By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - For the non-golfer, the image is an unsettling one -- lush golf courses sprawling across the desert areas around Palm Springs in arid California while the state is suffering a drought for a fourth consecutive year.
Similar scenes can be found in states such as Nevada, Texas and Arizona where golf courses appear to be getting more than their fair share of water in an era of climate change when usage is increasingly restricted in the private and public sectors.
For the United States Golf Association (USGA), however, a much bigger picture must be viewed when it comes to assessing the management of resources on golf courses, which can play a significant environmental role in urban areas.
"Golf adds such a benefit to communities," Kimberly Erusha, managing director of the greens section for the USGA, told Reuters. "You think about the green space golf courses offer, the benefits of the habitat they offer.
"Golf courses provide oxygen, they are a great cooling sink for the community and it's a great recreation that you can play from young to old.
"We also have to look at what's going on behind the scenes, at very efficient irrigation systems and at golf course superintendents who are trained to be able to apply water as efficiently as possible."
USGA green section agronomists have made more than 80,000 consulting visits to golf courses in the United States since the 1950s and the governing body has given more than $40 million to fund research into turf care and development.
Erusha says she has been especially excited by the USGA's development of an electronic resource management tool which will aid golf course superintendents in identifying areas where irrigation, mowing and fertilizer can be greatly reduced.
"This tool is not completely available to the public as of yet," said Erusha. "This summer, we have been field testing it with 39 different golf courses across the U.S to build up the content in the data base.
"The idea behind the tool is to be able to look at how golfers are utilizing the course and then balance that with how the golf course is being maintained."
GOLFERS FITTED WITH TRACKERS
An integral component of the tool is a GPS tracker which is fitted to golfers to monitor their movements out on the course.
"You then take those tracks and lay them down over a Google Earth image of the golf course and see where exactly the players are going," said Erusha.
"We can then identify areas that are not being used as much, and those areas can be put under less irrigation, less mowing, less fertilizer and they don't have to be maintained. Ultimately that's going to help with the bottom line."
Golf course superintendents also benefit from an array of other tools, including soil sensors and hand-held moisture meters, while grasses have been developed by the USGA that require less water and less fertilizer.
California's ongoing drought and escalating talk in the U.S. about climate change globally have unquestionably heightened public awareness about water usage.
July was the warmest month ever on record worldwide and 2015 has been so far the hottest year, according to a report last month by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
As people adjust to the impact of water use in both the private and public sectors, golfers' perceptions are gradually evolving and the lure of beautifully manicured, emerald green courses is no longer the 'Holy Grail' for everyone.
"Mother Nature is not perfect so shades of green can be a good thing on a golf course," said Erusha while pointing to the examples of Pinehurst and links-style Chambers Bay, which were sandy and brownish in hue as venues for the last two U.S. Opens.
"Golf course superintendents have had the abilities to provide a lot of the conditioning that golfers have wanted in the past. Now we've got to come back a little bit more to balance that out.
"We have to make sure we're being sustainable in the management of courses while also recognizing you can have terrific playing quality, although it may not be uniformly green from one edge to another."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)