Gold in the drought age

Sol Invictus rules

Reclaimed water is used at Salt Creek Golf Course in Chula Vista
  • Reclaimed water is used at Salt Creek Golf Course in Chula Vista
  • A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
  • And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
  • And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
  • There is shadow under this red rock,
  • (Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
  • And I will show you something different from either
  • Your shadow at morning striding behind you
  • Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
  • I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

— T.S. Eliot

Five years into the California drought and T.S. Eliot is sounding more like a prophet than a poet. As I drove down SR-125 southbound on my way to the Salt Creek Golf Course, Elliot’s stanzas rolled through my head.

“A heap of broken images, where the sun beats.... I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

That sounded about right, based on the scenery along the toll-road corridor. As I approached the course I glimpsed distant spots of green being swallowed by a sea of desert browns. I swallowed to chase away the image of the parched land that had made its way to my throat.

Pulling into the parking lot, I joined the few dozen cars huddled to one side grasping for the shade of a few trees. This eastern area of Chula Vista has been baked brown like a French loaf left in the oven for too long.

In spite of the heat, folks were golfing their Titleists around the course. For the uninitiated, golf makes no sense whatsoever.

Those who despise golf will despise it regardless of the environmental circumstances. Add a drought and water shortage, and those for whom golf is “elitist” have another sword to swing.

Likewise, those who would subject themselves to this tyrannical activity make no sense.

A golfer looks forward to the next round with the anticipation of a four-year-old going to Disneyland for the first time. Sleep is light the night before. The alarm sounds and there is no grogginess — there is only the unmistakable motion of somebody getting out of bed with purpose.

About an hour and a half later and five holes into the course, that same giddy toddler has been corrupted by the sport into a curmudgeon of heroic proportions. A companion might throw a compliment their way, such as, “Nice putt,” at the conclusion of a difficult hole.

With a voice coated in bile, the common golfer will reply, “Thanks. But that putt was like whipped cream on dog shit.” But every golfer likes the whipped cream, needs the whipped cream, lives for the whipped cream.

Top 25 Angry Golfers

Can we, the golfer and the nongolfer, agree that the activity is inexplicable? We just have different reasons for why we hate it. Yet the fact remains, drought or no drought, golfers are going to golf and nongolfers are going to think it’s pointless.

I wasn’t at Salt Creek to golf; I was there to talk about water use with the head groundskeeper...Rob Browns. It’s a touchy subject for golf courses. How do they justify using the amount of water to keep a golf course green in the midst of a historic drought? The United States Golf Association states, “Golf courses in hot, dry climates may require as much as 6 acre-feet of water per acre per year.” That’s 1.95 million gallons, or roughly the amount of water used by 45 Southern Californians in a year.

Browns’s demeanor was as bright as his complexion was ruddy. He wore a floppy hat, sunglasses, a long-sleeved shirt, and pants. Browns is no fool: the less sun, the better.

Rob Browns

Rob Browns

Browns is facing the same challenge that all groundskeepers are facing in California. The price of water has more than doubled since he has been at Salt Creek. As we slid into the groundskeeping cart, Browns said, “For courses like ours who need to buy water, it’s a major line item on the budget. We work with a weather station which tells us exactly how much the course needs and then we put that amount of water out — actually less because of the price of the water.”

A weather station tells golf courses how much water to use? I asked Browns for an explanation.

“There’s a formula called the evapotranspiration rate which determines how much water evaporates out of the soil each day depending on the heat, humidity, wind, solar radiation — it’s a pretty complicated formula. That information is available to anyone. The system is called the California Irrigation Management Information System. It’s free to look up.”

We sat in silence as I digested the idea of measuring solar radiation and its effects on irrigation on a daily basis. Sol Invictus truly is the ruler of this planet. The cart continued to bump along the path. Nearby, Mount Miguel frowned down at the golf course huddled up against his broad feet.

I broke my reverie by asking about the acreage of the course.

“The golf course is about 120 acres and we’re watering about 70 acres right now. We used to water about 90 acres — oh, I love these guys.”

As we rounded a corner, three figures were observing the tee box while a pleasant-looking woman supervised, the lanyard around her neck indicating her position of responsibility for the trio. We stopped to say hi.

I asked the supervisor, Marni Braithwaite, what was going on. “This is part of the extended transition program at Eastlake High School. It’s for kids with disabilities, ages 18 to 22. We’re helping them build job skills after they graduate high school.”

The program has been partnered with Salt Creek for about two years. I shook the hands of the three young men and asked if I could take a photograph.

Browns and I continued our journey. We passed dried-up ponds, long stretches of rough terrain, and the playability of the course became our topic.

Playability has always been a key element to any golf course in any climate. How does the course play? What size are the greens? How wide are the fairways? How many forced carries are there? These are playability issues.

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