Tierra Verde Golf Course
Howard Garrett loves to play golf. And with dozens of courses available in the Dallas–Fort Worth area where he lives, he should have little trouble getting a tee time. But Garrett can be fussy. A landscape architect and organic-gardening expert known to thousands as the "Dirt Doctor," he prefers to play on courses where fungicides and pesticides are used sparingly and where native vegetation is protected, not mowed down. "That can limit my choices," he says.
Fortunately for the radio and television celebrity, the nearby city of Arlington opened Tierra Verde, a new municipal course that meets most of his requirements, four years ago. "Not only is it challenging," says Garrett, "but it may be the best example you can find in these parts of how a golf course should be built and maintained to have the lowest possible impact on the environment."
Like most of the nation’s 26 million golfers, Garrett grew up with the perception that a golf course should look flawless and manicured at all times. For maintenance crews on the nation’s 16,000-plus courses, 900 of which are in Texas, that usually means using enormous amounts of water and chemicals to keep fairways and putting greens free of pests, weeds, and blemishes. In an age where water shortages and pollutants are an increasing cause for concern, what are the alternatives?
In recent years, a new trend in golf course design and upkeep has emerged that is changing the way many architects and greenkeepers plan and maintain their facilities. The trend picked up steam in the mid-1990s, when about 80 representatives of the nation’s golf, environmental, and science communities met in California and hammered out a set of principles for operating courses with a gentler hand. Tierra Verde is one of several golfing sites in the Lone Star State that have since been built or retrofitted with wide swaths of native plants and wildlife habitat, drought-tolerant grasses, and natural integrated pest-control techniques that reduce chemical use. "More and more golf courses are abandoning the ‘mow-it-all, water-it-all’ philosophy and leaving broad areas as natural looking as possible," says Joellen Zeh, staff ecologist for Audubon International (no relation to the National Audubon Society), a nonprofit. The several hundred golf courses that dotted the U.S. landscape by the beginning of the 20th century similarly conformed to the shape of the land. But that all changed after World War II, when innovations in chemistry, construction, and irrigation allowed developers to carve out new courses almost anywhere.
Golfers can still find places where nature thrives alongside manicured fairways and where pollution is minimized by innovative maintenance practices. But how can you determine which courses really are eco-friendly? One way is to check for certification by Audubon International. Since the early 1990s, the New York state–based organization has helped 2,500 U.S. golf courses begin the multi-step process toward certification, which includes improving water conservation, creating wild-life habitat, and finding alternatives to chemicals. To date, almost 370 have completed the rigorous program. "Our goal is to educate golf course superintendents, not regulate them," says Audubon International President Ron Dodson. "Many states don’t require golf course developers to file environmental impact statements. So just to meet our minimum requirements for certification, many courses are doing more than what local, state, or federal agencies need."
In Texas, 11 golf clubs and resorts have received the Audubon International seal of approval, and about 100 more are in varying stages of qualifying for certification. Seven are private clubs or resorts open only to members or guests (see "Where the Golf Is Greener," below.) The following four are open to the public:
Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort, San Antonio
Located away from the noise and bustle of the city, the 6,913-yard, par-72 course meanders through a variety of natural habitats, including creek beds, rolling meadows, tree-shaded plateaus, steep hillsides, and rocky ravines. "About a third of our acreage is left natural, so you’ll see a lot of wildlife as you play," says course superintendent Jimmy Thomas, who has received the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s "Environmental Steward" award three times in the 10 years since the facility opened. To make sure they follow strict local water-conservation mandates, Thomas and his crew rely on a sophisticated computerized irrigation system and on-site weather station that calculates how long each sprinkler should run each day. "We’re not a typical resort course where you hit the ball and easily find it," adds director of golf Charlie Kent. With so many wooded areas with thick underbrush, he notes, "It’s sometimes difficult to get a club on your ball if you do find it. But that’s one reason why it’s fun to play here."
Tierra Verde Golf Club, Arlington
The City of Arlington Parks and Recreation Department worked closely with Audubon International in building a course from the ground up that focused on conserving the site’s existing native vegetation, natural resources, and biodiversity, while also providing a place where nature education programs can be held. As a result, Tierra Verde, which opened in 1998, became the first golf course in Texas to achieve Audubon International Signature status — a category reserved for new projects. The 6,995-yard, par-72 course sits on 250 acres, only 98 of which are covered with turf. "We save a lot of water with this design," says course superintendent Bob Best. A typical course of this size in this area, he notes, would have 120 to 150 acres of maintained turf. Each hole at Tierra Verde is surrounded by native habitats, which serve as sound barriers and natural filters that keep rain runoff from flowing into the course’s creeks. "I really enjoy playing on a course like this where the holes are far apart," saysGarrett. "It adds a sense of beauty to the golfing experience."
Riverside Golf Club, Grand Prairie
Situated along the banks of the scenic Trinity River in the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex, Riverside is a classic links-style course that was built to follow the land’s natural contours. "The staff has established a number of no-spray zones and native-vegetation buffers to protect the river from any potential runoff," says Audubon
The 7,025- yard, par-72 course was also retrofitted with a drainage system that collects excess irrigation water in holding ponds, where it is then recycled. Thirteen of the 18 holes include water hazards that can give golfers fits. "They’re one reason why we’re ranked as the second-most-difficult course to play on in Tarrant County," says Riverside head golf pro Dave Hampton. On the plus side, those water hazards and the river also combine to attract large numbers and varieties of birds. "It’s a remarkable sanctuary for wildlife," adds Zeh.
The Resort Course at La Cantera, San Antonio
Selected by Golf Digest as the nation’s best new public course in 1995 — the year it opened — La Cantera was carved from a limestone quarry located directly over the aquifer that is the city’s main source of fresh water. "We monitor the course carefully to make sure it’s not contaminating the aquifer," says Ruby Perez, a conservation planner with the San Antonio Water System. To avoid that dilemma, adds senior agronomist Brad Hines, "we rely heavily on natural biological controls to maintain healthy grasses." That use of organic fertilizers, combined with an integrated pest-management program that restricts pesticide use, means that La Cantera uses approximately 50 percent fewer pesticides than most other courses in the area. About half of the club’s 400 acres consist of natural woods and wetland habitat, where 59 species of birds and 25 mammals have been identified. The 7,001-yard, par-72 course includes six holes with elevated tees that offer great views of San Antonio. One of them features an unusual rattlesnake-shaped bunker on one side that will challenge even the most experienced player. Its tee sits on a cliff, 80 feet above the fairway.
Mark Wexler is the editorial director of National Wildlife Magazine.