Environmental Leaders in Golf Award winners named

Three of the four ELGA recipients are receiving the distinction for the first time.


ELGA award winners
(From left) H. Mitchell Wilkerson, Matt Gourlay, Jim Pavonetti and Landon Lindsay are the recipients of this year's Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards, presented by GCSAA and Golf Digest in partnership with Syngenta. Photos courtesy of award recipients

The winners of the Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards, presented annually by GCSAA and Golf Digest in partnership with Syngenta, usually have an air of familiarity about them.

The 20 categorized ELGAs handed out since the program was revamped in 2018 were shared by only 14 individuals. Four men claimed a combined 10 ELGAs in that span.

This year, however, there was only one repeat winner, though the other three winners had a long history of runner-up finishes — seven between them.

On the following pages, the 2023 ELGA winners — from left, Mitchell Wilkerson, CGCS; Matt Gourlay, CGCS, MG (now a three-time winner); Landon Lindsay; and Jim Pavonetti, CGCS — share some of the initiatives that made them the envy of environmental efforts everywhere.

The ELGA recipients will be honored during the 2024 GCSAA Conference and Trade Show, Jan. 29-Feb. 1 in Phoenix.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Mitchell Wilkerson, CGCS, and the crew at Moss Creek Owners Association in Hilton Head, S.C., make it a point to remind members “what a great area they live in.” Photo by Brenda Ciapanna

Communications and Outreach

H. Mitchell Wilkerson, CGCS

Moss Creek Owners Association, Hilton Head, S.C.

It’s not that Mitchell Wilkerson, CGCS, is opposed to more high-tech means of communicating with members of the Moss Creek Owners Association. He has used — and continues to use — various social media streams to get the word out.

But he’s savvy enough to know a message not received is no better than one not sent.

“I’ve used Twitter, or X, and I know some of our younger members are using that,” says Wilkerson, a 39-year GCSAA member who has been superintendent at the 36-hole Moss Creek courses the past 24 years. “But I don’t know what the traffic is with that. With what our clientele is, I know if I put it on a board, it’ll hit more people.”

The boards in question — Wilkerson refers to them as the “Audubon boards” because they’re part of Moss Creek’s certification as an Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary — are eye-catching displays at various points around the property that highlight the natural world that’s critical to the Moss Creek community, which is a National Wildlife Federation-certified community habitat.

“One thing about Moss Creek is, it’s very nature-related,” Wilkerson says. “Everything about it is concerned with nature, so we use those boards to highlight or promote what other parts of the club are doing.”

Five or six times a year, Wilkerson says, the team at Moss Creek updates the boards. Content can range from endemic wildlife to a former U.S. president.

“We did one on sharks during Shark Week on Discovery,” Wilkerson says of the popular recurring television programming block. “I know people are always looking at Shark Week on TV. We did one on Teddy Roosevelt, who is considered one of the first naturalists. We throw a bunch of pictures on there, different colors. We try to be different each time, especially with color. I know sometimes people don’t read it, but I just try to make that grab, if you will. You can’t be too long and wordy. Even if they read just the first paragraph, that’s my biggest point. We’re just trying to catch some of the young people out here, grandkids and some of the younger members.”

Wilkerson is constantly evaluating where to place the boards. One is permanently located near the bag drop area, while the second easel-style display is more portable. It was set up near the big swimming pool, but it will shift to the fitness center and tennis courts once the pool closes, all in the quest to collect more “hits.”

“We’re trying to reach more of the young kids, the younger members, where the boards are located to get more traffic,” Wilkerson says, using a very social-media-friendly term. “We came up with the idea of a mobile board to get more views. That’s what we’re looking for.”

Moss Creek’s communications aren’t all so low-tech. Several staff members post daily on X and Facebook and contribute to weekly and monthly communications with members about “environmental observations and natural, seasonal occurrences.” Working closely with a large, active community nature club, the staff crafts dispatches to keep members apprised of notable wildlife sightings, upcoming bird-count events and news about the three on-site nature preserves.

“Just over the last five or six years, we’ve really developed a good communication plan with our members,” Wilkerson says. “We’re pretty proud of it, and it just keeps growing. That’s the best part. We really haven’t done anything but remind everyone of what a great area they live in.”

First runner-up was Wayne Mills, GCSAA Class A superintendent at La Cumbre Country Club in Santa Barbara, Calif., and 39-year association member. Second runner-up was Coman Mulry, MG, International Superintendent Member at Al Zorah Golf Club in United Arab Emirates and a three-year GCSAA member.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Matt Gourlay and Colbert Hills Golf Course in Manhattan, Kan., have collected three ELGA victories in six years. Photos by Matt Gourlay

Healthy Land Stewardship

Matt Gourlay, CGCS, MG

Colbert Hills Golf Course, Manhattan, Kan.

Matt Gourlay, CGCS, MG, is no stranger to the top podium spot in the ELGAs, but even he’s not sure what landed him and his staff their latest award.

“No idea,” Gourlay says with a laugh. “We just try to do the best we can with the resources we have. But the stuff we do here is not a one-and-done thing. It’s a culmination of things we’ve done since the golf course has been here. We were a Silver Certified Sanctuary (from Audubon International) when we were designed and built, and every year we just try to keep modifying what we do to keep getting better and better to be environmentally friendly.”

The initiatives at the public 27-hole Colbert Hills GC are many, and they resulted in back-to-back ELGA wins for Gourlay, director of golf course operations and a 20-year association member. Colbert Hills won the Innovative Conservation Award in 2018 and Natural Resource Conservation in 2019. A string of runner-up finishes — in Communications and Outreach in 2020 and 2022, and Healthy Land Stewardship in 2021 — followed before this year’s win put Colbert Hills one ELGA away from a grand slam.

One of Gourlay’s latest environmentally focused programs involves the use of a fairway-mower-mounted passive microwave remote sensor — a high-tech moisture meter — that provided a wealth of information on 42 acres of fairways to help in irrigation decisions.

Well, not at first.

For the first four weeks, Gourlay irrigated 17 holes of Colbert Hills’ “big course” the way he would prior to acquiring the sensor; he irrigated one hole based on information provided by the sensor.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
A look at the fairway moisture data collected by a mower-mounted passive microwave sensor.

“If I would have trusted the data, we could have reallocated 1.4 million gallons of water over those four weeks,” he says. “Theoretically, I overwatered by 1.4 million gallons in four weeks because I didn’t trust the data at the time. For us, that’s a huge cost saving. We have to purchase our water, and that would have saved us about $7,000.”

Naturally, Gourlay now is more likely to follow the sensor’s lead — in conjunction with his tried-and-true reliance on weather patterns and forecast reference evapotranspiration. The company claims the sensor’s information can result in 20% reduction in water usage, and Gourlay is still crunching the numbers, but he knows they’ll have a couple of commas in them.

“It’s very challenging to put a number on it. It’s so variable, based on weather patterns,” he says. “But our last water bill was $65,000. That’s a huge line item. Sixty-five thousand dollars can hire a great individual to help maintain other areas of the course.”

Another recent addition to Colbert Hills’ green cred is a 5-kilowatt solar array installed on the maintenance facility, which is heated in colder months by burning used oil (up to 80W) — all in pursuit of becoming a zero-waste property.

Key to continually moving the needle, Gourlay says, is stressing to the staff the need to improve.

“It’s always challenging to modify your practices,” he says. “I remember when green speeds were 10½ here every day. Now they’re 12. I didn’t think that was possible. But the technology just keeps improving. Turfgrass varieties keep improving. Ways to lead a team keep improving. That’s why I love the continuing education stuff we do — local, regional, national conferences we go to, my superintendents and assistants go to. Social media — communications — is huge, just talking with our peers. You have to continue learning, continuing to push envelopes.”

First runner-up was Kevin Goss, GCSAA Class A superintendent at Sugar Creek Golf Course in Villa Park, Ill., and a 14-year association member. Second runner-up was 30-year GCSAA member Harlyn Goldman, CGCS, superintendent at Needwood Golf Course in Derwood, Md.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
The crew at TPC Las Colinas in Las Colinas, Texas, continues to add native areas to make the plentiful wildlife feel welcome. Photos courtesy of Landon Lindsay

Natural Resource Conservation

Landon Lindsay

TPC Las Colinas, Las Colinas, Texas

The names may change, but the winning ways continue at this Dallas-area club.

ELGA regular Anthony Williams, CGCS, won three of the coveted awards at two properties, the latter two of which came at this 36-hole facility that then was known as TPC Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club. The most recent ELGA to bear his name, the Communications and Outreach Award, came in 2020, and Williams encouraged his superintendents to pick up the mantle.

Williams was still the man in charge, but superintendent Cortland Winkle, CGCS, had his name engraved on the 2021 Healthy Land Stewardship Award at what was then the Four Seasons Resort and Club.

Now that Williams has transitioned into a corporate role at Invited (formerly ClubCorp) and Landon Lindsay is director of agronomy at The Nelson Golf & Sports Club, that same tract of land in the Metroplex has four ELGAs to its name(s) — Williams’ National Private and Overall Winner award in 2017, plus the three wins since the awards were revamped in 2018 — with three different names on the plaque.

“When Anthony Williams was director here, he got our property turned on to the ELGAs,” says Lindsay, GCSAA Class A superintendent and 12-year association member. “We were successful in Year One, when we won the overall before the format changed. After the format changed, our goal was to win every category. This is our third, so we still have one to go.”

At a place like (checks notes) TPC Las Colinas, sometimes it’s hard to say what specific program or programs were crucial to any particular award. Lindsay has a theory.

“I think it’s cumulative,” says Lindsay, who was runner-up in this category last year. “I’d say we did every sub-category very well. Probably one area we excel in, when you consider where we’re at, smack-dab in the middle of Dallas-Fort Worth, we’re lucky to have a pretty healthy wildlife inventory. We have coyotes, bobcats. We have a reclaimed water canal that runs through the entire property we irrigate with, so we have beavers and otters. That helps a lot.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Ongoing dredging — a joint venture with the local water authority — helps the property’s water-holding capacity, as well as the quality of that water

To make that wildlife feel at home, the facility continues to add natural areas that feature native species that can handle Texas-sized heat and increasingly dry conditions.

That canal Lindsay mentioned it critical to dealing with the latter — especially walking the tightrope that’s required to maintain bentgrass in the Lone Star State.

“It’s important to us to make sure we’re responsible with our resources,” he says. “I told our GM this summer, ‘Could I throw more water out there? Sure, but at some point you become irresponsible.’ So we substitute with a lot of hand watering.”

Dallas-Fort Worth is in the midst of a severe two-year drought and suffered through another insufferably hot summer, with 53 days of temperatures over 100 degrees. The average is 15-20 100-degree days a year. To deal with the heat and precious water, the TPC Las Colinas crew closely monitors the canal — a joint project between the facility and the Dallas County Utilities and Reclamation District — for silt, which can degrade the water quality and available holding capacity. An ongoing silt-dredging program improves both, and there’s a twist.

“After dredging, you have to get rid of the silt,” Lindsay says. “We allow them (DCURD) to repurpose it in our native areas so they don’t have to haul it offsite. We’ve had to redo a few native areas through the years, but it’s worth it. When the silt’s lining the canal, that can really change the water quality.”

First runner-up was Roby Robertson, CGCS, at TPC San Antonio and a 36-year association member. Second runner-up was Justin Brimley, GCSAA Class A superintendent at Crystal Springs Golf Course in Burlingame, Calif., and 12-year association member.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
The fifth hole at Fairview, with vegetative buffer on the littoral zone along the green and approach area. Photos by Jim Pavonetti

Innovative Conservation

Jim Pavonetti, CGCS

Fairview Country Club, Greenwich, Conn.

As it turns out, the last straw might have been the final straw for Jim Pavonetti, CGCS, to collect his first ELGA.

After finishing runner-up the past four years, Pavonetti took the top spot this year, thanks in part, he reckons, to his constant refinement of an unusual method for keeping clean the effluent water he stores onsite to use for Fairview CC’s irrigation needs.

“Even though we’re literally 20 miles away from New York City, we’re in a very remote area of town,” says Pavonetti, a 28-year GCSAA member. “We don’t have city water. We don’t have a public sewer system. All the larger businesses here have their own sewage treatment plants. We have effluent water we put into our ponds, and some of them are shallow, so they’re prone to algae, duckweed and other weeds.”

Pavonetti noticed years ago that the course was spending lots of time and money to keep the water clean.

“We were using a company to come in and treat the ponds. At times, they were coming every other week,” Pavonetti recalls. “Every time they’d come, it was costly, No. 1, and No. 2, they were putting chemicals in the water. I love fishing, and I love fish. That’s a focal point for me, outside of the turf world. So, what can we do to make it better and reduce the amount of pesticides we put in the water?”

About 2011, Pavonetti recalls, the answer to that question was diffusers — aerators that keep the water from falling stagnant and adding to the water’s oxygen content. Before long, the crew began adding dye to the ponds to reduce the amount of ultraviolet radiation. The dye was safe for fish but greatly stunted weed growth.

Finally, Fairview began adding barley straw to the ponds and ingress streams. The straw decays and releases beneficial bacteria into the water that inhibit algae growth.

“I remember reading a magazine article about it. I read that people were floating whole bales of barley straw in their ponds, but I didn’t think my members would appreciate it,” Pavonetti says.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Pavonetti uses cages to hold barley straw to mitigate algae blooms. These are placed wherever water enters one of the ponds on the course so that the water flows through them.

At first, the crew put the barley straw in mesh bags, “Like the kind onions come in,” Pavonetti says. “We weighed them down with rocks, but they were a pain in the behind to get out when it was time to replace the straw.”

A couple of years ago, they found the solution was to fill cages — like an angler’s cage for live bait.

“They look like crab traps,” Pavonetti says. “You stuff them with straw, and the cages naturally sink when the straw gets waterlogged.”

Good luck arguing with the results. Pavonetti says the 1-2-3 punch of diffusers, dye and straw saves the club on average $9,000 per year — a $79,000 savings over the past 10 years of fine-tuning — and has reduced aquatic herbicide applications by 90%.

“Each time we added another thing, it reduced our reliance on chemicals,” Pavonetti says. “A couple of summers, we’ve not even had one application all year. Some years, we maybe have one application in the hottest part of summer. It’s mostly an aesthetics thing, the expectations of our members for the ponds to look clean and for us not to have to water with stagnating, smelly water. Now there’s no odor. It’s clear and looks cleaner, and I think it’s healthier for the grass.”

First runner-up was Carl Thompson, CGCS, at Columbia Point Golf Course in Richland, Wash. Second runner-up was Jay Wade, CGCS, at Magnolia Green Golf Club in Moseley, Va., and an 18-year association member.

Andrew Hartsock (ahartsock@gcsaa.org) is GCM’s senior managing editor.