Canadian Consulting Engineer

The Engineering of Golf Courses

June 1, 2006
By Bronwen Parsons

Chances are that instead of reading this article you would much rather be standing in the fresh air, holding a long stick with an appendage on the end, ready to hit a small white sphere as far as you...

Chances are that instead of reading this article you would much rather be standing in the fresh air, holding a long stick with an appendage on the end, ready to hit a small white sphere as far as you can down a swath of green grass.

The game of golf is hundreds of years old, but its popularity (not least among consulting engineers) is at an all-time high. Statistics Canada reported in April that operating revenues for golf courses and country clubs had “soared” in 2004. Their operating revenues rose 15.1% above those of the previous year, standing at $2.3 billion. New golf courses are being carved out of the landscape everywhere. There are approximately 2,500 existing golf courses in Canada with 20 to 25 new ones opening every year. And around the world, even in poor and desert countries, the cultivation of these large and expensive playgrounds is spreading.

Golf courses may take pains to look natural, but like any land development they require a good deal of engineering. The long fairway of sweet smelling turf, the babbling brooks and ponds, the bridges and paths, and finally the polished bowl of the putting green, are a product of science and human manipulation. And the big challenge facing golf course owners is also an engineering issue: how to reduce their impact on the environment and manage their use of water.

A niche market

Engineering for golf courses is a niche market, and most of the consulting engineers we spoke to have been in the business between 15 and 20 years.

Dave Brouillette, P.Eng. of Pinestone Engineering, for example, is based in Gravenhurst, Ontario in the Muskoka region. About 20% of the firm’s work is related to resorts and golf courses. Brouillette describes their typical role: “Our scope of services generally includes the preparation of stormwater management plans, construction mitigation measures and environmental controls, site grading, on-site sewage and water systems, applications for water taking permits, access roads, and parking.”

Perhaps even more than on other types of projects, golf course engineers are conscious that they are only one player on a larger team: “It might be a cliche,” says Chris Crozier, P.Eng. of Crozier & Associates in Collingwood, Ontario, “But when golf courses are proposed it truly is a multi-disciplinary team that you need. You have an architect, an engineer, an environmental consultant who’s a specialist maybe in fish, another one who might be a specialist in wetlands, or terrestrial biology. All these people have to integrate their work.”

In a sector where the goal is to recreate “nature,” the engineer’s work has to be virtually invisible. Douglas Clark, P.Eng., senior land development engineer with Morrison Hershfield in Calgary, has engineered golf courses for the past 15 years. He explains: “The golf course architects I’ve dealt with have always said to me, ‘If you do your job as an engineer perfectly on a golf course, no-one will ever know that you’ve been there. Nobody wants to see big square things like pump stations.'”

Doug Carrick of Carrick Design in Toronto is a well-known Canadian course architect who is pleased with his working relationships with engineers. “We’ve been fortunate to work with some very good engineering firms,” he says. “They’ve given us good advice. And it really is a collaborative effort getting these projects approved and built.”

Greens against the greens

Just as golfers began flocking to the tees in droves during the 1980s and 1990s, environmentalists began to voice their alarm. Courses cover such large tracts of land, it’s not surprising that conservationists are on their case. The average golf course property in Canada is 150 acres, of which 75 to 100 acres is for play. Fairways are getting longer; thanks to improved balls and clubs, golfers are hitting the ball farther and the ideal total yardage for play has gone from 6,500 to 7,500 in the past 10 years.

According to a report by the U.S. Air Force Golfing Association, environmentalists launched a frontal campaign during the 1980s: “The general public increasingly was led to believe that golf courses ‘spoil pristine wetlands, forests and meadows, and that golf leaves little more than a legacy of lethal chemicals, poisoned underground water supplies, and dead fish, birds, mammals, snakes and reptiles.'” 1

The environmentalists’ outcry has levelled off to a low hum, but just two years ago the WorldWatch Institute published an article “Planet Golf” with a list of startling statistics. They compared, for example, the use of pesticides on golf courses with agriculture (18 lbs. per acre per year on average, compared to 2.7 lbs. per acre).2 These kinds of comparisons are grossly simplistic, but they are dramatic enough to make their point with the general public.

In response, golf course developers have had to become much more serious about environmental stewardship. It’s the biggest change to overtake the industry. Teri Yamada, managing director of government relations at the Royal Canadian Golf Association (RCGA), says that golf courses are now held to a much higher environmental standard than she’s seen in her 20 years in the business.

Her association has developed a set of guidelines. In selecting the site, for example, the developer should avoid agricultural land and respect unique wetlands and sensitive natural areas. The RCGA guidelines also advise maintaining a vegetative buffer zone of at least 10 metres adjacent to all watercourses to filter out fertilizers and pesticides from stormwater run-off.

The use of chemicals to keep the turf healthy and free of weeds is perhaps the most contentious environmental issue. Research into alternative controls is being done at the Turf Grass Institute at the University of Guelph. Rob Witherspoon, the director at Guelph, explains that responsible courses today also practise “integrated pest management,” which involves close monitoring and focused treatment rather than blanket chemical spraying.

Clark’s team at Morrison Hershfield in Calgary has developed a protocol specifically to help golf courses deal with the legacy of mercury-based fungicides. Once commonly used on greens, the fungicide Calo-chlor is banned now but its mercury content accumulated in soils. The metal either has to be contained on site under strict controls, or disposed off-site at great expense.

The zenith of environmental credentials is to be certified by the Audubon Signature Program. This Kentucky-based organization provides expert help in planning new courses. For existing golf courses there is the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program which has approved around 30 Canadian courses. Three owned by the Vancouver Parks Board, Fraserview, Langara and McCleery, announced their certification just in March.

Wet n’ Dry

The most important area of collaboration between the architect and the engineer in planning a course is over drainage and irrigation. As Crozier explains: “The architect has all these beautiful, great ideas and we’re trying to rein him in a little bit, and say, here’s how we’re going to manage the water. The other significant issue that we get involved in is finding a suitable and sustainable water supply that irrigates the golf course.”

With as many as 3,000 sprinkler heads per golf course, water use is an economic as well as an environmental issue. Permits to extract water are becoming difficult to obtain, and the supply comes with a cost. Consequently, ponds are no longer just aesthetic and playing features, but are engineered to gather and store run-off for irrigation.

Already golf courses have computerized weather stations linked to sensors around the course, so that superintendents can orchestrate the sprinklers to save water. For the future, Witherspoon at the University of Guelph says researchers are working on computerized devices that could be attached to mowing machines. They would use ground-penetrating radar to read moisture conditions in the soil.

In the semi-arid areas of North America water golf courses are increasingly relying on recycled wastewater for irrigation. In southern Alberta, for example, Clark of Morrison Hershfield worked on a golf course that irrigated its greens with treated wastewater from a sewage treatment plant. The plant collects from 100 homes and a clubhouse.

In the Nevada desert Will Wheeler, P.E. of Stantec designs golf courses for Las Vegas. In a city that relies entirely on Lake Mead for its water and where drought has seen lake levels drop 70 feet since 2000, thirsty golf courses are not the most popular with environmentalists. Consequently wherever possible new golf courses are using recycled water from the wastewater treatment plant.

Bringing the treated wastewater from the sewage treatment plants can be the challenge, Wheeler says. Both plants are at the extreme easterly downhill side of the Las Vegas Valley. It’s a long way to transport water if the golf course is at the city’s western end. However, the city is gradually putting in the infrastructure to distribute the reclaimed water to a greater area.

In many areas of Canada too much moisture can be the problem. Torrential rains that hit cities like Montreal, Calgary and Toronto last summer can put a strain on any course no matter how well its stormwater management system is designed. Courses in Toronto’s Don Valley suffered millions of dollars in damages last August after floods washed away sandtraps, bridges and numerous trees.

But here is where golf courses can score with the environmentalists. In built-up areas, a golf course acts like a sponge, soaking up the rain and gathering up the waters. It also acts like a lung, absorbing the smog-laden air and sending out sweet breaths of oxygen. Its greenery provides respite from sprawling concrete and asphalt. As the Royal Canadian Golf Association argues, with the right vigilance and the right engineering, a golf course can be more of an environmental benefit than a harm.

There are as yet very few ecologically “pure” natural courses in North America that refuse to use pesticides. So rest assured golfers, your ball won’t be striking off dandelions sometime soon. The Royal Canadian Golf Association has decided that it is a matter of balance, about achieving “an equilibrium between maintaining quality playing conditions and a healthy environment.”

1 USAF Golf Course Environmental Management: A Short History of Golf and the Environment.

2 Matters of Scale: Planet Golf. Worldwatch Institute, March/April 2004,


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