Education Saves Golf Course Pesticide Usage

Cameron B. Ventre (Turfgrass Science & Management)

John R. Nestro (Natural Resource Conservation)


On a bright and sunny day in Arlington Virginia nearing the end of August, 30-year-old Navy Lieutenant George Prior heads to the Army Navy Country Club to play a few rounds of golf.  Afterwards he heads home and starts to experience flu-like symptoms and became uncharacteristically irritable for no apparent reason according to his wife Liza. His third day on the golf course he began to feel seriously ill with a rash spreading from his stomach which turned into blisters by the next day.  Doctors aren’t able to diagnose him and they can’t seem to understand why his internal organs are beginning to fail. After two weeks of being in the hospital, Lieutenant George Prior dies of a heart attack, but by that time his wife Liza says he was a “hideously disfigured shell of a man” and “death was a merciful escape.”  Dr. Jonathan Lord who is one of the Navy’s top forensic pathologists set off to find out why this fit, young, naval officer who goes through rigorous annual physicals passed away so suddenly with no explanation. Once Lord learned that George Prior started suffering from his symptoms after playing at the golf course, he sent a helicopter with infrared photography to the course.  That’s when he discovered the course was saturated with Daconil 2787 which is a fungicide that the country club sprayed every week. It turns out that 10 years earlier, 4 people died in a similar manner after Daconil was used at their house. After finding out that Prior’s clubs, golf balls, and shoes were coated in Daconil, Dr. Lord concluded that George Priors premature death was due to him being highly allergic to Daconil.  It turns out that the reason the Army Navy Country Club used Daconil in the first place was to treat for Brown Patch which is a turfgrass fungal disease that can easily be prevented by cultural practices like proper aeration and reduced watering. Although George Prior’s case is an uncommon one, he might still be alive today if the Army Navy Country Club had educated and trained their superintendents to use proper cultural practices first and then use pesticides as a last resort ( Grogan,1986) . That is why it is important to set more strict laws enforcing golf courses to educate potential superintendents, so things like this don’t happen again.

Golf Courses are managed by golf course superintendents whose job it is to oversee everything that goes on within the golf course whether it be making purchases, performing daily water applications, and even maintain good member relations.  A golf course superintendent is the guy who keeps the golf course running smoothly and is a vital part in the maintenance of an aesthetically pleasing golf course that is kept within environmentally friendly standards. Becoming a golf course superintendent often times requires the person to go to an accredited university for either two years to obtain a Associates Degree in Turfgrass Management or four years and come out with a Bachelor’s Degree in Turfgrass Management with a business or science focus.  A bachelor’s degree of science requires a completion of minimum of 120-200 credit hours (units) for the degree and Associate of science/applied science degrees normally require a minimum of 60-100 credit hours (units) (Preparing for a career as a golf course superintendent). Often times while being in college, many universities require summer internships which are very beneficial in gaining field experience and learning how to properly maintain a golf course and what it takes to maintain a golf course at the highest standards. In becoming a golf course superintendent, it requires one to continue education in order to better oneself and certifications as more credits are earned.  Becoming an educated golf course superintendent takes a lot of rigorous work, but it is necessary in order to provide a better wellbeing of people and the surrounding environment.


Golf courses have been seen as being harmful to the environment and damaging to wildlife populations that live upon or near golf courses grounds. The amount of golf courses in the United States is currently at a population of 15,372.  Golf courses have been on a steady decline for several years due to the cost associated with maintaining a golf course an the resources that are required (Press, A.U.S. golf courses in steady decline,2015).  Although the general public looks at golf courses as being damaging to the environment, proper golf course management and cultural practices will effectively reduce the amount of pesticides used which can in turn eliminate its impacts on surrounding ecosystems. The positive impacts ecosystems have on golf courses are providing a wildlife habitat for a diverse animal population, protects soil from wind and erosion, absorbs and filters rain water, and improves health by reducing stress for more than 24.5 million golfers, and restores damaged land areas such as former landfills or mining sites (Golf Courses Benefit People And Wildlife,2015).  There are also positive economic impacts that golf courses provide to the local economy such as creating more jobs for people who work on golf courses. When it comes to New York alone, the  golf courses industry contributes $3 billion and 50,000 jobs annually to the states economy (Rossi, F. S., 2016) (n.d.).  Also construction projects often require several people who most of the time have to stay in hotels for months on end until the project is finished. The parts used to fix tools and machines that superintendents require to maintain the golf course are bought from local businesses.  The impact that the professional golf course association (PGA) has when they host a major tournament can bring millions to the local economy (Woods,2000). Cultural practices encompass various actions superintendents can use at their disposal to keep the grass healthy without using pesticides.  The most common cultural practices superintendents use are things like aeration, verticutting, irrigation, and proper mowing heights. Aeration is the process of de-compacting the soil in order to allow for the grass roots to grow and move around in the soil easier.  Verticutting is a mechanical practice that is used with knife like mower reels to remove dead grass and debris so that nutrients and water will be able to penetrate into the soil and get absorbed by the roots. The usage of a combination of verticutting and aeration is able to better reduce the amount of dead grass and allow the soil surface to be decompacted compared to just a single cultural practice of verticutting or aeration alone (Rice , (P. J., et al 2017) .Irrigation is the process of watering the grass on golf courses in order to keep the grass in good condition and reduce the risk of wilting of turfgrass. Irrigation is important because if a superintendent under-waters, the grass is at risk of becoming dehydrated and dying, while if it is over-watered, then there is potential for it to become a suitable habitat for funguses to grow. Another way to reduce the probability of a fungus being able to form is something called rolling putting greens.  This is done in the morning and basically gets rid of the dew that was accumulated over the course of the nightime. The usage of rolling putting greens instead of mowing has shown a reduce in overall fungicide applications and caused the overall disease pressure to be greatly reduced compared to daily mowing practices (Sutherland, J.,2000).  All of these methods and more can be learned through proper education and the aquireation of the right licenses.

Despite the negative viewpoints on golf courses, it is important that the general public understands that with qualified golf course superintendents using proper management practices can minimize the effects pesticides and fertilizers  have on ecosystems. Although pesticides should be minimized at all costs, it is still sometimes necessary in keeping turf healthy. Pesticide companies have been able to develop chemicals that are more safe and only active in small amounts which causes overall reductions in pesticide applications. ( Shepard Et. al,2006 ).  When pesticides do need to be applied, it is crucial that applicators use a wide array of pesticides in order for it to be more difficult for diseases and insects to adapt and become resistant to a given pesticide.  This also allows for diseases and insects to be affected by the pesticide instead of leaching into the soil profile and water table. Leaching is the loss of water-soluble plant nutrients from the soil, due to rain and irrigation.  Often times applicators who are unaware of this resistance tend to raise the application rate to the highest legal concentration of that pesticide instead of just using a different pesticide (Fech, 2017 ). The usage of pesticides has been a crucial component in maintaining golf courses to be pest free and be aesthetically pleasing to golfers. The main reason that superintendents have to use pesticides is due to making the grass weaker by keeping an extremely low mowing height which makes the root zone at times either overly dry or overly moist, creates inadequate compaction relief, and reduces air circulation (Fech, 2017 ).  Often times people have too small of thresholds.  Thresholds are the amount that an given insect or disease is allowed until an action is required in order to fix the infestation or disease severity. In controlling the size of a particular population is an effective step because smaller populations can often be either prevented or managed with non chemical strategies (Fech, 2017 ).

In order to legally apply pesticides on any kind of golf course throughout the country, proper licenses are required for golf course applicators. The basic level of applicators license is commercial applicators license (core) which allows for the applicator to apply restricted use pesticides under the direct supervision of a person that has commercial applicator certification. In order to obtain a commercial applicators license you must take a 128 question multiple choice exam and must be able to score a 70 or higher to allow you to pass (Pesticide Applicator Licensing and Certification Fees, 2012) . In taking the exam it requires one to learn the diverse laws associated with chemical applications to school grounds, electrical power lines, golf courses, and the safe distances to apply near drinking water resources. In obtaining the next level up the commercial applicator certification it allows you to buy restricted use pesticides and allows you to have people spray restricted or non restricted chemicals under your direct supervision. All certifications and licenses are highly enforced under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which requires yearly chemical usage reports. They also by law are allowed to enter any golf course or dealership and undergo a complete check of chemical storage areas, chemical usage records, applicator licenses, and can shutdown any golf course that is illegally breaking any environmental laws.  In breaking any laws or regulations come with extremely high fines and in some cases can result in jail time due to significant damages to the environment, water sources, and/or human harm.

While golf courses have to deal with animals around the golf course the proper planning can be critical in being environmentally friendly. The usage of a best management practice program (BMP) allows for proper timing and safest, best practices to be used in order for the golf course to be run as efficiently as possible. When it comes to creating a best management practice for ponds and streams it’s important to maintain a safe unfertilized buffer zone from the immediate water embankment.  A golf course also has to be cautious of introducing new plant species to irrigation ponds or surrounding streams and being aware of surrounding areas that may be disturbed by construction projects (Bruneau, A., et al, 2001,).  The first step in coming up with a plan is to have an initial site assessment and environmental plan, followed by yearly review and goals which in turn helps golf course superintendents care for the land, water, wildlife, and natural resources upon which the course is sustained (Audubon International, Environmental Management Practices for golf courses, 2017). In coming up with a map of the course that highlights wildlife habitats, water resources, and management zones to use for planning and project implementation greatly increases safe ecosystems for wildlife. Also in implementing a training procedure for employees regarding the importance of environmental performance and specific techniques for ensuring environmental quality helps with mistakes being made to disrupt the animals environment (Audubon International, Environmental Management Practices for golf courses, 2017). It’s also important to understand the leaching capability of a given pesticide and how it interacts with runoff rates.  In looking at a given pesticide and how it counteracts its been shown that the longer the pesticide has been applied caused a greater amount ofthat pesticide residue to be detected via leaching or runoff.

Implementing proper water conservation practices not only greatly reduces the usage of pesticides, but also reduces the amount of water applications needed. In coming up with a plan of prioritizing water conservation and training employees to employ conservation techniques reduces daily water usage in large amounts. Also having proper sprinklers and repairment helps with water leaking out of the sprinkler which wastes water in large amounts. In having the proper planning such as having a proper design, install, and testing the performance of the irrigation system maximizes the efficient use of water.  Inspecting the irrigation system for proper water distribution in all irrigated areas at least once per year and adjusting rotation speed or operating pressure to match sprinkler spacing to nozzle performance is a good practice superintendents can use. The proper turfgrass species selection is important in being able to pick the right type of grass for the given temperature regions, so that the species will be able to thrive in either warm, cold, dry and/or wet conditions. At many high end golf courses, they often hire irrigation technicians who simply check all irrigation equipment daily and maintain the system ensuring that leaks are fixed in a timely manner. Irrigation technicians also keep the system on a regular schedule in order to prevent the wasting of water.  Having qualified superintendents and assistants create effective watering techniques such as incorporating water evaporation rates or weather data into daily irrigation decisions and avoid running the irrigation system at peak evaporation times. (Audubon International, Environmental Management Practices for golf courses, 2017). Implementing verticutting also dramatically reduces the potential for runoff due to the aeration holes allowing for the ground to be soft which allows for water to move downwards towards the roots (Snyder, 2014).  This prevents wasting water because in times of high water evaporation on grass shoots, water can’t penetrate down into the soil and get absorbed by the roots.  Superintendents also check the daily moisture reading in order to ensure that “hotspots” are only watered, rather than running the entire irrigation system during the peak of the day. The biggest reduction of water usage is identifying either reducing or eliminating irrigation on all unused or minimally used portions of the  golf course. Being properly trained in these cultural practices significantly helps with the reduction of overall water on golf courses which in turn allows for more water to be used in more important areas.

Developing proper Integrated Pest Management practices (IPM) allows for superintendents to maintain an aesthetically pleasing golf course, while not using pesticides as the first action to fix the given problem. IPM is the process of incorporating more sustainable pest management practices, with the usage of pesticides as a last resort.  The usage of implementing native areas that can be unmowed and unfertilized, which in turn can make up to 50% of a entire golf course (Dobbs et al.2016).  IPM is important because it has been shown that the usage of pesticides for a extended period of time has been shown to compromise important soil nutrients, which is crucial in maintaining the proper nutrient levels for a healthy turf system (Gan, H., & Wickings, K. 2017).  In the use of IPM strategies result in effective pest control with minimal impact on the environment and on people. It is important to realize that  IPM is not pesticide-free when it comes to turfgrass management. Pesticides are used when more successful IPM programs are in place. This will result in more efficient use of pesticides, which causes a reduction in pesticide use (Developing an Integrated Turfgrass Pest Management Program, Penn State center for Turfgrass Science). In creating a IPM plan its important to set threshold numbers to allow for superindnets to realize when they need to take action in order to keep there golf course in proper playing condition. Also the constant monitoring of weather is a critical component in ensuring chemical or cultural practices are being done in a responsible manner (IPM, 2004). A major key to having a proper IPM is having a well qualified superintendent that is trained in scouting and has a diverse management strategy plan that can be implemented in order to choose the smartest, and most efficient solution to an infestation. Using different innovative strategies such as biological controls, which use biological agents that may be classified as bacteria, fungi, or nematodes which is environmentally friendly to the environment and allows you to have positive results without having to use pesticides.

Golf courses should have to pay for their superintendents to become certified pesticide applicators because that gives them more incentive to go and get educated by professionals.  Each applicator has to pay a $275 fee so that they can get an applicator license. With that in mind, people will be less likely to go out and get it when they don’t necessarily have to in order to make money and keep their job.  Currently there are yearly renewal forms in order to maintain one’s applicator license which is good because this means that applicators must continue their education and expand their knowledge year after year. That way, as new technology comes out and better, more efficient cultural practices are created, superintendents will know about them and hopefully incorporate them into their respective golf course (Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 2018).

While golf courses will always be under some kind of scrutiny to the general public, and be seen as harmful to the environment or cause negative effects to the local ecosystems, the increasing research being done on doing smart management styles or educating the people working on the golf courses has significantly reduced the reliance on pesticides and therefore lessen the impact on surrounding ecosystems.  Damages to local ecosystems can be minimized by educated superintendents in the golf course management industry who use proper cultural practices which will reduce pesticide usage and benefit the general public’s views on golf courses as a whole.In creating golf course maintenance standards and being able to convey them in a way that the general membership or crew members can understand greatly helps people to understand the necessary things to be done. In coming up with a golf course maintenance standards list and creating a well organized list of the standards of the green surfaces, tee surfaces, fairway surfaces and creating a proper course setup system  how to achieve the common goal of having the best possible golf course ( Vogt, 2010).  In creating a diverse amount of methods when treating for insects and pathogens, it will create an overall significant improvement on how golf courses are maintained in early years. Having more superindnets being aware of the many different resources currently  available will greatly impact reduce the overall usage of pesticides while still maintaining golf courses at a very high levels for people to enjoy in a safe manner. As time progresses and newer management practices are created and safer pesticides are formulated it will cause golf courses to be seen as wonderful areas for recreational activities, while maintaining a diverse wildlife population, and having a minimal impact on the surrounding ecosystems.



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