So I'm reading David Owen's look at some of the bold efforts to reduce water consumption by Las Vegas golf courses and thinking about what a joy it is to read a New Yorker-style story in Golf Digest. It's packed with great information, insight and some personal observation from Owen, who has just written a new book titled Green Metropolis.
As the piece progresses he touches on the development of drought resistant grass cultivars and then pretty much tells us that these types of efforts are all nice and stuff, yet...
...there are a few relatively easy answers to some of golf's environmental and economic challenges. UNLV's Dale Devitt made an observation to me about turf replacement that applies to golf's other resource-related issues, too. He said, "When you talk about water savings in a landscape, the big savings don't come so much from changing what you're growing. The big savings come from reducing the size of the landscape."
Well, surely he won't venture into the forbidden land. Don't do it David! You'll never be able to dine in Carlsbad again...
For this past year's U.S. Open, the par-4 seventh hole at Bethpage Black was stretched to 525 yards. The expansion of golf's scale in recent decades has mainly been the result of technological advances in clubs and balls, as well as improvements in player conditioning and swing technique. Those advances have made golf more fun to play, in many ways, but length, in itself, has added little to the game, because advantages in golf are always relative. (Phil Mickelson can hit the ball farther than Tom Watson did in his prime, but so can Tom Watson.)
Yes, but think of the product that's been moved and the subsequent health of the sport! Can't get anymore green than that.
What is indisputably true is that making golf longer has enlarged its environmental and economic footprints: Bigger golf holes require more land, turf, water, fertilizer, fuel, chemicals and maintenance equipment, as well as increasing labor costs, stretching the time required to play, reducing the appeal of walking, and increasing green fees -- and in recent decades all those needs have been magnified by changes in golfers' expectations about acceptable levels of course grooming.
But other than that, the distance chase has been great for the game?
Faster greens and tighter fairways consume more resources and cost more to maintain, and they are more vulnerable to a long list of plant diseases and climate-related stresses; keeping grass uniformly green, in most environments, requires steady chemical intervention, in addition to irrigation.
The most direct way to shrink golf's environmental impact, and to contain its growing costs, would be to shrink golf itself -- in professor Devitt's phrase, to reduce the size of the landscape -- and to re-examine conventional ideas about things like weeds and putting speed. Golf hasn't always been played on 7,500-yard billiard tables.
Wait, did he just suggest we go backwards to move forward?
Many exciting technological advances related to conservation and golf-course maintenance are being developed. But technological innovation alone can't solve all of golf's environmental and economic challenges, and even the most promising-seeming discoveries have a history of carrying unintended consequences and hidden costs. Golf's governing bodies have dithered on the distance question since the early 1990s, but that attitude seems increasingly unsustainable. We can take the initiative in shrinking golf's landscape, or we can allow economic crises and environmental disasters to shrink it for us.
So there you have it, a well known, highly regarded writer in a major golf publication telling us that if the game is going to survive, it's going to have to end the chase for distance, and, un-American of all un-American activities, think about rolling things back in order to survive.
I've asked Mr. Owen to answer a few e-questions about his story and will be posting them Friday.