Michael Hurdzan

As golf soars in popularity with the aging of the baby boomers and the buzz of Tiger Woods, most cities are feeling the pressure--and financial temptation--to build new courses.

The nation has 15,000 golf courses, and about 350 new ones have been added each year since 1990. Demand continues to grow as more than 25 million golfers jostle for tee times.

That is ominous news to many environmentalists, who tend to view the vast, rolling greenness of manicured fairways not as places of pastoral outdoor recreation but as water-wasting, chemical-addicted islands of artificiality.

Are there ways to meet the rising demand without squandering and polluting our natural resources?

Michael Hurdzan says yes. Considered one of the world’s top golf course architects, Hurdzan is a pioneer in creating courses that harmonize with the local topography and plant life rather than obliterating it.


Among the more than 200 courses he has designed is Desert Willow in Palm Desert, which uses a third less turf grass than comparable courses and flaunts its desert setting as a unique asset rather than striving to cover it up with an infinity of generic green.

In Ventura County, Hurdzan is the designer behind the course proposed for the Hill Canyon Regional Recreational Facility Project, a joint effort of the city of Thousand Oaks and the Conejo Recreation and Park District. The challenge in Hill Canyon, he said, has been figuring out “how to interface with the creek, the hillsides and all the critters that are using the place now.”

The Hill Canyon course would lie in a 284-acre area south of Santa Rosa Road, north of Rancho Conejo Boulevard and west of Wildwood Regional Park. The clubhouse would be on a hill overlooking the canyon just off Rancho Conejo Boulevard, connected to the course itself by a shuttle path.

The 18-hole layout would follow the creek down-canyon and back, crossing it twice, dodging rare plants and ancient oaks as it goes. Reclaimed waste water from the adjacent Hill Canyon treatment plant would keep the turf green.

For all the attempts to be gentle on its surroundings, the course is opposed by environmentalists who believe it would destroy an important biological habitat.

“The site is not appropriate for this golf course,” Alisse Weston of the Environmental Defense Center said at the most recent public hearing on the project. “Despite the best efforts of the project designers, it’s going to have a significant impact on the region and the wildlife that lives there.”

Hearings on the project’s environmental impact report will be held in January and February. Permits for wetlands construction must be obtained from the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Fish and Game. Any of those hurdles could stop the project.

Nonetheless, Hurdzan’s thoughts on balancing the demand for golf courses against the needs of nature are instructive to those who are creating new courses, operating existing ones, or merely play the game.

Hurdzan grew up on golf courses. His father was a teaching pro at a course owned by a golf architect, and from age 13 Michael apprenticed in every aspect of the game. In time he would study soil and turf grass and earn a doctorate in plant physiology.

He has strong views about the golf industry’s need to overcome its image of elitism and environmental irresponsibility.

“What drives a course’s environmental impact is the golfer,” he said. “When the golfers demand a lush, green golf course, we have to manipulate a lot of factors to make that happen.”

In this interview, he spoke with DOUG ADRIANSON, editorial page editor of The Times Ventura County Edition:


Question: Walk us through the history and evolution of the conflict between golf courses and the environment.

Answer: Prior to World War II, courses tended to be simple and low-impact. They used mostly organic fertilizers and had low water needs. They tended to be located in or near cities, so access was easier than it later became.

World War II spurred technological advances. The Germans learned how to manufacture nitrogen, and there was tremendous research in fertilizers and chemical pesticides. At the same time, golf was becoming less of a rich man’s game. President Eisenhower helped popularize it, make it more of a blue-collar thing.

We started building lots of new courses, using the stronger pumps and better irrigation techniques developed during the war and grasses that depended on heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides.

The ‘50s were pretty careless, to say the least. Golf courses were treated with arsenic, lead--all sorts of horrible things. After Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring,” we started having second thoughts about that.

Television, especially color television, changed golfers’ expectation of what a golf course ought to look like. They demanded increased levels of maintenance: “Keep them lush and green, no matter what it takes.”

By the mid ‘80s, the golf industry started hearing some environmental concerns.

In the early ‘90s, provoked by the environmentalists, there came a dramatic shift as a new generation of students developed new grasses and techniques that required less water and fewer chemicals. The industry recognized that there was money to be made in better grasses, reduced use of chemicals.

Today we can make courses that, while not as benign as those of the ‘30s, are much better than those of the ‘50s or ‘60s. Some are going completely organic, though that’s still pretty experimental at this point.

Q: What are you doing with the Hill Canyon course to minimize impact on the environment?

A: We’re using entirely recycled water, from the treatment plant. Turf grass is a wonderful filter for re-treated water, which fertilizes as it waters.

We’re also keeping maintained areas (tees, fairways and greens) to a minimum, only 75 acres compared with 120 on an average course of this size.

We’ve planned and adjusted the layout to dodge rare plants and as many of the oaks as possible, and eliminated lakes in favor of re-created wetlands.

We’ve got to get off this chemical treadmill. It’s like having a cold and taking one drug for one symptom and another one for another. We’re trying to take a more holistic approach.

Q: It’s not going to look like Pebble Beach or Augusta National. Will golfers mind that Hill Canyon doesn’t look like the courses they’re used to seeing on the Golf Channel?

A: The biggest challenge is to change golfers’ perception about what is an acceptable round of golf. The superintendent will be trained to maintain the course in a way that is in harmony with the natural environment. The consumer will have to get with the program.

Q: Does golf’s lingering reputation as an elitist sport contribute to opposition to new golf courses?

A: Yes, I think it’s still seen by some as a game for idle, rich, white men. That’s changing, but it’s not gone.

Q: Have you faced more challenges with Hill Canyon than with other courses you’ve designed, such as scrutiny from the city of Thousand Oaks?

A: Yes, they really hold those oak trees sacred. It’s like the City of a Thousand Druids. But I can understand that, they’re so majestic.

On the East Coast and West Coast, cities are becoming very careful about the environmental impact of golf courses. But in the middle of the country, unfortunately, nobody cares.

Trails are a major concern for Thousand Oaks, but that is true everywhere.

Q: What about concerns that all this activity will drive away the wildlife?

A: I’ve never seen a critter that didn’t become more populous after a course went in. People use it in the daytime, animals use it at night.

Q: In the game’s earliest days, in Scotland, golfers basically played on the terrain and turf that God put there, right?

A: That’s right, and at Hill Canyon we’re keeping a lot of the native vegetation just the way it is. We see the golf course as a border to the stream. We’re not going to destroy that canyon, we’re going to showcase it.

I expect this project will allow many people to experience the beauty of this canyon who otherwise would never venture out there. It will be a different experience than playing Pebble Beach or another course on the coast, but I expect it to be one of the most dramatic public golf courses in the state.