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The Augusta Syndrome: 45 Years Later, Is Golf the Environment’s Worst Nightmare?

This GoogleMaps image depicts how the Augusta National Country Club really appears when the cameras are not on.

This GoogleMaps image depicts how the Augusta National Country Club really appears when the cameras are not on.

Few industries around the world can point to a single weekend as the date of their origin. Sure, lawn care has been around ever since kings ordered peasants to scythe their meadows for comfortable strolling, but in terms of the modern lawn care industry it really all began during the second weekend of April of 1967 — the first time the Masters golf tournament was broadcast live to America in full technicolor green.

The men of America couldn’t golf like Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus, or even Gay Brewer, who won the storied tournament that year, but they soon aspired to what they thought was the next best thing: an emerald green fairway front lawn of their own.

And every year since then — 45 years and counting — the guys have raced out to the lawn and garden supply stores, or jumped on the phone with their lawn care company, and immediately expected Augusta National Country Club conditions for their own grass. For the professionals who care for grass, either on golf courses or in home yards, the “Augusta Syndrome” is a love-hate relationship between financial opportunity and unrealistic expectations of their patrons and customers. For the manufacturers like Scotts Miracle Gro, Bayer and others, America’s obsession with Masters green has been a pure gold excuse to print their own money.

This GoogleMaps view shows drained ponds and blotched fairways when the Masters tournament ends.

This GoogleMaps view shows drained ponds and blotched fairways when the Masters tournament ends.

TRULY GREEN?

“The Masters golf tournament is a nightmare for us every year,” said Mike Bailey, the superintendent of the Whitlock Country Club in Hudson, Quebec, the first town in North America that ever banned lawn and garden pesticides on all property — except golf courses and farms. “We’re sitting up here in Canada in April when the grass hasn’t even broken dormancy most years, and yet our members show up the week after the Masters and expect our course to look like a golf course 2,000 miles to the south.”

The Augusta National Country Club is an easy target for advocates like me and others who are attempting to reduce pesticide use by changing aesthetic expectations and drawing attention to the health and environmental impacts of excessive pesticide and fertilizer use.

Ron Dodson, the president of Audubon International that has certified golf courses for their environmental stewardship, famously denounced Augusta National Country Club as a “television studio on which a golf tournament is played in the spring.” The club reportedly dyes ponds blue or black to hide algae bloom, spray paints grass to make it look more green in years when the newly planted ryegrass isn’t flourishing and even refrigerates, or warms, the azaleas so that they’ll be in perfect bloom for the second weekend in April. Rumors have it that this year Hollywood set designers have been brought in to Augusta to hide damage caused by the lawn chemical weed killer Imprelis that was found last year to kill trees as a side effect.

The pressure to make Augusta National look perfect for a week each year is immense — and certainly still at the core of our nation’s obsession with lawn care aesthetics. You want to take a look at what the word’s most famous golf course really looks like when the cameras are off? It’s easy. Go to GoogleMaps.com and type in “Augusta National Country Club.” Click on the satellite button and then begin to zoom in. What you’ll find is grass that probably looks a lot like your grass. You’ll see bare patches and faded greens. You’ll find empty rubber-lined holes in the earth where those made-for-TV ponds were filled when the cameras were on. It’s a rather scorched earth appearance that most people wouldn’t imagine when they think of the Masters.

BUT IS GOLF THE ENEMY?

But if the premise is correct that the Masters started all of this environmental mess related to golf and expectations, is it still fair nearly a half century later to paint the golf industry with an environmental black mark overall? That answer is more complicated.

The historical horror stories are rampant. Jeff Carlson, who runs one of the nation’s premiere organic courses on Martha’s Vineyard, has talked openly about living next door to the storage shed at a golf course when he was younger. He would stir chemicals with his bare hands and ignore protective gear — until exposure to the chemicals caused his wife’s hair to fall out and made her gravely ill.

Phil Catron, founder of Naturalawn of America and a former executive at ChemLawn, told me about so many of his colleagues who are now gone, killed by what he feels was excessive exposure to chemicals. Those kinds of anecdotal images can make one wonder why we still have golf and lawn chemicals in the first place.

Ultimately, though, it’s not entirely the golf industry’s fault. Golf superintendents, led the examples of Carlson and others, have by and large cleaned up their act. The Audubon folks enlist more and more courses in their environmental stewardship program each year. Many of the men and women in the golf industry that I’ve come across wouldn’t spray anything at all if they didn’t have to. Many who do spray as a part of their course maintenance protocols use as little toxic material as possible, put up warning signs on the course and dress appropriately.

The real issue is expectations and marketing. Golf can be played amongst a few weeds and brown patches, but customers who have been overtly and subliminally motivated by ad dollars, don’t want to hear it.

“If I didn’t have the full support of my membership, an organic golf course wouldn’t work,” said Carlson. “We can create a championship-caliber golf course, but it’s not going to look the same as a course that sprays with synthetic chemical weed killers and fungicides. We’re going to have a few blemishes. We’re going to led the weeds grow off the fairways. Our members accept that, but not all do. And, at other courses, some of my colleagues will get fired if they let too many weeds grow.”

He shakes his head at the absurdity of it all.

And, yet, in three weeks the Masters tournament will recharge those expectations among consumers. In a couple of weeks, Opening Day of the baseball season will showcase all those “Scotts is Used Here” banners in Major League ballparks. Baseball fans will charge into the landscape supply centers and buy a bagged product that offers the intrinsic promise of Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium at home lawns across North America.

It’s a multi-billion dollar industry based on a big pile of bunk.

So this year, when you watch the Masters, understand one thing: It’s no more realistic for your lawn to look like Augusta National Country Club does for a week in April than it is for your golf game to be on par with Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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