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A Walk in the Park

 

For centuries golf has been perceived as being a sport at one with nature. A healthy outdoor pursuit allowing the participant to become lost in their surroundings, often amongst a world of green fields and woodland, far away from the hustle and bustle of modern city life. With this notion comes the attitude that sport must inherently be ‘eco-friendly’. A notion that in many cases is true as most golf courses provide havens for wildlife that would otherwise be threatened with the increasing urban sprawl of business parks and housing developments.

The facts show us that a land area in excess of 102,950 ha is occupied by golf courses in Britain. If this is broken down further, it becomes apparent that approximately 36,000 ha of this total constitutes rough areas which compares to just 7,390 ha taken up by greens and tees. In practical terms these areas divide into 1,800 potential wildlife sites each measuring between 5-50 ha in size. All these figures serve to highlight the potential that golf courses have to enhance and add variety to the British countryside.

However, this incredible potential for golf courses to provide sanctuary for our flora and fauna continues to be limited. In harsh reality, many of today’s British courses effectively amount to little more than ‘green car parks’, with minimal rough or wild areas being utilised, allowing for the maximum through put of golf and fewer lost balls. Many of today’s courses have lost valuable elements of their individuality and much of the character exhibited by their more established predecessors. Most are focused purely upon making money with little thought given to the adverse effect their intensive management may have on the surrounding environment.

British golf courses currently occupy a considerable percentage of our countryside, with many of the older venues harbouring SSI’s (sites of Special Scientific Interest) and other designated wildlife sites. Yet how many times do we hear golfers complain that "the rough is too long" and "there are too many weeds on the fairways", or worse still "the water is not blue enough!"

The simple truth is that we as golfers have become somewhat guilty of being both spoilt and complacent. We see immaculate courses on our holidays and televisions and have come to expect the same when we play as members or visitors here in the UK. Today, the technological advances within the industry mean that the greenkeeper is more capable than ever before of attaining such high expectations. Unfortunately, such technological benefits are often being abused, or used unwisely as we see an increasing number of unsustainable, crude ‘American style,’ golf courses being established throughout the UK, very often to the detriment of the surrounding environment and the fragile eco-system within.

Over the last decade there have been a growing and perhaps justifiable concern amongst many environmentalists that the once valuable habitats that were found within many of our golf courses are now in danger of being lost or destroyed, be it through neglect or mis-guided education.

We must begin to look at measures to preserve the ‘roots’ of the game we allegedly invented and not be tempted to destroy or modify our long established golfing pedigree with the seemingly endless barrage of ‘target’ golf courses and the various architectural ‘gimmicks’ they employ to draw in the customer. The long term future of such developments is questionable. Time after time we read of ambitious projects being put on the market (very often at a loss). It would seem that through the pressures and demands of the media and large sections of the golfing public, we are gradually losing sight of the game’s traditions.

If golf is to argue its case against the environmentalists then we must look at the way in which we perceive the game and its future development. Perhaps, a less commercially driven and more sustainable approach to golf course management will also have far reaching benefits to members who, throughout peak times of the summer, find it increasingly hard o play on their own golf course. By redressing the balance a little and opting more for quality over quantity, many of our courses will become less booked up with societies, which at the moment many Clubs rely on to ensure that the short-term unsustainable demands of their facility can be met! Undoubtedly, there is huge scope for today’s contemporary designs to be of equal value in terms of playing ability and conservation of wildlife as that of many of our ‘classic’ links and heathland courses. However, such potential will take sensitivity and patience – two philosophies that are unfortunately becoming less and less tolerable in today’s commercially driven industry.

To use a classic example, for all its beauty the Augusta National creates a somewhat false perception of how a golf course should be presented. A perception that all too frequently ends in the golfer becoming disillusioned as it is simply not possible to replicate such incredible attention to detail on their local golf course. However, at the hands of a ruthless committee the attempts made to create such an artificial environment can have disastrous consequences both in the overall aesthetic appeal of the golf course and in the diversity and value of the various natural habitats within its boundaries. This may result in the introduction of various alien flora and fauna species over-riding the natural beauty of the plants and animals both inherent and specific to a certain area.

The industry as a whole must concentrate on moving away from this ‘Augusta National syndrome’ and replace what amounts to little more than ‘theme park golf’ with sound philosophies and an awareness that compromise is essential in ensuring a sustainable and profitable future for our Golf Clubs. Whilst it is imperative that our industry develops and progresses, from an environmental standpoint it would also be wise to keep a realistic perspective on what is actually achievable. Golf courses have more potential than ever to act as valuable sanctuaries for a wide variety of flora and fauna (much of which is becoming increasingly scarce). The development of more and more housing and business parks, plus extensions on the road network means that the emphasis on golf courses becoming aware of the expectations, and the increasing environmental awareness put on them, will increase.

As our professional lives become more and more demanding and the pressures of the ‘rat race’ ever more stressful golf will provide the perfect tonic. A method of total relaxation in amongst beautiful unspoilt surroundings, rich in wildlife and as much a sanctuary for the golfer as for the wildlife within it!

It is vital that we use such environmental interest and legislation as a catalyst and motivational factor to make changes within our industry. We must get away from the attitude that environmental restrictions and laws repress progress and development. It is all too easy to romanticise about the past, as in years gone by the expectations and pressures placed upon greenkeepers were incomparable. The industry has developed beyond all expectations, however, this should never alter our perspective on what is right, and perhaps sometimes by glancing back to how things were, it will help us to appreciate the beauty and heritage of many of the UK’s natural heathland and links courses and put the state of today’s industry into perspective.

We must lose our obsession to control and manipulate all that is natural and instead decide upon a way forward or a compromise to be reached between producing a quality golf course and protecting our natural environment. Such courses have been built in the past and are being built in the present. These will remain in vogue far longer than many of the commercially ‘synthetic’ courses we unfortunately seem to have adopted from the resorts of Florida and the Costa-del-Sol.

We should be calling for a move towards quality and not quantity, I for one would prefer to play my golf surrounded by pasture and not park!

 

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