The Secret Life of Golf Courses

12.04.25-augustanational By Pat Jones

The legendary Augusta National Golf Club which hosts the famous old tournament is, quite simply, perfect. The emerald green color is perfect. The sharp edges of the white sand bunkers are perfect. The azaleas that frame the best-known holes in golf are perfect. Even the pimento/cheese sandwiches and mint juleps are perfect. Perhaps too perfect.

I love Augusta – and I’ve been their many times in my “regular” life as a golf writer – but the world’s most famous golf course is by no means typical. The club spends millions every year to implement an elaborate and sophisticated program to ensure that the place is absolutely in peak condition for the week when the world comes to watch.

The process reminds me a bit of the carefully executed blooming plans of die-hard rose aficionados trying to achieve the best possible color and consistency just in time for flower show judging – only down at Augusta it’s done across 130 acres of Georgia red clay that’s lovingly covered with a pampered blanket of manicured turfgrass shaded by towering Palmettos and literally thousands of hothouse annuals and hand-picked perennials.

Augusta at Masters time is spectacular, sumptuous…and surreal in the truest sense of the word. In a way, it’s like Brigadoon – the mythical Scottish village of Broadway fame that can only be seen by outsiders once in century. Essentially, it’s a once-a-year trick that CBS Sports and the members of the club play on the world. So, judge ye not based on what you’ll see on your HDTV screen come the second Sunday in April because Augusta is, to put it bluntly, the least typical golf course on the planet.

I ask you to forget what you think about the warped world of Augusta and consider instead the “secret life” of the most typical course in the world:

  • It’s probably within 10 miles of your home. There are 15,500 courses in the U.S. – more locations than McDonalds – and they are everywhere from Denali National Park in Alaska to Death Valley in the Mojave Desert.
  • Instead of being ultra-private, it’s far more likely to be open to anyone who wants to plunk down $35 or so to play 18 holes. Contrary to popular thought, three-quarters of all courses are public access.
  • If you walk – and more and more people are choosing to do that now instead of riding those funny little carts – it’s a good 5-6 miles of exercise. Expect to burn about 1,500 calories when you hoof it for 18 holes instead of riding.
  • It’s often the only major greenspace for miles – home to critters, birds, butterflies and a surprisingly diverse community of native plant species. The transitional areas between the open grassy space in the fairways and the trees and native grasses that often frame them are magnets for wildlife.
  • The turfgrass there is more than just a big open space for a well-hit shot to land. The 70-150 acres of grass on a golf course is a bit of an ecological wonder. Large stands of turf filter pollutants from the water that moves across them and exchanges vast amounts of carbon monoxide for pure oxygen. Those billions of little grass plants also cool the atmosphere and create a permeable place for groundwater recharge.
  • Much attention is paid to the greens – the fragile putting surfaces that are the focus of Joe Hacker’s love/hate relationship with the game. But most areas of the course are naturalized. Weed-free? Ha! Completely absent of bugs or pests? No way. You simply can’t contain Mother Nature, so most courses strive for a balance between the needs of t he game and the realities of managing a vast open space that invites invasive species.
  • It’s typically managed by a professional course superintendent with a four-year degree in agronomy or another natural science who’s licensed to use pesticides and fertilizers and who likely got into the business because of a love of nature and the outdoors.
  • The majority of typical golf courses are going to great lengths to reduce inputs like water and chemicals. Why? To reduce costs and lighten their environmental footprint.
  • The typical course superintendent is amazingly passionate about what he or she does. They’d better be since the greenspaces they care for are enormous complex things that require incredible devotion to soils, plants, water and living things. I know thousands of them – quite literally – and they are largely people who are highly motivated by the same sense of concern I feel among my friends in gardening.

I’ve shared a bit about the secret life of most American courses. Now I’ll share my personal little secret: Despite the fact that I write about golf, golf courses and anything and everything to do with how they are run, I stink at the actual game. I am what is politely called a “high-handicapper.” If par is 72, I might break 100 on a good day. And that’s probably with a couple of “mulligans” and a few kicks out of the tall grass.

The point is that I’ve always loved golf courses – these enormous, beautifully crafted, living, breathing playing fields – more than the stupid game of golf. And, the less you care about how you play, the more you’re likely to enjoy it. If you’re an occasional player who sort of gave up on the game or someone who’s wanted to try it but you’ve been scared of embarrassing yourself, repeat after me:


The beauty of golf, like the joy of gardening, can easily become lost in the futile quest for perfection. Let go of the score. Let go of your fear of embarrassment. Let go of your preconceptions of what those courses look like on TV.

Instead, just look around and drink in the surroundings. Lose yourself in the quiet of an isolated hole. Enjoy the inevitable delay while the doofus in front of you searches the woods in vain for $2 Top Flite. Listen to the wind and the birds and the gentle “thwack” of a faraway shot being struck. There is peace and beauty around you when you ignore the stated purpose of being there and just relax…and become aware of the secret life of golf courses.

Used with permission of A Garden Life, a GIE Media Publication