After the searing drought of 2012, it's simply not possible to walk onto the stunning Omaha Country Club golf course without marveling at the water and chemicals that must be needed to feed this cathedral of green.
Golf courses can have voracious appetites.
Nowadays, though, it's an appetite that is increasingly being reined in, said Dan Hubbard, assistant director of communications for the U.S. Golf Association.
And looks can be deceiving, as is the case at the Omaha Country Club course, where manicured greens blend seamlessly into the unruly, woodsy fringe of the course.
The golf industry realized as far back as the 1980s that water scarcity will increasingly threaten the sustainability of the sport, Hubbard said.
Working with research institutions such as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the USGA is developing new strains of grasses to cut down on the need for water, herbicides, pesticides and labor.
And it is working directly with course managers to change their mind-set on the maintenance and look of courses so they will be more sustainable, he said.
A UNL-USGA partnership in place since 1984 has focused on taking the nation's only native grass — hardy, drought-tolerant buffalo grass — and breeding it into something that is even more utilitarian and attractive.
That partnership and other changes within the industry have been paying off, according to Hubbard and officials at UNL, the Omaha Country Club and other area courses.
Eric McPherson, director of green and grounds at the Omaha Country Club, said the course plans to test UNL's buffalo grass this fall, now that the U.S. Senior Open is over.
In the meantime, he ticked off some of the actions already underway at the course:
» Converting some of the grasses, including areas with bent, rye and bluegrass, to tall fescue, which stands up to heat and humidity well and requires less water.
» Creating naturalized areas by converting some areas from irrigated to nonirrigated.
|See an interactive map with multiple aerial views of Omaha Country Club and its surrounding areas.|
» Reducing overall mowing acreage by 6 percent to 8 percent, which also saves water and energy.
» Increasing the use of spot watering, which is more efficient than blanket-watering with sprinklers.
» Installing a new water pumping station, which saves on electricity.
Many of those practices have been replicated at other golf courses, said Kimberly S. Erusha, managing director of the USGA's Green Section.
Erusha, the USGA's top agronomist, said the Omaha Country Club is among those courses nationally that have embraced more functional, efficient systems.
Take the tall fescue that has been planted in out-of-play areas.
Fescue, she said, has deeper, more extensive roots than the rye and Kentucky bluegrass that had been planted there. As a result it can reach deeper for water and last longer through drought. It's also better able to handle this area's humidity, and it requires less mowing.
And then there's the balance between trees and greens.
In some of its stands of towering trees, the Omaha Country Club has pruned away lower limbs and removed undergrowth and smaller trees. Aesthetically this has contributed to sweeping vistas. But it also allows more sunlight to filter through the trees and improves the air flow, both of which are necessary for healthy grass.
In tree areas away from the heart of the course, underbrush has been allowed to grow into dense, natural areas.
McPherson describes golf as an outdoor game played on natural landscape. One of his goals is to encourage habitat that allows wildlife to co-exist with humans.
Golfers at the Omaha Country Club may encounter deer, turkeys, foxes and the usual menagerie of rabbits, squirrels, ducks and songbirds.
Erusha, an Iowan now living in New Jersey, was among the visitors to the course who remarked on the turkeys she saw.
“These natural areas are excellent for wildlife, and that's why we see turkeys on the course,” she said.
Erusha said the USGA's commitment to research goes back to 1920.
“We've recognized that we have to stay ahead of the issues,” she said. “You have to put money into research.”
In recent decades the organization has spent $40 million on research, including nearly $2 million at UNL. And it's over that period that water has emerged as a chief concern.
At UNL, Keenan Amundsen, assistant professor of turf grass, said USGA-UNL research into buffalo grass also benefits consumers, because it results in improved varieties becoming available to the general public.
“We've really improved the turf-type buffalo grasses,” Amundsen said. “We've (bred) for color, canopy density, how good it forms sod, how quickly it establishes.”
The Dakota Dunes Country Club is testing UNL's buffalo grass on an acre of the course that was damaged in the flood of 2011.
Justin Arlt, the PGA pro at the South Dakota course, said the partnership with UNL will help eliminate what could have been an eyesore.
“If this goes well, it's something we would probably include in other areas of our golf course,” Arlt said. “And I can see other courses doing this. Any time you can do something natural with a new type of buffalo grass, there's a definite benefit to nature.”
The key to moving forward will be the acceptance and support of golfers themselves.
Erusha sees that happening already.
“Fashions change over time. Even golfers' perceptions of what a course should look like change over time,” she said.
The pendulum is swinging away from the time when courses had to be mowed from edge to edge, perfectly manicured.
“We need to continue moving the pendulum in that direction,” she said, “so that it's OK to have naturalized areas and it's OK to have some blemishes as long as the playing quality is good.”
World-Herald staff writer Marjie Ducey contributed to this report.