America's green complex and the price of unrealistic goals

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

GAINESVILLE, FL - American golf has a problem with green grass, but it's not the problem you think. It's not that they're unable to get their courses green enough, but rather that they're already too green.

Most golfers want their courses lush and green but the demand for the perfectly maintained course has several drawbacks. It's an unrealistic standard that ratchets up the price of golf, puts clubs in an arms race against each other, and pushes superintendents and their staffs up against a wall.

If Americans would simply tolerate a little off - dare I say brown - color in their courses, the state of the game could become much more healthy.

It's a question of naturalism vs. artificiality, of realism vs. impracticality.

The widespread American opinion of a good golf course has become intrinsically linked to conditioning. As a golfing community we've gone from analyzing courses in terms of strategy, variety, bunkering, and hazard placement to judging them on conditioning, service, and value.

What underlies all three of the latter categories, however, is course maintenance. If a golf course is lush and green it's certain to be a hit with the public, who will subsequently deem it good service that the club cares enough to take care of its course. And while it's unproven exactly what the well-to-do American golfer values in a high priced club or daily fee course, one thing's for certain - it better be green.

In some circles this overemphasis on conditioning is termed the "Augusta National Syndrome." Every spring, when Augusta National Golf Club is brought into our homes adorned in the most emerald of hues, we are reminded of what the perfectly conditioned golf course is supposed to look like. The virtually unattainable icon of expensive manipulation that Augusta National has become is now the idealized standard of maintenance for not just private clubs but, unfortunately, for all golf courses.

Never mind that maintaining a course on a similar level isn't practical. It might not even be possible. Not even Augusta National can do it - the club is closed for half the year. Those verdant fairways are splotched with brown in the summer just like at a thousand other courses in southern climes.

The irony of this "green complex" is that it produces both harder and more expensive golf. Green grass is usually the result of over watering, which makes the turf beneath it soft. Courses then play longer than they would if the ground were firm due to lack of roll, something average golfers rely on for distance. Green also means that the rough will be thick and healthy, and of course the cost for maintaining all this must be factored into a budget that is in turn reflected in green fees.

Still, our collective demand for Augusta-like conditioning prevails, resulting in the average golfer paying a premium price for a tougher course while superintendents struggle against budgets, staff, nature, and reality.

"Most of the high-end private clubs now are spending in excess of $1 million per 18 holes (annually)," says Tom Alex, Director of Golf Maintenance at Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando. "The real high ones will be doing $1.1, $1.2 million. If you go out west where (they're) buying water, you can get into $1.3, $1.4, $1.5 million. We're going to spend $2.3 million this year on 48 holes of golf."

It's the privilege of private clubs to spend their money in search of the perfect shade of green, but as more and more resort and public access courses attempt to emulate the private club experience, it's this private model that is inevitably copied.

"It's amazing. I bet half of what our maintenance staff does to the golf course most of the players don't see," Alex says. "I think if you give them good greens, tees, and fairways the rest of it kind of gets lost in the wash."

"We've kind of gone from maintaining really good greens and whatever [else] you could on the fairways and having some decent tees, to a wall-to-wall presentation. Especially in the resort business."

Aside from the high cost of maintaining a course at an unrealistic and often unhealthy standard, the most serious detriment of over manipulation and over watering is that it can absolutely wreck the architect's design intent. Many American courses and holes are designed to encourage the player to be creative with his or her shotmaking, and part of that includes utilizing the ground game. Soft grass and deep roughs render that type of creativity nearly impossible.

In September, Contributing Writer Shane Sharp wrote that the architectural design of any golf course accounts for only half of its playability while the superintendent, and how he or she maintains it, accounts for the other half ("If You Design It, Will They Maintain It?"). It's not only up to the superintendent to maintain the course, but to maintain it in accordance with the architecture. But if the superintendent is asked to obey different masters, either the architect's wishes or the golfers that pay the bills, guess who loses?

Some courses aren't designed to play soft. One of the two courses Alex oversees at Grand Cypress is The New Course, a layout modeled after St. Andrews in Scotland. Ideally the links-style track would be maintained fast and firm (and therefore a little brown) to match the conditions and shotmaking demands that the design attempts to recreate from the original.

If Alex is forced to over water the course because resort guests are turned off by the less-than-lush conditions, then the entire effectiveness of the course suffers. The critical aftereffect of the green at all costs mentality is that superintendents cannot tailor the conditioning of the golf course to best accentuate its design features.

It's important to note that green grass does not have to mean soft. Clubs such as Lake Jovita in Dade City, Florida, have the soil, climate, and budget to maintain the course both green and firm in a way that suits the architecture.

But far too often, as a consequence of over watering, ultra green grass limits a course's playability. It's up to golfers, the lifeblood of any club or course, to understand that not all holes need to be uniformly green, that not all courses have the resources or design to support a perfect manicure. If we relax this insistence on greenness, courses and superintendents will no longer feel pressured into pursuing Augusta-like conditions.

Letting a little brown into our lives can be a good thing. In return we'll see a wider range of golf courses that play in accordance with their natural conditions and strategic intent. Who knows, maybe even green fees will drop a few dollars. Wouldn't that be a better, more realistic national standard rather than the fantasy of Augusta National?

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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