From putting greens to being green

Mike Papineau, superintendent of Eisenhower Golf Course, spearheaded environmental efforts that have earned the course a citation of merit from the Audubon Society.

May 23, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

The average golfer enjoys water about as much as the Wicked Witch of the West in "The Wizard of Oz." Those teeing up at Eisenhower Golf Course, a tree-lined public layout in Crownsville, might have even worse nightmares than the norm.

Thick, native grasses up to 3 feet high surround every creek and pond, reaching toward the sky as though part of a fiendish plot to snag wayward shots.

"I tell the players we have great sales at the pro shop," says course superintendent Mike Papineau in joking reference to the fact that golf courses resell the balls they find in hazards. "Some appreciate it more than others."

It's not that Papineau, a 26-year-old turf specialist, is some kind of golf sadist. No, allowing foliage to grow untouched next to bodies of water aids in establishing root systems that filter out impurities, helping prevent golf course chemicals from entering the surrounding water table.

It's one of many steps Papineau has taken to enhance the eco-friendliness at Eisenhower, one of two courses in Anne Arundel County to be certified as a cooperative sanctuary by the International Audubon Society.

In a sport environmentalists have long scrutinized for its use of chemicals, consumption of water and other issues, groundskeepers have been working hard to reduce the harmful effects of golf courses, and Papineau is an ardent backer of the cause.

"Given our proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, instituting ecologically sound practices is incredibly important," says Papineau, who worked two years to land the honor last August.

Touring the fairways one rainy morning, Papineau pulls his cart over periodically to point out ways in which he and his crew have been turning much of their attention from putting greens to going green. "[This job] isn't just mowing grass and cutting a hole anymore," he says.

Sanctuaries

It doesn't take a Sierra Club expert to note a golf course's potential hazards. The U.S. Golf Association admits that without proper caution, courses can draw too much water, degrade natural areas, worsen stream quality through eroding shorelines and pollute ground water.

"You have to be careful, and it requires knowledge and planning to do [things right]," says Mike Senneca, regional manager for Billy Casper Golf, the company that operates Eisenhower, the Compass Pointe Golf Courses in Pasadena (also an Audubon designee) and 108 others in the United States.

The USGA started backing environmental research as early as 1920, when it established a nonprofit to support studies on everything from weed-resistant grasses to the construction of putting surfaces. But a green golf movement really took root in 1991, when the USGA connected with Audubon International — one of more than 500 independent Audubon Society organizations in the U.S. — to establish the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for golf courses.

Golf clubs pay the nonprofit educational agency $200 a year for bulky guidebooks with counsel on ecologically sound practices, and if a course makes the grade in six categories — water quality management, chemical use reduction, wildlife and habitat management and more — it can be granted the status of Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.

More than 2,100 golf courses in 29 countries are members, and more than half, the organization says, have developed an environmental plan. About 500 of America's 16,000 courses have attained the status, 17 of them in Maryland.

"The designation means a lot," says Steve McDonald, president of Turfgrass Disease Solutions, a company that helps courses diagnose and target plant pathogens. "Superintendents must document their practices. It takes a lot of resources and labor. The goal of certification is a great motivator."

The growth of green golf was a happy coincidence for Papineau, a soft-spoken sort who grew up the son of a groundskeeper near Chicago and who always wanted to work on courses. "It's a great job," says Papineau. "It's creative, and I can't complain about being outside all day."

Like most of his colleagues today, he studied turf management in college, including chemistry, plant disease, soil types and even electrical wiring (you have to know how to troubleshoot the computer-guided irrigation systems many courses have). He found work with Virginia-based Casper Company in 2003, superintended two courses and met a few colleagues who had tried the Audubon program. In time, it became corporate policy.

When a chance to move to Maryland arose, he jumped. Upper Midwest courses belong to a uniformly northern climate, calling for certain grasses year-round. The mid-Atlantic's variable nature is a lot more complex. "I like a challenge," he says. He moved to Annapolis in 2008.

Less can be more

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