© trent bouts

As one of the sharpest minds hovering over a microscope in golf’s best interests these days, Frank Rossi gets around a bit, sees some things. When he’s not on campus at Cornell University, he could be pretty much anywhere ... in the world. He’s taught from Sweden to Slovenia and treks back and forth across this country with regularity. It takes a bit to raise his eyebrows.

Consider his following email then, the result of an impromptu glimpse at the work of Adam Charles, superintendent at The Preserve at Verdae in Greenville, S.C. Rossi was in town speaking at a small event on behalf of Corbin Turf and Ornamental Supply at the adjacent Embassy Suites. Filling time waiting for the airport shuttle, Charles gave Rossi a quick spin around the golf course.

A few weeks later, Rossi wrote to Charles: “I have still not completely digested my experience with you. Hard to believe you don’t feel that what most would call a golf course in a ‘weed patch’ is anything revolutionary...if it wasn’t revolutionary, why the hell do we use so much labor and chemical inputs in these areas on courses...”

That’s a question being asked at more and more facilities struggling to get by. Why take resources from tees, fairways and greens to maintain a polish on areas that simply aren’t in play? But if some are dipping a toe in that water, promoting a native area here or establishing a no-mow area there, Charles did a full-on belly flop. Hence, the splash that Rossi felt.

© trent bouts
The Preserve at Verdae’s Adam Charles reuses fallen or harvested trees for tee markers, rope stakes and signage.

By contrast, Charles views himself as anything but a revolutionary. “I’m thinking most of this isn’t all that new or terribly exciting,” he says. But Rossi sees a far greater breadth of how golf courses are maintained nationally. So if he considers Charles as some kind of superintendent radical, he’s probably a better judge than the man himself.

See what you think.

Starting in 2011, Charles “naturalized” roughly 35 percent of the golf course, essentially handing those areas back to the whims of Mother Nature. Now just 65 of the 176 acres on the entire property could be considered maintained turf. He didn’t just let the rest go and grow. He actively promoted wildlife corridors, creating linkages or at least minimizing gaps. He encouraged plants that offered cover as well as food sources and virtually eliminated pesticide use.

“We have done it differently in allowing areas to naturalize over time, rather than planting masses of ornamental grasses or seeding fescues. We are not your typical golf experience in the region,” he concedes. “It’s not for all golfers. Some do perceive it as a bunch of weeds. But others encounter wild turkey, ducks, snakes, hawks, deer, raccoons, skunks and even the occasional coyote. Amongst wildflowers and native flowering plants that all gives you a different emotional connection. There’s a wonderment, a peace, that’s provided by that. And I would guess that makes it more fun.”

So do better playing conditions. In that regard, Charles says going natural saves him as much as $40,000 each year. “The best part is that ownership didn’t take that money away from me,” he says. As a result, he aerates, verticuts, topdresses and mows a lot more than he used to, activities that directly affect the actual playing of the game. “So we’ve changed the quality of the playing surfaces dramatically,” he says, compared to when he arrived in 2007 and “everything was trimmed properly, creek lines, shore lines, no natural areas, everything was mown and serviced weekly.”

While the economics might make obvious sense, there is no doubt that reduced maintenance – even away from tees, fairways and greens – remains a cultural hurdle. It’s a challenge getting golfers raised on decades of wall-to-wall carpeting to accept, let alone prefer, a wild look away from the middle. Highly visible ventures like the retrofitting of Pinehurst No. 2 help but they remain exceptions rather than the rule.

“It was tough,” Charles recalls, when he first stopped mowing around tee boxes on what is now the third hole. Steeply sloped, there was about an acre that was not only out of play but also dangerous to maintain with rough units or too time-consuming with anything else. “So that was an easy spot to pick, because of the safety aspect,” he says. “When people started asking, ‘Why aren’t you mowing this area?’ I could say, ‘Because we can save money by not mowing, reducing inputs and at the same time keep our employees safer.’”

After a few months, some of the native plants like lovegrass began to re-establish and offer an aesthetic interest. “It became to look like it was intentional rather than ‘why are there weeds there’ and ‘why aren’t you mowing them.’”

“It’s not for all golfers. Some do perceive it as a bunch of weeds. But others encounter wild turkey, ducks, snakes, hawks, deer, raccoons, skunks and even the occasional coyote. Amongst wildflowers and native flowering plants that all gives you a different emotional connection. There’s a wonderment, a peace, that’s provided by that. And I would guess that makes it more fun.”
— Adam Charles, The Preserve at Verdae

But as he mimicked that test plot in other areas of the course some of the previously curious became closer to cantankerous. “We had members who had been around since the course was built in the ’90s and they just didn’t feel like it was their golf course anymore,” Charles says. “I had emails, complaints from the pro shop, face-to-face encounters –‘Hey Adam, when are you going to cut those damned briars down so I can see the green?’ We lost some members but gained three or four times that many since.”

Around 32,000 rounds annually may not be any improvement from the pre-recession days, but Charles is confident the pro-natural approach has played a significant part in getting play back after the economic crisis.

Improved course conditioning also helped spawn new interest but Charles was not content to let the golf course speak for itself. He did some explaining, with signage at the clubhouse and around the course and with regular appearances in the pro shop, snack bar and on the driving range. That helped some golfers turn from “shaking their head to, ‘OK, now I get it.’”

Perhaps even more importantly, Charles worked hard to convince his employers at the time. The course is now owned by Atrium, LLC. With the help of his irrigation technician, Ben Long, a graphic design graduate from nearby Clemson University, Charles created the very identity by which the course is now known, including its mission statement, name and logo. “We designed it sitting right here at my desk,” he says.

Previously, The Preserve at Verdae had little to distinguish itself from any other inner-city layout, which was one reason the owners wanted a name change. “But they didn’t have any plan – no great name, no great mission and purpose,” Charles says. “They were looking at names like Greenville National, nothing terribly attractive or distinctive.”

Charles didn’t want to just change the course’s name without any explicit purpose. So he and Long created as 10-page PowerPoint presentation to sell a vision for an overhaul that made sense economically and environmentally and would be marketable, as well.

Today, with the owners’ backing, The Preserve at Verdae is striving for harmony between golf and nature. “They have been 100 percent supportive and that has allowed us to be so much more effective,” Charles says.

Apparently the wild turkeys are similarly grateful. “They’re not so wild anymore,” Charles laughs. “I’m not saying you can walk over and pat one but they’ll let you get within 15 yards or so. I think that’s really neat and so do our golfers. They appreciate that. We’re not making money hand over fist. But we are getting by in a market that is still saturated with supply.”

Charles’ efforts to enhance the facility’s relationship between golf and nature have been recognized nationally. The course is a member of Audubon International and he is a past winner of an Environmental Leaders in Golf Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and Golf Digest.

He also recycles at every opportunity. Beyond the usual paper and plastic, he reuses fallen or harvested trees for tee markers, rope stakes and on-course signage The course is dotted with bird houses and wildflower plots to sustain bees and butterflies. Irrigation controls, pump station upgrades and the use of wireless soil sensors are aimed at conserving water.

“Providing habitat was a major reason we made the changes we did,” he says. “With I-85 along one side and so much development going on over the other side of the property, we began seeing more and more wildlife pushed towards us. We decided we were going to give those animals a place to go.”

Communing with nature is one of the benefits related to the naturalized philosophy at The Preserve at Verdae.

The resultant habitat is very much the “distinctive contrast to highly maintained playing surfaces” that Charles foreshadowed in that PowerPoint five years ago. Indeed, it “adds interest and beauty to the round of golf” and “enables the golf course to showcase the nature of the game.” Charles concedes there is a little quid pro quo involved with the natural areas. “If you hit it in there, you might find a golf ball, but it probably won’t be yours,” he says.

Charles may have his ideals, but his brand of environmentalism is not driven by ideology. He simply loves the land and the game. He grew up in rural Rogersville, Tenn., where McDonald Hills Golf Club served as his day care as a four- and five-year-old. “Way back then it was just nine holes carved out of a pasture, nothing extremely exciting,” he says. “It was golf, it was a swimming pool and it was family. That’s where my love for the game started.”

After graduating from Clemson, he worked for Will Holroyd at Musgrove Mill Golf Club, an Arnold Palmer design on the banks of the Enoree River, essentially in the middle of nowhere about an hour from Greenville. Adjacent to forests, adorned by waste areas and native areas with only the occasional farm house in the area, Musgrove Mill confirmed for Charles that the interests of golf and wildlife were not mutually exclusive. He thought then, particularly in urban environments, how the game could be an ally for nature.

“We have not applied insecticides in three years,” he says. “Our fungicide use is largely curative except for fairy ring and spring dead spot. I’m not going to lose my job over it. If we need to spray something, I have it on the shelf. But I am concentrating on feeding the soil rather than treating the plant.”

He knows his program is not for everyone in every situation. But he is excited by the thought that more superintendents are at least asking the question: “If I’m a superintendent anywhere else and someone walks up and says, ‘Hey, you can stop maintaining 35 percent of your turf over the next couple of years, you don’t have to put any fertilizer on it, you don’t have to put any chemicals on it, you allow it to naturalize, you plant food plots, and you see deer and turkey and create wildlife habitat, for me personally, I think that’d be just as cool as heck... to have that opportunity.”

Trent Bouts is a golf writer and editor based in Greer, S.C., and is a frequent GCI contributor.