When you tee off at Oldfield Golf Club near Hilton Head Island, you'll see beautiful Lowcountry vistas filled with all sorts of wildlife.
"I like to think of golf as a holistic experience," says Marvin Bouknight, on-site naturalist at the Greg Norman-designed course near Okatie. "I love hearing (golfers) say, ‘This is one of the most beautiful golf courses,' but then also ‘I saw a bald eagle today.' " Bouknight says his goal is to get people to the point where they appreciate their surroundings as much as the game they are playing.
Oldfield is one of about 30 South Carolina properties committed to maintaining a golf-nature balance through certification by Audubon International's Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses. More than 800 courses worldwide are certified, all having met Audubon standards in five environmental areas: chemical use, reduction and safety; water conservation; water quality management; wildlife and habitat management; and outreach and education.
Keeping courses more natural has a side benefit: the presence of all manner of native flora and fauna. "Our (golf course) yardage book reads like a field guide," Bouknight says. "It'll say, ‘On this hole you see wood storks in trees to the right' or ‘red foxes can be seen on this hole.' It makes for an enjoyable walk."
Bouknight often tells people, "Come on a nature walk with me, and you'll see more birdies and eagles than on the golf course."
Over at Kiawah Island Resort, the famed Ocean Course management has always embraced their wild, marshy surroundings. "It's like Jurassic Park out there with alligators, pelicans. If you create a healthy ecosystem, you have all the wildlife that goes with it," course superintendent Jeff Stone says.
During a round at the Ocean Course, "I guarantee you'll see blue herons, night herons, egrets - and we see deer at least six of seven days on the course. Eagles, ospreys ... everything except buffalo," Stone says.
Bouknight believes courses that are friendly to both nature and golfers are the future of the industry. "People are part of the problem, but also part of the solution," he says. "I'd rather appeal to their curiosity, not beat them over the head (about environmentalism.)"
In many cases, certification can even be profitable. Courses mow less turf, leaving border areas to grow up and thus saving on fuel and labor. Targeted use of herbicides instead of broad spraying reduces runoff into streams and ponds, and computerized sprinkler systems cut water use - again, saving money. Borders of native grasses along streams and ponds serve as natural filters for any runoff.
"At first, you assume it costs more, but if you get a good program in place, it really doesn't," says Jay Gratton, superintendent at Old Tabby Links on Spring Island, near Oldfield. "Overall, I think a lot of things we do, the benefits outweigh any additional costs. I think people want it, too."
Such a focus on the environment wasn't the golf norm 30 years ago. Then, most courses (and players) wanted vast spreads of pristine, manicured grass - the "Augusta National" look - rather than rustic terrain. But in recent years, concerns over pollution and costs have changed that.
"Golf has kind of gotten away from what we saw in the 1980s when everyone wanted ‘country-club pure,' grass wall to wall," Kiawah's Stone says. "We try to have a lot of natural areas, dunes, and the course isn't as green because we cut back on nitrogen. We're back more to the Scottish links style, where a little brown doesn't hurt. I haven't heard any complaints."
The Ocean Course, site of the 2012 PGA Championship, has been Audubon certified since 1999; its sister resort courses have been certified since 2005. "When (architect Pete) Dye built the Ocean Course in 1990-91, water was a limited resource," Stone says. "Our back nine is all recycled water, with irrigation back to a central drainage system and pumped back to use on the course. We monitor water and wells all around the golf course, and DHEC monitors water sources to make sure there are no nitrates in runoff getting into that water supply."
Noel Buchanan, superintendent at Rock Hill-area Springfield and Fort Mill golf courses, takes a similar approach to those of his Lowcountry peers. "We took areas out of play and let them go natural, cut them once a year," he says. "That cuts down on mowing, fertilizing and watering, which was a big step. Some (golfers) want it to look like a park, all mowed down to one height. Others, I think, understand what we're doing."
Balancing golf and nature, though, can be a delicate art. "There's a line," Buchanan says. "You've got to keep up a pace of play, not hinder the golfer. If they hit it into grass five feet high, they're not happy." He laughs, "We make it so they have to hit a really bad shot (to do that)."