Guilt-Free Golf

Chambers Bay saves on water and chemicals, but hackers need to adjust

  • Rob Perry

    When chambers bay hosts the U.S. Amateur from Aug. 23 to 29, the former mining quarry overlooking Puget Sound — and site of the 2015 U.S. Open — will become the most prominent tool the U.S. Golf Association (USGA) has for teaching the public how to make golf more sustainable. To minimize environmental impact, the dune-swept, Scottish-links-style course in Pierce County, Washington, does without two common features: golf carts and thick carpets of grass.

    "I expected a lush green," local resident Rick Thompson says of the first time he played on the beautiful but brownish Chambers Bay, which opened in 2007. "The course looked somewhat neglected."

    Thompson, like many other visitors, eventually discovered that the municipally owned course is a leader in the golf sustainability movement. Its 85 acres (34 hectares) of turf are covered with fescue grass, which requires less watering — half that of nonfescue courses — less mowing and smaller amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. While the grass is not a good fit for every climate, it works well in northern Europe and the Pacific Northwest — although Chambers Bay decided it was too delicate to handle being trampled by golf carts. (Cue the caddy-job-creation program.)

    The course also has 74 acres (30 hectares) of dunes and 91 acres (37 hectares) of bunkers, features that need almost no maintenance. "There is no irrigation, no fertilizer, no chemicals, nothing," Larry Gilhuly, a USGA sustainability expert, says of the dunes. Plus, the sandy soil, which drains freely, allows the course to retain all storm water on-site.

    From a player's perspective, however, fescue is firmer turf that makes the contours of the ground less forgiving than softer, resource-hogging grasses. "This is a different kind of golf for North America," says Josh Lesnik, president of KemperSports, the group managing the course. "Some number of people just don't get it."

    Still, KemperSports, which charges up to $175 per round, tries to please patrons' aesthetic tastes while staying true to sustainability. Course superintendent David Wienecke is constantly adjusting chemical levels, playing with mowing heights and hand-pulling weeds.

    "So much of perception is based off television, and that leads to courses' trying to look perfect," says Robert Trent Jones Jr., who runs the California-based firm that designed Chambers Bay as well as other eco-oriented courses, including one in Dubai that irrigates its paspalum grass with a mixture of saltwater and treated waste. "In reality, golf started along the sea with grasses that were gray, purple, green and brown." Indeed, Scottish courses originated on shoreline land deemed unsuitable for farming.

    The USGA is highlighting Chambers Bay in hopes that the general public will start to appreciate Scottish-style golf. Says Jim Hyler, USGA president: "We need to understand how brown can become the new green."