/ 6 December 2004

How green is your golf course?

As more and more golf developments spring up around the country, serious questions are being asked about their impact on the local fauna and flora.

Conservationists are quick to point out how much water one golf course uses, and local government in the Western Cape is already drafting legislation to control the growth of new golf course developments in a province where water is a scarce commodity.

In the United States, the US Golf Association regularly prints books for the local golf industry on topics such as bird conservation and water management on golf courses. And, for the most part, golf course designers are acutely aware of the sensitive ecologies in which they sometimes operate.

‘Golf is not only about scoring,” says golf course designer Peter Matkovich. ‘It is a walk in the park, the environment. The character of the course should create a natural and tranquil enjoyment of its own. The animals, insects, birds and the trees should score as much as birdies and pars.”

Sabine Baring-Gould, who has worked with Matkovich in creating some of the finest layouts in Africa over the past 15 years, believes golf course designers are being unfairly singled out in the environmental debate.

‘A golf course is man interacting successfully with nature. It’s a big frustration for us that golf courses are perceived to be bad environmentally. We work the ground once and then cover it with grass, and we use only 10% of the fertiliser utilised in the growing of crops.

‘Peter [Matkovich] is a big believer that golf is not just about the game. For him, marrying the course with nature is critical.”

Nick Price, a relative newcomer to the design field, also has strong views on balancing golf with nature. ‘Our overriding design philosophy is to allow the land to dictate how our golf courses will look and play,” he says. ‘These natural settings and the flow of the land is the genesis for everything else we do on the property.

‘It is our intention to design a golf course that will blend seamlessly with the existing property — by incorporating native trees and grasses throughout the golf course.”

Gary Player, who has designed hundreds of golf courses around the world, is a staunch environmentalist and has often said water will in the future become more precious than gold in Africa. He says: ‘The course should enhance the environment. Natural features of the landscape such as trees, streams and terrain variations are incorporated to create balance, beauty and harmony.

‘Where the natural environment has been changed, every effort is made to reintroduce indigenous trees, grasses and water masses to attract birds and wildlife to the area.”

This green initiative in the game is being embraced by the entire golf community worldwide.

In September 1997, Europe launched the ‘Committed to Green” initiative, supported by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and the European Tour. The initiative works on the premise that sound environmental policies are good for the future of golf and a set of environmental performance indicators is used to measure the impact of golf course development on the environment.

The US Golf Association has its own Green Section which operates along similar lines, providing detailed articles and extensive research papers for the industry on anything from turf management to sharing a golf course with raptors.

In 2002, the US Golf Association funded an Executive Summary on the Environmental Impact of Golf, noting that ‘golf courses are only as sustainable as their weakest component”.

The South African Golf Association is a member of the ‘Committed to Green” initiative and has developed an environmental programme aimed at the conservation of nature and natural resources for the benefit of the game in this country.

Even consumer golf magazines now run regular features educating the public about how a golf course can successfully interact with the environment. Tips include leaving dead trees on the course as they provide nesting sites for birds and animals; players cleaning and disinfecting their golf spikes so as not to deposit foreign weeds on a course which will therefore require chemicals to kill; and leaving interconnected sections of unmowed rough in out-of-play areas, which helps wildlife traverse the course in relative safety.

Golf courses can provide sanctuary for birds, reptiles and all manner of wildlife. As a rule, golfers are quite an agreeable bunch and tend to live in harmony with the creatures of the field that share the fairways.

England’s Silverdale Golf Course was home to one of only two living specimens of Britain’s rarest orchid, the lady’s slipper, before it was nicked recently.

Royal Birkdale, the host of the 1998 Open Championship, produced an entire booklet detailing the many plants and creatures that made the links their home.

South Africa’s golf courses are also fine havens for wildlife.

On its two golf courses, Sun City has always provided the golfer with far more than just a birdie or two. The Gary Player Country Club is famous for its snakes. During the Nedbank Golf Challenge one year, a television cameraman was rushed to hospital after a spitting cobra spat in his eye while he tried to film it on one of the fairways. The local caddies are also all well aware that to venture too deep into the rough in search of a golfer’s ball could be the ultimate handicap this game has to offer.

Baboons are also frequent visitors to the Gary Player Country Club, while an elephant was once spotted strolling in the rough, although it did belong to the Miss World Pageant.

Up on the hill, the Lost City Golf Course has a crocodile pit alongside the par-three 13th hole. These ancient reptiles spend their days sunning themselves and hoping for a quick take-away should any golfer be foolish enough to go in search of a golf ball. They very nearly got exactly this during the Dimension Data Pro-Am one year when professional Graeme Francis, after hitting his tee shot into the pit, decided to jump in quickly and play his second on to the green, not wasting time on a practice swing. But his death-defying feat was lost on the Rules Officials, who promptly disqualified him.

And then there was the American tourist who, after a round in which he also ventured into the pit, said to the local pro: ‘Those crocodiles sure look lifelike.” He went pale when told they were real.

Hans Merensky Country Club on the border of the Kruger National Park is another famous wildlife venue. Animals from the nearby nature reserve regularly wander on to the course, and golfers have witnessed lion kills on the green in front of them, while other more unfortunate souls have been trampled to death by provoked elephants.

Local professional Chris Williams earned himself the nickname ‘wild dog” for once chasing after a pack of wild dogs as they held up play during a tournament. During another professional event there, the siren sounded calling golfers into the clubhouse after lions were spotted on the back nine. The king of the jungle is not too amenable to being told, ‘Get off my line.”

Crocodiles and hippos in water hazards ensure that reaching in to retrieve your expensive golf ball can literally cost you an arm and a leg.

The Leopard Creek Country Club just outside Nelspruit also borders the Kruger National Park and boasts its fair share of snakes, monkeys, baboons. Rumour has it there’s a leopard there as well. There’s also Harry the Hippo, a resident in one of the dams on the course. The nearby Malelane Golf Club has more than one resident hippo wandering about.

In Jo’burg, golfers are blessed with courses that offer city dwellers an escape from the smog and traffic.

Glendower Golf Club was declared a nature reserve in 1973 and is endowed with an abundance of natural vegetation and birdlife, including a stunning variety of water birds.

Glenvista Country Club is home to the goliath heron, while Irene Country Club in Pretoria winds its way past a dairy farm, giving the golfer an interesting gallery of cows on some holes.

Also in Pretoria, the Woodhill Country Club is home to a troop of vervet monkeys who are cared for by the estate’s Friends of the Vervet Money Association. Guinea fowl, plovers and meerkats also wander the fairways.

Silver Lakes Country Club, located on the outskirts of the country’s capital city, has an angling club which gathers every Monday to fish for bass in the lakes there.

The beleaguered Jukskei River runs through the Dainfern Estate, and much has been done to try to clean up this river.

Durban Country Club’s par-three 15th hole has some resident pelicans nesting in the trees left of the tee, while the nearby Beachwood course meanders its way through the mangrove swamps so typical of KwaZulu-Natal.

Both Selborne Country Club and Zimbali teem with buck and have a host of birdlife on their courses, while Zimbali is said to have a five-metre long python residing near one of its dams.

And what would the Knysna Golf Club be without a chance meeting with the famed Knysna loerie?

Crowned plovers are probably the most common site on most golf courses in South Africa, particularly the Jo’burg layouts where they jealously guard their eggs and where, even when the world’s best tee up in major events like the Dunhill championship at Houghton Golf Club, they are given right of way, with cordons round their nests. Club golfers are given a free drop if their ball lands too close to a nest.

Houghton Golf Club is a proclaimed bird sanctuary featuring Egyptian geese, guinea fowl, dikkops and many waterfowl.

Fynbos is a protected resident on most Cape golf courses. Erinvale, with an abundance of Egyptian geese, has an environmentally sensitive area to the left of the 16th hole which cost Jean Hugo a South African Open title when he was not allowed to play his ball from this area and had to take a penalty drop.

Also in the Cape, Clovelly Golf Club is home to the pheasant, peacock and steppe buzzard, while Arabella Golf Club borders the largest natural lagoon in Southern Africa.