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Vision 2050: Niels Dokkuma Talks About Grass

Article by Golf Sustainable:

He loves to talk about grass: Niels Dokkuma, an agronomist with degrees from the HAS green academy and Penn State University, is responsible for Sustainable Management at the Royal Netherlands Golf Federation and works part-time for the European Golf Association. He also has professional experience at renowned courses such as Baltusrol in the USA. In our Vision 2050 series, we asked him what the future of golf could look like from the perspective of a grass specialist. The good news first: According to Dokkuma, there will still be golf courses in 2050 – they may just look different.

You are now 40 years old. Can you imagine still playing in 2050?

Dokkuma: Oh yes, absolutely. But to me, the game of golf is foremost recreational. I don’t want to be competitive. But I am convinced I will play for the next decades.

What fascinates you most? Is it nature, the game, or the people?

Dokkuma: Absolutely the nature component. That makes the sport unique to me. The battle with the landscape, the different lies you can get, angles, making the judgements of the meters to the pin, the shaping of the golfing landscape. From a professional perspective, I appreciate a mid-summer, high-quality golf course. I don’t enjoy a highly manicured golf course because it seems too artificial.

What do you think a golf course will look like in 30 years?

Dokkuma: Less manicured. Regarding resources, and I don’t care if we speak about manpower, sand or other resources, we will see less availability combined with stricter legislation, such as biodiversity development, nature development, and pesticide use. That will facilitate the transition towards a lower input style of golf course, in which quality levels are further developed.

Will golf courses in general, be smaller because there is this ongoing debate about land use for golf courses?

Dokkuma: That can go two ways – we can go smaller and more intense. Should we perhaps even increase the size and make it more open to the general public? Like, I can think of golf courses that are really set up in a very wide way where there’s a lot of room for multifunctional use, either horseback riding or walkways, etc. So then you are looking at something like a public park for 250 hectares, with a golf course with all kinds of other functions in between. Sounds good, too.

The EU claims to be net zero in 2050, and several sports organizations and golf federations have the same target. Is that reachable?

Dokkuma: So far, the indications we are all receiving in the golf industry are that we can be carbon-positive because of the trees and the grass on the courses. Obviously, the biggest component in the big tournaments is the transport of the golf fan. But also, in an average golf club, just the way to and back home to the golf club by car is going to be a problem regarding emissions. But this mobility problem might be solved with the use of more electric cars. Golf will be potentially a front runner with the average golfer being an early adopter to electric cars with governmental benefits on taxes.

As an agronomist, grass is your core competence. Will we see completely different grasses in 2050 and the use of much more warm-season grasses?

Dokkuma: That will be climate change dependent. The use of grass will definitely shift, with Bermuda and Zoysia going more up north. We will see more courses switching from Bent to Bermuda, because Bent isn’t sustainable in particular climates. We have already seen this in the United States or in Southern Spain, where the courses couldn’t hold their boundaries in a sustainable way. First of all, reaching your quality standards might become difficult. And then, the resource input becomes important. But we will see many more innovations in grass varieties and developments anyhow.

Will we play much more on artificial grass in 2050?

Dokkuma: The question is: Does artificial grass suit the function of the game of golf in the natural landscape? If there’s a fit, we see more of it. But at the same time, we’ve been talking about this for 30 years now. And at the same time, we see all kinds of environmental topics coming up. So, in my opinion, it will always be a niche for golf. But I don’t think we will see full 18 holes with artificial grass.

With climate change, more and more insects are showing up. At the same time, there is a tendency towards non-pesticide legislation. How can greenkeepers handle all the insects in the future?

Dokkuma: The more biodiversity we have on the golf courses, the more natural predators we have. If you have a monoculture, an insect can develop more quickly. So that’s one part of it. The other one is that losing more and more chemical insecticides also means the development of biological insecticides. And actually, the biggest challenge might be not even insecticides but weeds.

What do these challenges mean for the greenkeeper and his education?

Dokkuma: More data-driven greenkeeping is needed, as well as more knowledge. With the STERF research in the Nordic countries, we have already seen how important all this expertise can be. Regarding the clubs, we will see a bigger differentiation in quality levels, more than now. The top-end courses will have the resources to apply Integrated Pest Management, work with data, and develop their knowledge to facilitate their ambitions. Lower-end clubs will have less resources to take care of that.

When you look back in history – what can we learn from the old, classical courses for the future?

Dokkuma: Working on the growing environment is both the above-ground and the below-ground. That’s of course, kind of ideal on a links course with free-draining sand and no trees. That’s perfect for grass. I can think of many golf courses without an ideal growing environment regarding trees and shade. That is then a limiting factor. But still, there is a lot that can be achieved both in the above-ground growing environment and the subsoil growing environments to make improvements over the years.

Let’s imagine you are the superintendent of your dream golf club, and you can make three decisions for a better future of the golf course. What are the decisions you take?

First, the things I just mentioned: Working on the above-ground environment and especially on the subsoil environment, taking care of the cause, not the symptoms. And the second point would be communication – managing expectations. The third one would be: to gather and analyse data because you can’t manage what you can’t measure.