Going With the Natural Flow at Streamsong May 25, 2016 | Bowling Green, Fla. By Ron Driscoll, USGA

Streamsong Resort uses a minimalist approach to its agronomy practices in maintaining its two golf courses. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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“Maintain, but don’t overly maintain.”

It sounds a bit like the mantra “Try not to try.” It’s a delicate balance, and one that Rusty Mercer attempts to find daily in his stewardship of Streamsong Resort.

Mercer arrived in October 2010 as the director of golf agronomy, when Streamsong Blue and Streamsong Red were still under construction. Streamsong Blue is hosting the 2nd U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball Championship this week.

“It was a giant mess,” said Mercer, who was taking on his third Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw design, two of them in the construction phase, the third of which was an extensive renovation. “The courses here were routed, but it was probably six months before we hired an irrigation company and started laying pipes.”

Mercer had worked most recently at the Golf Club of Cuscowilla in Eatonton, Ga., a course sited on red clay, and before taking the job, he had to overcome his misgivings.

“I’m not sure why I took the job, to be honest,” said Mercer, who had been at Cuscowilla for 17 years. “Maybe I was at the point where I needed a challenge, and this was certainly it. I had always believed heart and soul that you couldn’t grow bermudagrass on sand, and there was a lot of sand here.”

Indeed, the massive piles of sand tailings – a byproduct of the region’s rock-phosphate mining operation – made the Streamsong property unique, and the goal was to keep it that way.

“I heard this statement a lot the first year that I was here: there’s an awful lot of really good Florida golf in Florida,” said Mercer. “And if that’s what we were going to do – if we couldn’t do something different and unique to fit the site – well, there was really no need to do anything at all.”

Added Todd Lowe, Southeast Region agronomist for the USGA Green Section, “It’s a special place, unlike anything else you’ll find in Florida. Once you drive 35 or 40 minutes in from the coastline, it turns to agriculture, citrus, cattle, and up in this region, mining.”

Golf, however, not so much, and the architects who put their stamp on the resort (Coore-Crenshaw for Streamsong Red, Tom Doak for Streamsong Blue, and Gil Hanse who is currently creating Streamsong Black) were not inclined to disturb what was already there to fit an artificial vision in their minds.

“It started with the minimalist philosophy of the golf course architects, and that has translated to the rest of the property,” said Tom Sunnarborg, the vice president of land development and management for Mosaic, the owners of the resort. “It’s about making sure we didn’t disturb anything that didn’t need to be disturbed or irrigate anything that didn’t need to be irrigated.”

The supporting buildings at Streamsong – the clubhouse and the lodge – are designed to fit as seamlessly as possible into the surrounding landscape.

“There is real attention to detail on what we didn’t want to do,” said Sunnarborg. “There are no flowers here, nothing that isn’t necessary to support the game or the retreat-like philosophy. Areas that look natural are natural, because we didn’t disturb them in the first place. Most traditional developments spread out too much.”

Golf course architects – and superintendents – are continuously striving not to spread their own footprint too wide.

“When the irrigation was designed, we intentionally moved the sprinkler heads in – we did not hardline the edges of the fairways,” said Mercer. “The edges will brown out at certain times of the year. There’s a certain level of unkemptness here that the architects wanted, by intent and by design.”

No straight lines – maintain, but not too much.

“We all listened very intently to what Mr. Coore and Mr. Doak had to say about it, then we tried daily to not cross that line of being overly maintained,” said Mercer. “That’s a hard line to find sometimes – it’s a gray line, it kind of shifts on you.”

Just as the site evolved over several decades before it was reclaimed, it will do so going forward, and maintenance will be most active down the middle.

“We have to be willing to allow the site to evolve off the play corridor,” said Mercer. “Things grow very fast in this part of the world, so a dune might be bare now and after two months of summer rain, it might be full of native grasses.”

“We’re not afraid of presenting a golf course that’s a little atypical of what you would see at your local country club,” said Rich Mack, executive vice president and CFO of Mosaic. “The grass gets stressed during the summertime and we’re not afraid to let the course marbleize, or turn a little brown. We are big believers of firm and fast playing conditions.”

That firm-and-fast philosophy goes hand in hand with stewardship of water resources.

“We don’t use a lot of groundwater, because there’s a layer of clay under us,” said Sunnarborg. “It’s like a clay liner to a lake, but it’s over hundreds and hundreds of acres. All of the rainwater and irrigation water hit this clay liner and travel back to our irrigation lakes. Other than grow-in, we haven’t had our deep well pumps on except to test them.”

Like Streamsong itself, they are built to stand the test of time.

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.

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