Pasatiempo Golf Club cuts costs, transforms course

Water conservation regulations have a positive impact on California golf course.

Pasatiempo Golf ClubPaul J. Chojnacky, Superintendent
Pasatiempo Golf Club, Santa Cruz, Calif.

When Dr. Alister MacKenzie roamed the Santa Cruz Mountains in California during the late 1920s, he did not observe lush green turfgrass. Instead, he envisioned a spectacular golf course to be shaped around this unique rolling terrain of native grasses.The golf course design principles MacKenzie used at the Pasatiempo Golf Club highlighted the natural features of the landscape. The practices used to maintain his design were minimal. Nearly a century later, much has evolved in the golf industry. American golf courses now promote wall-to-wall green turfgrass along with tree-lined fairways. Unfortunately, this luxuriant golf course style is not recession-proof. Many courses are now looking at ways to cut costs while still maintaining lush green landscapes.

The greens

Throughout the past century, the city of Santa Cruz, along with many California cities, has been hit with major drought conditions. Significant water use restrictions have been imposed upon business and residential landscapes. California has a dense population. The state's low water availability creates hardships along many fronts. Pasatiempo relies on the city’s water supply for irrigation. Any water use restrictions have a major effect on the presentation of the golf course. Members are accustomed to seeing lush green turfgrass dominating the landscape of their golf courses. A long drought-hampered summer creates a major deterrent in golfer satisfaction. Many players proclaim that if a golf course is green, it must be good. This errant notion impacts the club’s business practices. If the golf course is overly stressed due to drought restrictions, then a golfer's impression of the course may not be positive. Any negative impression could result in a loss of revenue.

The drought

During the most significant drought periods in the club’s history, the fairways were watered from the 150-yard marker to the green complex. That type of approach was used in the late 1990s. Many rough areas dried out until the winter rain season rejuvenated the golf course. In a typical season, the course would receive 40 inches of rain from November-April. During the worst droughts, the course would receive around 17 inches of rain in the same time period.

The latest round of drought restrictions resulted in major changes to the golf course. Because of specific city-imposed restrictions in 2009, nearly 20 acres of previously irrigated turfgrass had been converted to non-irrigated naturalized areas. These out-of-play areas have been strategically identified throughout the property. The goal was to have native California grasses dominate the landscape again. This change restored the look and feel of the old MacKenzie design and added a dynamic contrast of lush green playable areas against the golden brown naturalized areas. The transformation of the golf course into the more rugged and natural look has slowly been embraced by the majority of club members.

Improving the course despite water restrictions

While the main reason for the change in landscape stems from the imposed water restrictions, this is how MacKenzie would have envisioned his course. In 2009, the city of Santa Cruz reduced our water usage by 30% from May-November. This change equated to a 17-million gallon reduction when compared to the same timeframe in 2008. The club would save approximately $125,000.

While the majority of playable areas are in fine condition, the difference has been noticed immediately. More than 13.5-million gallons of water were saved from May-September in 2009, compared to the same timeframe last year. This water reduction has saved the club approximately $98,000. In addition to water related savings, the conversion of turfgrass to non-turfgrass natural areas has saved the club an additional estimated amount of $26,000 in labor and expenses.

Out with the old, in the with the new irrigation system

In 2009, Pasatiempo installed a new irrigation system. Because of ever-changing regulations, Pasatiempo explored a variety of water conservation options, including reclaiming water from neighboring towns. Since the price of non-potable water continued to escalate, the additional 12 acres of irrigated turfgrass was converted to naturalized areas. A few years ago Pasatiempo irrigated 100 acres of grass. By the spring of 2010, the course was comprised of 68-acres of irrigated turf. The new irrigation system accounted for these changes. Sprinkler heads were not placed on these 32 acres of native grasses.

The trickle-down effect

Pasatiempo Golf Club

Water conservation takes precedence, but that is not the only positive change to Pasatiempo’s maintenance practices. A switch to a more immunity-based fertility program has helped turfgrass withstand persistent stress and fight off disease. The pressure of stressing out turfgrass to achieve excessively fast green speeds has been replaced by emphasizing overall plant health. Since the implementation of this program in January 2008, there have been 11 fewer fungicide applications as compared to the previous 18 month period. This is beneficial for the club’s environmental efforts as well as its bottom line. Depending upon pest control products used, the club estimates a savings of $22,000. In addition to reducing pesticide use, there has been a tremendous effort to remove invasive plant species such as blackberry and ivy. The removal of these invasive species will allow our native areas to become established quicker. Our efforts will provide additional wildlife habitats on the golf course.

Changes lead to positive results

As the course transforms from wall-to-wall green, the seasonal appearance will become more apparent. The course will resemble the natural California landscape with green in the winter and spring, and golden brown dominating the hillsides and out-of-play areas during the summer and fall. In an industry pressured for cost savings, this is a dramatic shift from the norm. Golf courses can be more marketable during these difficult economic times. The industry is changing and the expectations of golfers must change as well. Golf courses throughout the country will soon have to adopt this same concept. The notion that “a green and luxuriant golf course is best” should not reflect upon a golf course’s playability and value. While the City of Santa Cruz played a major role in forcing cutbacks at Pasatiempo, the drought restrictions in 2009 provided valuable insight into what is truly important. Now the playable areas will truly stand out and the environmental changes will benefit the course for decades. MacKenzie would be very proud.

Learn more about the Pasatiempo Golf Club.