For the Love of the Green: Creating a More Sustainable Future for Golf

January 9, 2020

For the Love of the Green: Creating a More Sustainable Future for Golf

You’d be hard pressed to find a more passionate, dedicated bunch in the golf industry than Dan Dinelli, Josh Hester and Mark Hoban. As lifelong superintendents at noted golf clubs across the country, all three embrace the unique roles they play—not only in shaping a more sustainable future for the sport they love—but also in seeking new, meaningful ways to better the guest experience, the health of their courses and the communities in which they live and work.


While these three superintendents each have unique course management approaches and philosophies, they share an undeniable appreciation for the potential economic and environmental benefits that come from exploring more sustainable course management practices. Dan, Josh and Mark have something else in common, too: they all use Cool Terra®, a biochar-based soil amendment, to sequester carbon, promote beneficial soil microbes and enhance their course aesthetics and playability. In turn, they’re managing their courses with healthier soils and root zones, while using less water and fewer synthetic inputs.


Championing the Power of the Microbiome

For Dan Dinelli, superintendent at North Shore Country Club near Chicago, golf is a family affair. As a third-generation superintendent, Dan intends to leave his mark on his family legacy and the game of golf.


With an eye toward reducing costs and protecting natural resources, Dan embraces another passion: science. A microbiology enthusiast in his spare time, Dan understands science may very well unlock a more sustainable future for golf.


“My predecessors didn’t have the options that are available now. They had to use whatever farmers were using—mostly chemical fertilizers—to see what worked on the course,” Dan explains. “But there’s a better way now. Today, scientists in our industry are creating game-changing methods and products.”


Key to these improvements, Dan believes, are those helping golf superintendents carefully and proactively manage the phytobiome – or the chemical, physical, biological components of the plant and soil – allowing them to get the most out of their turf systems with fewer synthetic inputs.

Within the phytobiome is the microbiome, the biological component. “Think of the microbiome as a community. There are good and bad guys. The question becomes, how do you elevate the good ones for better soil and plant productivity and health,” Dan continued.


Part of the answer, Dan believes, is biochar. It first caught his interest when he noticed how quickly and significantly peat, the industry standard, broke down. By making and testing biochar on his 22-year-old green and its root zone, he found it to be very resilient; it didn’t breakdown as fast and, therefore, had better, longer water and nutrient holding capacity. Impressed with his results, Dan became an early biochar believer, using it as an effective substitute or addition to peat.


“While there is no such thing as a single solution in our industry, biochar is a powerful tool. It plays a role in delivering more microbes to the soil, especially in high percentage sand mixes that are so common in our industry.”


When he rebuilt his putting greens two years ago, Dan raised the bar on the long-term sustainability and playability of his course with the latest technology. “I chose Cool Planet’s biochar, Cool Terra®, specifically because of their comprehensive research. They have the cleanest and most consistent biochar; I can precondition it with nutrients and biology to best suit my turf.”


Dan notes biochar is still a bit of a “gray box” but as it becomes more mainstream, the industry will find even more and effective ways to use tools like biochar to shape course management and guest experiences.


Inoculating the soil with a community of beneficial organisms pre- and post-plant is critical, Dan believes, and biochar has the potential to be an efficient carrier for biologicals. “We can use it with topdressing, injection or rake it into the turf that’s already established.”


While he finds it energizing to represent the microbiome era, Dan says it can also be frustrating because it’s all very nuanced. “It requires a long-term view, which can be a tough sell to a broader industry looking for quick results.”


However, Dan more than does his part to convey the opportunities he sees for a more holistic and environmentally friendly future for golf—one that uses less water and synthetic fertilizers. Dan’s a regular spokesperson at industry conferences and with media; considered a go-to resource and “science rock star” among his peers; and works closely with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America to actively shape industry best practices.


While he is working to improve North Shore Country Club and his microbiome community, Dan is securing an important place in both his family and industry’s history with his know-how, ingenuity and commitment to golf, and he’s using its power to bring people together for greater good.



Preserving Critical Green Space in our Communities

Despite a short, early detour in the landscaping industry, Josh Hester has spent his career managing golf courses, and there’s no place he’d rather be. For more than 20 years, Josh has overseen recognized courses in Colorado and is now at Cherry Hills Country Club.


Fundamentally, Josh sees his course, and all city-based courses, as critical green space among urban sprawl—a source of enjoyment in the community with an ecosystem of its own, ready to be thoughtfully managed and preserved for future generations of golfers. This overarching idea drives his philosophy to seek more responsible and sustainable ways to tend his course and the surrounding property.


“We’re focused on sustainability as it relates to the bottom line, course playability and saving money—but in the end, we also need to balance those things with trying to do the very best for the environment that we work in.”


Josh concedes there are some common misconceptions about golf’s environmental footprint, especially related to water use. “Anything that’s going to help you strike the right balance of enough, but not too much, water is a good thing for playability,” Josh says, noting it’s easy to see a pristine, green course and assume they’re using considerable amounts of water, which is not always the case. “The reality is, by using the right soil amendments, we can use fewer inputs—such as water and fertilizer—to create better, more sustainable conditions without sacrificing course quality.”


To manage his water use and improve his soil health, Josh prefers Cool Terra®. While he has not yet introduced it at Cherry Hills Country Club, he intends to add it into his daily maintenance program next year after seeing many benefits at his previous course, Meridian. He’s had success using Cool Terra® for mechanical processes, such as dethatching, filling driving range divots and mixing it with topdressing on tee boxes. To aid in recovery and germination during more intensive annual processes, like aerification, Josh sees value in adding a biochar-based soil amendment in the root zone.


Josh appreciates Cool Terra’s ease of application—like spreading any soil amendment or fertilizer—and he sees it as part of a longer-term soil health strategy, which takes time; so, it’s hard to claim early, concrete results.


“Much like taking your vitamins every day; you’re probably okay if you don’t take them, but it’s going to benefit you if you do. There’s no downside. It’s organic and replenishes important nutrients plant and soil profiles need, and it sticks around longer than straight sand or peat mixtures.”


By creating the right level of carbon and increasing the soil’s pore space, allowing roots to extract vital nutrients and retain more water, Josh thinks biochar can help superintendents see healthier, greener, denser turf—and faster. “In our industry, we’re always trying to find new tools for our toolbox to make things better. That’s what I’m trying to do, and it’s why I think Cool Terra® can be an important part of an overall course management program.”


Apart from the usual metrics for managing a golf course, Josh sees cultivating the next generation of superintendents, for which sustainability will be central, as critical to the sport’s future success. “We have to be open to and promote all of the good things we’re doing for golf, so younger generations, who seek deeper purpose in their work, know this is an exciting, forward-thinking and rewarding profession with opportunity to make a difference, on the course and in the community.”


Older generations or new, Josh believes when superintendents preserve the natural ecosystems of their courses and deliver the best possible playing experience for members, that’s “when the magic happens,” and everyone wins.

Leading a “Grass Roots” Movement that Embraces Rather than Fights, Nature


Exploring new ways to fully honor the natural systems at the Rivermont Golf Club in Georgia is central to Mark Hoban’s philosophy as a superintendent. A lifelong student and problem solver, Mark has never accepted the status quo.


Working in an industry heavily reliant on synthetic inputs, Mark started moving toward organic methods, experimenting and learning, on his own. Since 1985, he’s cultivated the regeneration of native grasses surrounding his course and created an experience that changes with nature’s cycles. However, he knew he could only go so far without making an effective business case to the club’s ownership.


To build his case, Mark researched the benefits of organic nutrients, talked with others using alternative methods, calculated the cost savings and successfully pitched the Rivermont ownership to try new tending methods, like using tea compost, which he made himself.


Inspired by his early success significantly reducing his nitrogen inputs and fungicide applications, Mark began attending organic agriculture industry conferences to better understand practices and products that weren’t yet available to him in the turf market. “Farmers are constantly learning through trial and error, sticking their necks out to uncover new, successful farming and land management techniques.”


It was at an organic farming conference where Mark first learned of biochar-based soil amendments. While farmers maintain more land than a superintendent, he was encouraged by their successes with biochar and brought his learnings back to Georgia.


Three years ago, Mark applied small amounts of Cool Terra® on his greens, about one to two pounds to the acre, and he noted a significant increase in the soil’s ability to hold onto essential nutrients. He also added some to plots on his fairway, which became greener even during a cool time of year in Georgia—Rivermont’s ownership and members took notice.
Today, Mark uses between two and four pounds of Cool Terra® per acre, per year on greens and tees; and he’s testing more on his fairway acreage too. When spraying the biochar, he adds specific inoculants, compost extracts and bio stimulants for microbial growth, like molasses, fish hydrolysate, mycorrhizae and seaweed extracts, to help colonize the biochar pore space.

“When we built our new tees a few years ago, we amended the soil with biochar at three different rates. We found more root mass after it dried out where the Cool Terra® was incorporated. Now, we need to go back to those areas to see if there is a difference in biomass.” Mark also used Cool Terra® on his wildflower plots and has been working with scientists at the University of Georgia to study the results.

Biochar, Mark believes, is a big part of the organic ecosystem he’s trying to build to improve Rivermont’s soils, making them less friendly to plant diseases. “At the end of the season, my shelves still have plenty of fungicides—it tells me I’m seeing success,” Mark noted.

“At this point, I haven’t put enough Cool Terra® down to really determine results, so these are just observations, not claims; but the early signs are good—biochar seems to be contributing to a healthier course overall and it’s helping me hold more water because of the biochar’s porous structure.”

A more biological approach is slower and requires patience, Mark admits, and may be why his peers remain skeptical about moving away from chemicals. However, he’s surprised more superintendents in his industry haven’t gone in a more natural direction for the cost savings. While soil amendments like biochar haven’t taken hold as much as he thought they would, Mark continues to educate interested peers.


“I like to let people observe for themselves. I point things out, answer questions and win people over that way, but they need to make up their own minds,” Mark continued. To this end, he hosts field days, open houses and writes about a more natural approach to course management in his newsletter.


From the changing colors with each season to the monarch butterfly pollinator garden, today’s Rivermont members enjoy the beauty Mark has created. “All I can hope is that my learnings will help the greater cause and more people will want to join me. I’m jazzed that I’m making these connections and opening eyes in other partner industries in my role as student, and as problem solver.”


The Future is Bright

Dan, Josh and Mark are leading golf in a more sustainable direction, and all agree having access to modern science, proactive management methods and organic products, like Cool Terra®, keep them, and their courses, moving in the right direction.


While Dan, Josh and Mark would all like to see more superintendents open to new ways of thinking, they recognize change takes time. And while they may each oversee small pieces of land, relative to the larger green industry market, they take their responsibilities seriously and see much opportunity ahead for their peers to embrace leading research and product innovation, ensuring a better future for the game they love—golf.

This piece was created by Kim Wroblewski and Luana Hancock at Fireside Communications.  Fireside Communications is a strategic communications company in downtown Denver, Colorado who excel in planning, content creation, and reputation management.  Kim & Luana are the co-founders and you can reach them through Fireside’s website: http://www.fireside-communications.com

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