Longform

How Green Is Too Green?

Page 4 of 6

Adds Earl Grey, agronomy consultant for the Golf Club of Miami and a former manager of Indian Creek Country Club: "I'm a real environmentalist! I'm the type of guy who goes to Colorado and names all the hardwoods. My son is going to be an environmental engineer; my daughter's a member of Greenpeace. She doesn't eat veal! Is that good enough?"

Some environmental activists regard this sort of chatter as pretense. Mark Massara is an environmental attorney in San Francisco, director of the Sierra Club Coastal Program and an anti-golf diehard. He was the Sierra Club's representative at the Golf & the Environment summits and was the only participant whose organization refused to endorse the principles. "At least 50 people from the Sierra Club commented on these proposed principles, and it was near unanimous that they weren't strong enough," says Massara. "It was a good first step, but we were looking for something that would result in some kind of action, not confuse decisionmakers by having real estate developers stand up and say, 'I've designed a golf course that follows these principles and was therefore endorsed by the Sierra Club!' That was a real concern."

Indeed, the principles, while well-meaning, are legally toothless. ("Respect designated environmentally sensitive areas within the course," for example, and "Support maintenance practices that protect wildlife and natural habitat.") The Sierra Club, Massara says, is looking for long-term commitment, not short-term lip service.

Anti-golf activists are most concerned about the relentless construction of new courses. "It's runaway real estate speculation," proclaims Massara, who makes this radical demand: Impose a moratorium on new course construction and close courses in wetlands, along the coast, and near other sensitive ecosystems. Short of a moratorium, he says, new courses should be confined to previously degraded environments, such as landfills, quarries, and mines. Meanwhile, existing golf courses should go "cold turkey" on chemical use, drastically reduce water consumption, and allow the land to return to a more natural state. These measures would restore a long-lost modicum of wilderness to the game, the attorney argues. "What began with rugged outdoor types chasing a white ball across native terrain called 'links' has metamorphosed into something resembling a line of minivans at a drive-through fast-foot joint," he scoffs.

Golf Digest's Roger Schiffman has heard this cry for a return to nature but says it would require an unthinkable shift in the culture of the game. "The idea is to go back to the Scottish model and basically let nature take its course. If you've had a rainy summer, you basically have green fairways. If you don't have rain, then everything turns brown," he explains. "The problem is, we're used to the 'Augusta National Syndrome': The water's blue, the fairways are green. The course is primed so that it peaks during the week it's on television. And everyone wants their course to look like Augusta during the Masters tournament. What you don't know is that they have a huge, huge budget and the course is artificially maintained -- they dye the water blue!"

"You can talk environment and golf going hand-in-hand, but I think it's a bunch of bullshit."

In isolated sound bites, James Mahannah makes those West Coast anti-golf activists sound positively spineless. The difference: He's arguing from the other side.

Slim as a two-iron and dressed neatly in a white polo shirt, jeans, and tasseled loafers, the 31-year-old golf course engineer and designer sits at the conference table of his father's small Boca Raton firm, blueprints spooled out before him. (The Mahannah golf pedigree runs deep: James's grandfather -- whose name the company bears -- was a golf-course designer; his father Charles is the chief architect for all of golf pro Lee Trevino's courses. The Mahannahs are partners with Jeffrey Schnars in the business.)

"A lot of these golf course designers are just patting themselves on the back," Mahannah rails, jabbing the air with an eight-penny nail, which he alternately uses as a pointer and a toothpick. "I think you can incorporate some environmental concerns into golf, but what do you do when you blow a side of a mountain down to build a course? As far as incorporating nature trails and habitats -- when you step foot in it, you've hurt it! Pesticides and blowing down mountains aren't really good for the environment. That's my opinion."

To Mahannah's way of thinking, you build the golf course and corrupt the environment, or you don't build the golf course and protect the environment. You can't do both. "Wetlands are pretty, but you're not going to improve the wetlands already there," he declares. "You got these guys saying they're going to incorporate the environment and they show all these footbridges cutting through the wetlands -- what the hell is that?" Of course, he knows part of the answer to that question: politics. It helps to placate activists and regulators by at least demonstrating the pretense of environmental sensitivity, he says. "When I'm talking to regulators, I'll tell them my designer is the greatest environmentalist alive!" admits Mahannah, whose company actually created a small cypress wetland in the crook of the dogleg sixth hole at Melreese.

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Kirk Semple