Water Hazard

As one greenkeeper shows, adapting to the drought is just par for his golf course.

Today, though, most of the golf establishments being built are known as "links-style" courses. They are characterized by narrow fairways that conform to the landscape, with designers striving to leave as much native vegetation around the holes and fairways as possible. It's like the difference between Frank Lloyd Wright and Highlands Ranch.

Golf is a business, so it shouldn't be surprising that the change in course styles has not been entirely altruistic. In addition to their slim fairways and topographically friendly layouts, links courses are also typically characterized by the fancy homes that line them. The development of Saddle Rock Golf Course was inspired by the promise of a hefty addition to Aurora's property-tax base when it is built out as an exclusive subdivision. Prices for homes along the course can approach $1 million, and a building lot adjoining the actual course commands an extra $50,000 to $80,000 over a spot more inland.

Yet social pressures have also forced golf courses to adapt. The golf industry had an embarrassing record of waste and pollution, usually in the form of extravagant use not only of water, but also of pesticides and other toxic lawn spreads that infected water tables for miles around. "The environmental movement has had a big impact on us," Blew says.

Joe McCleary takes a ride on the dry side at Saddle Rock Golf Course.
Joe McCleary takes a ride on the dry side at Saddle Rock Golf Course.

One thing that hasn't changed is that golf courses still rely on water, and lots of it. Lyons guesses that Aurora's courses alone use more than 300 million gallons of water a year to keep fairways, tee boxes and putting surfaces green and pristine. So with their thousands of sprinklers per course and huge swaths of immaculate lawn, golf courses are prime targets for public ire when life turns dry.

The industry has discovered conservation, though. The difference between park- and links-style water use shows up most clearly in a course's ratio of irrigated acres to total acres. Aurora Hills, that city's oldest course, was built in the park style in 1968. Its eighteen holes take up about 130 acres -- "all of it irrigated except for the parking lot," says Lyons. Saddle Rock, by comparison, irrigates only 105 of its 240 total acres.

Golfers can still view antiquated ideas of turf management. These days, however, it's usually not on golf courses -- which live and breathe water -- but on the giant lawns surrounding them, whose owners seem to take it for granted.

Denver's Water Department points out that in a year, the average yard sucks down as much water as a family of four. Half of all the water used in Aurora goes toward outdoor use -- "lawn-sprinkling, gardening, things like that," a city worker explains.

Residents of many upscale developments have the same relationship to their lawns as they do to their meat, which somehow makes its way mysteriously from the ranch to small, shrink-wrapped packages without any fuss. Typically, their lawns are mowed, fertilized, watered and groomed by someone else.

An early-morning tour of Saddle Rock reveals several residential sprinkler systems in full spray, oblivious to the cool, moist weather. One home boasts an artificial waterfall. "I'm willing to bet most people here don't even know how to adjust their sprinkler systems," says McCleary, rolling his eyes.

In contrast, the first thing McCleary does each day is check the weather readings. Like many modern courses, Saddle Rock has an on-premises weather station. The most important reading it delivers is the evapotranspiration rate, which, while eye-glazingly complicated in actual calculation, is basically the amount of water lost from soil and plants during a given period.

From that number, McCleary can then calculate how much moisture his course is low. "It's like filling a gas tank," he says. "Whatever has been used up, we replace." Four days ago, the course received a much-appreciated .13 of an inch of rain. Yesterday was the first day the course was watered since then.

Unlike in years past, watering at Saddle Rock is orchestrated largely by computer. Each hole is broken down into eight sections -- green surfaces, approaches, tee box, etc. Those, in turn, are divided up into separate sprinkler heads -- 1,800 throughout the course -- that can be adjusted by volume, time and spraying direction. "We don't water any sidewalks anymore," McCleary says. Employees carry special radios with punch keypads so that they can call in dry areas, which can then be spot-watered.

The holes are lined with native plants: buffalo grass, wheat grasses and the like. These swaths are mowed once a year, in the fall, to simulate the effects of a prairie burn. After that, the plants are left to their own devices. As the drought has progressed, McCleary has let the natural grasses in some areas creep closer into the fairways. Here and there, a hillock or knob is left to fall completely back into its original state. "Does the average golfer notice that?" he asks. "No."

In fact, the biggest complaints have come not from golfers, but from residents whose homes line the course and who apparently moved into their chateaus expecting a vast green lawn for a backyard. "The biggest challenge we've had," McCleary says, "is educating people on what the area between their houses and the fairways will look like."

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