Rebuilding an Industry through Science of (the) Green®

November 24, 2015

For years, the number of active golf players has been declining, and golf courses around the country have been shutting down. People aren’t as interested in golf as they once were. Golf courses are expensive to run, and they require inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides to maintain green grass. The sport also asks a lot of time from players in a culture that may be too busy to devote a full afternoon to a hobby.

“Golf is in the midst of significant change,” says Dr. Brian Horgan, professor in Horticultural Science. “We have an industry that is in need of change, a golf course that is in need of renovation, and a university that’s ready to make a difference. This all gives us a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a major impact on golf.” The Science of (the) Green® initiative aims to renovate the Les Bolstad Golf Course, just across the street from the St. Paul Campus, to make it a working model for the industry that will pave the way for a new kind of interaction with golf personally, communally, and generationally.

The vision for Les Bolstad is grand, but with a simple premise at its core: a golf course should be of use to the greater community. Because of its status as a research golf course, Horgan has freedom to test out innovative ideas. For instance, in any urban setting, water runoff is a major issue. Buildings, roads, and sidewalks all take up ground that once would have absorbed rainfall. In many metro areas there is even a tax on water runoff to encourage communities to create landscapes that retain and reuse the water instead of allowing it to wash immediately into the nearby surface water.

“In comes our 150-acre golf course,” Horgan says, detailing one of the top ideas for Les Bolstad’s renovation. “Think of it as a huge rain garden and rain barrel system. Now this golf course can accept water from the surrounding community, filter it, recycle it, reuse it, and not send it into the Mississippi River.” By preventing water from leaving the community, the golf course reduces storm water management costs. Because the biggest time of the year for water runoff in Minnesota is when the snow melts, Horgan hopes to take it a step further. “Why just build a rain garden? Create a snow garden. Keep the soil in an area from freezing so that when the snow does melt, the course is there ready to accept the water.”

In addition to being a standout model amongst golf courses in the nation, Les Bolstad will be redesigned with needs of the golf industry in mind. Much of the research done in the U of M turfgrass science program has focused on developing and caring for grass varieties that require fewer inputs such as water, fertilizers, and mowing. Because of this, Horgan and his colleague Associate Professor Eric Watkins intend to make an area of Les Bolstad a destination for golf course owners across the nation who are considering a renovation to visualize and assess economic decisions that are more sustainable for the future. Horgan compares this area to a home and garden show specifically for more sustainable golf courses. “People come in and they see the options: grass species, irrigation systems, bunker technologies, etc. They can see it right there on a scalable model. When they leave they’ll have a couple of options to bring back to their membership as well as pricing so they know the costs and benefits of implementing those different strategies.”

Many of Horgan’s ideas are still in the beginning stages; discussions as to which ideas are most viable and how they can best be implemented are ongoing. However, with the amount of plants and wildlife a golf course brings to an area, water conservation is only the beginning of what Science of (the) Green® can accomplish. With Horgan’s framework in mind, Les Bolstad can think beyond what makes a golf course useful for a round of golf, and on to what makes it of value to the rest of the community.

The majority of the benefits associated with Science of (the) Green® have nothing to do with golf itself — they make the surrounding community a cleaner, more sustainable place. However, Horgan hopes to change the culture around golf as well. “My generation’s time devoted to this sport is not the same as my parents’. So how do we give options to people to engage them in the sport so that when they do have more flexible time and income, they’ll decide to go out and play more golf?”

The answer Horgan proposes is an alternative routing, which means the course will have an opportunity to engage golfers based on time and not on the number of holes. A traditional 18-hole platform will be available but so will a 3-hole lunchtime loop or two consecutive 6-hole leagues playing concurrently. This solution could give golf an opportunity to operate on a smaller platform, reducing the footprint of the course by 35%. This design allows the game to fit into the player’s schedule, instead of expecting the player to figure out how to fit an afternoon of golf into their busy life.

It’s not just Horgan that sees the need for change within the industry. In early November, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the University of Minnesota announced a five-year research partnership to study and develop solutions to golf’s present and future challenges. This doesn’t mean that all of Horgan’s plans can move forward yet, but it’s a big step in the right direction. This partnership will allow both parties to identify projects to make funding plans on an individual basis, and bolsters the research and development capabilities of both organizations.

It’s a massive undertaking with years of planning having already taken place and several more to go before it’s finished, but it’s a challenge that both the U of M and the USGA are prepared to face head on. “The industry is looking for a leader, and that’s what the University of Minnesota and USGA do best. We don’t follow, and we don’t do anything mediocre. We do things top notch,” says Horgan. When it is complete, Les Bolstad will be a premiere golf course, and a destination for other golf course owners hoping to model the techniques used and researched there. With the U of M and the USGA paving the way, Science of (the) Green® will have the power to change the way the world thinks about golf. To learn more about Science of (the) Green® and stay up-to-date on current developments, visit