to accept that courses won’t have the look they had five years ago.
“I think the wilder look they will likely have, which was how they were up to the 1950s and ’60s, is more aesthetically pleasing.”
Such practices are changing courses to become a boon to the environment.
“It’s true that it is hard to make the shift from traditional ways of course management to environmental ones,” says Dindy Macatlang, superintendent of Meydan Golf Club in Dubai.
“It’s more complex work and managing golf courses in the UAE is difficult enough. But golf courses can actually be a help to local plants and wildlife.”
At least 50 per cent of most courses is left to nature, creating a natural habitat that possibly wasn’t there before. In built-up areas courses create corridors to connecting the countryside for migration.
Many courses become nature reserves, homes to flora uncommon elsewhere. In some countries they even gain legal protection.
Course management can involve work that is not just for the benefit of play. Grassland might be thinned to encourage certain species of wildflower or butterfly.
“The public’s perception of golf courses is moving in the right direction but it hasn’t gone far enough yet,” says Mr Tupling.
“The average homeowner can’t produce the kind of lawn you find on a golf course and so assumes something must be afoot to make this happen.
“But achieving that lawn is possible in an ecologically sound way with the right approach. Besides, environmental awareness is expected of any business now. Why should golf be different?”