His swing may be stiff, sometimes slicing into trees rather than sailing onto the green, but this college professor understands golf courses as well as Tiger Woods. You can see his influence in the work of his former students, a “Who’s Who” of superintendents throughout the Pacific Northwest, overseeing links and landscapes from Bandon Dunes to Pebble Beach and winning awards for environmental stewardship. Tom Cook has taught a generation of golf superintendents how to keep greens fast and make a golf course look wild and natural. And now his students are making golf courses more environmentally “green” than ever.
There was a time not long ago when the biggest hazards on golf courses were thought to be the chemicals doused on greens and fairways to make them look like eternal spring, always green, blooming and blemish-free. Cook is helping to rebuild the swing of American golf courses. His passion is to make sure each golf course, from destination resort to municipal links, serves its purpose with beauty, function, and environmental integrity.
Golf has always been connected to its environment, even when the game was played on the moors of Scotland with a bent stick and a leather ball stuffed with feathers. The courses in those days were open fields of grass and heather, tended by the occasional sheep. The modern game of golf spread throughout the world, and today the golf industry contributes more than $60 billion to the U.S. economy each year.
As the popularity of the game in the United States grew through the 20th century, so did the artifice of the golf course landscape. The lush gardens of Augusta National replaced the windswept moors of Scotland as a model for golf course design, even in the driest environments. By the 1980s, golf courses were suspected of being toxic gardens, dependent on a lethal cocktail of chemicals and heavy irrigation to keep them unnaturally green. Federal regulators commissioned a few studies to assess the impact of turf chemicals on water quality, but the studies found relatively minor impact from golf course runoff. However, many golf course superintendents took up the challenge to improve their game in terms of environmental quality and to swing the public perception in golf’s favor.
“They saw that their industry was on the hot seat, and they saw it was to their advantage to demonstrate good stewardship,” Cook said. Suddenly, there was more to golf course management than keeping the grass green.
A more environmental approach to turf management came into full swing in 2001, when the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America joined with partners including Audubon International, an organization dedicated to environmental and community sustainability, to incorporate environmental stewardship into the design, construction, and maintenance of golf courses.
Many graduates of the turf management program at Oregon State University became early adopters of environmental stewardship in golf course management. Take Tony Lasher, for example, golf superintendent at the Resort at the Mountain, next door to the Mt. Hood National Forest near Welches, Oregon. The resort built its first nine holes in 1928, long before the adjacent Sandy River earned its Wild and Scenic designation and the neighboring forest was preserved as the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness Area. Much of Lasher’s work as superintendent has been to restore the ecosystem processes that connect river and forest.
“When you’re this close to nature, you have an obligation to preserve it,” Lasher said. “While this is obviously a golf course, it’s also part of a larger ecosystem.” In 1995, Lasher began work with federal and state agencies to restore a side channel of the Sandy River that had been cut off when the river was dredged 40 years earlier.
“We opened the blocked channel and within eight days, we had coho moving into the stream,” Lasher said. Since then, Lasher’s crew has removed an old culvert that interfered with salmon passage, expanded the wetland with native trees and shrubs, and created pools for young coho to spend their first year or two before heading to the ocean. This and other work earned the course recognition as a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary and an “It’s Not Easy Being Green” award from the Portland Visitor’s Association, among other environmental awards.
“We’ve had our skeptics, but one by one, they’ve seen what we’re doing and they’ve become our partners,” Lasher said.
Lasher and several more of Cook’s former students are part of the new Northwest Golf Course Environmental Alliance. The alliance certifies courses that follow strict environmental guidelines, including programs for integrated pest management, limited fertilization and irrigation, and enhancing water quality and wildlife habitat. Certified golf courses are required to test their surface water at least twice a year to reveal if fertilizers or pesticides are running into the water. Finally, courses are required to work with the local community, such as on watershed councils, birding tours, or education for school children.
“We’re expecting a lot more from golf courses than ever before,” said Cook, “and these guys are meeting the challenge.”
Take Russ Vandehey, superintendent of the Oregon Golf Club in West Linn, Oregon, for example. A 1986 graduate of the OSU turf management program, Vandehey has won awards for his environmental work five years in a row. “Golf courses don’t need to be sterile expanses of overwatered grass,” Vandehey said. “They can be healthy habitat for wildlife as well as challenging courses for golf.”
Vandehey not only reduced the amount of fertilizers, pesticides, and water he uses, he’s reduced the amount of turf he manages on the course. “We’ve let more than 30 acres grow into a tall-grass prairie-type habitat along the fairways,” he said. “We’ve put up bat houses and bird boxes, including 38 bluebird nest boxes that are monitored daily during the nesting season.” In addition, Vandehey has restored a small wetland so convincingly that beavers have moved in from the river. There, several young trees with fresh chew marks stand half-submerged in the beavers’ new pond. “Now we’re thinking we might be able to reintroduce western pond turtles,” Vandehey said.
The mantra among some environmental advocates is that brown grass plays as well as green grass, although, for much of the year in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the grass on and off the course is emerald green. Winter brings plenty of rain, which encourages green grass as well as gray mold, yellow moss, and white fungus. Summer means three months of drought.
“It’s not easy to find a grass that’s going to thrive in flood and drought,” Cook said, although he’s been testing seed mixes that do just that. He’s even developed an “ecology mix” alternative for homeowners, a carpet of low-growing flowers and herbs that requires very little water or mowing throughout the dry summer, yet stays soft under bare feet.
Cook has had a long fascination with growing grass. “I started mowing lawns when I was 12, but I didn’t realize you could actually study the stuff,” he said. Urged on by a state Extension agent in Washington, Cook took up agronomy and soil science in college, and came to Oregon State University in 1977 to develop a turf and landscape program in the Department of Horticulture. Since then, he’s helped test grass mixes that stay looking good even when “starved and bone-dry,” making it possible to trim the use of chemicals and conserve water.
Cook maintains five acres of experimental plots and a putting green at OSU’s Lewis-Brown Farm, where his students can test new ideas. “Students can kill all the grass they want there, and they won’t get fired,” Cook laughed. “There they can experiment and make mistakes and see what works and what doesn’t.
“Science is essential to understanding how soil, water, plants, and animals work together, but it’s important to have practical experience managing all those elements together,” he said. “These students become experimenters and problem-solvers. And they’re dedicated. More than 80 percent of our graduates since 1977 have stayed in the golf business.”
Tom Cook is quick to credit his former students for working to make golf course management on par with environmental sustainability.
There’s a clear hierarchy of skills in golf course maintenance, from the entry level labor crew operating mowers, top dressers, and other specialized equipment to the technical positions managing turf and irrigation. From there, people move up to assistant superintendent, “the quarterback of the team,” as Cook describes them, making daily assignments and working on the course every day to make sure it all happens. “The superintendent is the head coach, responsible for a maintenance budget that can run upwards to $1.5 million. The most successful superintendents have come through the system and know the work of everyone on the staff.”
Golf superintendents would seem to live a charmed life, puttering around putting greens with unlimited access to one of the world’s most popular pastimes.
“Actually, not many of them are great golfers,” Cook said. “A golf course is like a showcase garden. There is pressure to look perfect, every day in every season. You want it to look good when company comes, and company comes a lot. Mostly these guys all share a love for the environment they work in. And some of these courses are beautiful.”
Cook’s office is lined with photos from some of the courses managed by his former students. For many, there’s state-of-the-art environmental stewardship behind the picture-postcard beauty.
Take Bandon Dunes, for example, which opened in 1999 along Oregon’s southern coast to rave reviews as one of America’s hottest new golf destinations. Troy Russell, a graduate of the OSU turf management program, had grown up on a dairy farm near Bandon and got involved with the golf resort from the beginning. Since then, two more courses have been added to the resort, and colleagues from the OSU program are now Russell’s course superintendents—Eric Johnson at Bandon Dunes and Ken Nice at Bandon Trails.
Before becoming the setting of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, the area had been a seasonal camp for Coos and Coquille Indians, then home to a handful of gold mines, a World-War-II era chromium mine, and a motocross raceway. It had been logged, burned, and overgrown with gorse. In order to be built, the resort was required to meet stringent requirements to protect the area’s water quality and water supply. With fairways threaded through the natural dune landscape, these Scottish-style courses have less turf to tend, water, and fertilize. Four times a year, Russell monitors surface and groundwater in and around all three courses, and he has documented that water flowing out of Bandon Dunes is cleaner than water coming in.
Now Bandon Dunes is the second-largest employer in Coos County, a responsibility that Russell takes seriously. As an example of his community service, Russell volunteers his time and equipment maintaining many of the parks and school playing fields in Bandon.
“Bandon is a small town,” he said. “If you’re going to be here, you’ve got to be involved; you’ve got to care.”
Within a few years of opening the first course, Russell was winning awards for his community service and environmental stewardship at Bandon Dunes. In 2006, Russell won the national Environmental Leaders in Golf Award from Golf Digest and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.
“We’ve kept our promise to the community,” Russell said.
“These guys are walking the talk,” Cook said. And his students are quick to credit their teacher.
“Tom Cook has single-handedly established, by example, education, and research, modern golf course management standards in the Pacific Northwest,” according to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, who recognized Cook with their organization’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, in 2006. Those standards combine the highest environmental stewardship with the best possible experience of the game.
“Tom Cook’s program isn’t fancy,” Russell said. “It’s rock solid. It’s about taking the time to do it right.”