golf course

Driving Golf into the Future

Science of the Green takes a shot at environmental and economic sustainability


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Picture a golf course.

Is it perfectly lush and emerald green?

Brian Horgan at golf course

Brian Horgan, third from left, shares his vision for the golf courses of the future.

That lush, emerald green golf course has come under some scrutiny. As with any managed landscape, golf courses require inputs like water, fertilizer and pesticides. With rising environmental and economic pressures, can these inputs be minimized? Can we do better for the environment and golf industry?

Brian Horgan, professor in the Department of Horticultural Science and Extension specialist, thinks so. He leads a research and renovation initiative called Science of the Green. The research and education team's goal is to address the golf industry's need for long-term agronomic, economic and environmental sustainability.

The timing is right for this initiative. Of the more than 15,000 golf courses in the United States today, about 4,000 are due for renovation. That includes the university's own 150-acre Les Bolstad Golf Course located between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

With Horgan at the helm, and to the delight of the industry, Science of the Green is taking a leadership role to help determine what's next for the golfing world.

"It's what we do best as a university and that's to identify, study, evaluate, teach, disseminate, and then ask the next set of questions," says Horgan.

A Living Laboratory

As part of this initiative, Les Bolstad Golf Course will be renovated into a living laboratory using privately raised funds through the University of Minnesota Foundation. And yes, it will most likely still be a fully-functioning golf course.

"A living laboratory is something that can be manipulated in scale and fail," Horgan explains. "In research, a 'failure' is disproving a hypothesis; it is just part of research. In the real world, failure costs jobs, money and resources. What the university can do is demonstrate and implement research at Les Bolstad on a functioning golf course."

A living laboratory is also a critical teaching tool. The public will play on the renovated course and see the different grass species and maintenance practices firsthand. So will decision makers from other golf courses who can use the research to make renovation decisions.

"The surface doesn't have to be perfect to enjoy the game, and often times we get so caught up in the perfection that we forget why we're out there," says Horgan. "How do we provide a fully functional golf course that isn't as impactful as in the past?"

He cites the 2014 US Open in Pinehurst, North Carolina. The course didn't look like what we're used to, but it played well and functioned appropriately. It did so with less water, fertilizer and pesticides.

The golf course of the future might even lead to fewer strokes for an amateur golfer—due to a less water-saturated fairway that allows the ball to bounce and continue (hopefully) toward the hole.

Golf's draw

The smell of fresh-cut grass. The dew. The birdsong. The sun rise. Horgan got his start in golf in the bag room for a country club in Maryland. He became envious of the grounds crew, already at work when he arrived at 6 a.m.

Soon he was on that maintenance crew. It started him on his journey of where he is today: driving golf to be more sustainable.

—Maggie Frazier