When the world’s most famous golfers met at the U.S. Open last week, no name garnered as much attention as the course itself: Chambers Bay, a Scottish-style links course whose rugged, rust-colored greens had players throwing hissy fits on social media.
Ian Poulter posted a ground-level view of the gnarled grass on Instagram and wrote that it was “simply the worst most disgraceful surface I have ever seen on any tour in all the years I have played.” Henrik Stenson’s said that playing at Chambers Bay was like “putting on broccoli”; world No. 1 Rory McIlroy corrected him, “I don’t think they’re as green as broccoli. I think they’re more like cauliflower.”
But the quality of the greens at the course near Tacoma, Washington, is not the result of neglect or ineptitude—and the USGA's decision to hold the U.S. Open there is part of an effort to make golf in America more environmentally sustainable.
According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a typical golf course requires up to 1,000,000 gallons of water per week in summer to stay green and lush. As a recent the LA Times article notes, "The economic crisis is clear. In the last seven years, the U.S. has lost 800 golf courses. One estimate put the annual rise in water costs for courses at 11%. Those two things cannot be disconnected." Although the USGA has received an influx of cash from a new TV deal with Fox Sports, the industry as a whole is struggling.
The USGA hopes to reduce the number of water-guzzling golf courses by encouraging an increase in more natural, xeriscaped styles of greens. Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, told "For years, we have gone lush and plush.” Now, with the Open and other tournaments planned over the coming year, Davis is “hoping to change players’ perceptions.”
The grass at Chambers Bay, roundly mocked for looking brown and shriveled, is fescue, a type of drought-resistant grass well-suited to the cold climate in Washington state. According to Mother Jones, the course has an irrigation system that uses reclaimed groundwater and fertilizes with sewage from a nearby treatment plan. Unlike luxury courses in places like Palm Springs, California, where land engineering yields emerald oases in arid deserts, Chambers Bay is not a course celebrating the triumph of man over nature. It is a place for golfers to test themselves against the local elements and unweildy vegetation, where sport and land must work in cooperation, not opposition.
The USGA isn’t trying to get rid of all traditional green golf courses, but hoping the American public can learn to like courses that aren't carpeted with lime-green Bermuda grass. Courses such as Chambers Bay are less environmentally and economically costly. And this past weekend, those crazy brown greens made for a wild, exciting finish.