With a devout environmentalist in charge of its grounds, Brooks National Golf Club has garnered well-deserved recognition as a leader in the green movement.
Brooks National Golf Club, in Okoboji, Iowa, is a Midwestern Mecca for golfers. The club’s 27-hole course, nestled among the Iowa Great Lakes in the northwestern part of the state, blends masterful design with superb playing conditions, and isconsidered hallowed ground by the avid golfers who’ve christened it as their favorite.
Under the leadership of Certified Golf Course Superintendent Brett Hetland, who received the first-ever Iowa Golf Course Superintendents Association Environmental Stewardship Award earlier this year, the property is more than just a great golf course. It stands as an altar to environmental stewardship as well.
Golf Course Scorecard
Club Name: Brooks National Golf Club
“Brett is passionate about the environment,” says Tom Davies, Brooks National’s President and CEO. “The club sees his passion and gives him free rein to do whatever he needs to do to make our course as ‘green’ as he can.”
Bitten By the Bug
The environmental bug initially bit Hetland, who has been at Brooks National for 12 years, when he began researching Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program requirements. Brooks National ultimately achieved Audubon certification in March 2003, and has since been recertified three times.
“Seeking certification was a way to change the public’s perception of our course,” Hetland explains. “I wanted our community to regard us not as environmental abusers, but instead as stewards.”
Located in a summer tourism playground, with the population of Okoboji ballooning from about 10,000 in the winter to a peak of roughly 100,000 by the Fourth of July, the region is home to seven lake protective associations.
“This community is dedicated to improving and enhancing the water quality and ecological health of Lake West Okoboji and the Iowa Great Lakes Watershed,” notes Hetland. “So we are also extremely proactive about our environmental efforts, as well.”
As part of that effort, Hetland pens a blog, ‘Keeping it Green” (http://golfsuper1.blog.com/), to keep readers updated on both the Brooks National course as well as environmental and pollution prevention techniques that can be easily incorporated at other facilities.
C&G Profile: Brooks National Golf Club
“When people see irrigation heads running and fertilizer applications underway, they can get the wrong idea about course maintenance practices,” Hetland notes. “It’s our job to tell them the real story.”
North of the club, Brooks National is bordered by the Dickinson County Nature Center. In recent years, the two entities have partnered on joint environmental stewardship efforts.
“The nature center releases four ospreys each year,” says Hetland who, with the help of his team, has created on-course nesting platforms for the birds for the last three years.
On the first Monday of each month from May to September, the golf course and nature center collaborate on a “Birding on the Greens” program. Golf carts are provided to avid birdwatchers, who have since helped the Brooks National staff identify more than 130 species on the property in the last eight years.
“The staff works hard at creating natural amenities to improve the beauty of the golf course, from the nesting platforms to the landscaping,” says Davies. “We’ve even had visitors come to Brooks just to see our flowers.”
Hetland knows he has to answer to more than the surrounding community when it comes to environmental issues. As the father of two young, eco-conscious sons, ages 8 and 5, he has found that his stewardship efforts have come home to roost as well. “It’s taken over our household,” he admits. “It’s contagious once you start doing it.”
Recognition of Hetland’s environmental leadership has extended beyond the Iowa Great Lakes region. Brooks National won the 2009 Governor’s Iowa Environmental Excellence Award, in the Waste Management Special Project category. The property worked with the Iowa Waste Reduction Center (IWRC) to reduce waste generation, develop a comprehensive recycling program, and dispose of hazardous waste through registered handlers.
In addition, the club collaborated on the IWRC’s “Golf Course Pollution Prevention Guide,” and Hetland has made presentations about the program at industry events on the local, regional and national levels.
Superintendent Profile: Brett Hetland
Education and Training: B.S. in Horticulture, North Dakota State University, Fargo, N.D.
Through these efforts, the course has reduced its dumpster pickups from five to three days a week, and hazardous waste from Brooks National no longer finds its way to a landfill. The small fees to recycle hazardous waste such as antifreeze and oil filters are offset by the savings generated by fewer garbage pickups, Hetland notes.
“All of the other departments have bought into the idea as well, and are doing a really good job,” he says of the recycling program. “It’s easy, and you can save your club significant money by doing simple things every day. Plus, it helps the environment. It’s a win-win.”
John Bramblett, Brooks National’s Head PGA Golf Professional, makes sure his staff members follow the environmental program, too, with efforts that range from transferring waste from golf carts to the proper recycling bins, to asking pro shop customers if they need a printed receipt. “We’ve also gone paperless with a lot of our invoicing, and even some of the clothing we sell is eco-friendly,” reports Bramblett.
The recycling program undergoes an annual review, to identify its strengths and weaknesses and gather feedback and ideas from the staff. Other steps taken to keep it fresh and relevant include annual training sessions for seasonal employees, annual research of regulatory changes to maintain compliance, and regular promotion of the program to golfers, the community and other properties.
“Recycling has become much easier over the years,” notes Hetland. “Originally, our cardboard bin was just for corrugated paper, but now we can put any kind of paper in it. Anything you can think of, we have a bin for it.”
The property’s environmental efforts aren’t confined to recycling, however. Eco-friendly golf course maintenance practices include fertilizing once a year with a controlled-release process by osmosis, reducing the chance of runoff or leaching with fewer nutrients, and using organic products. The terrain also features buffer strips and no-spray zones.
Hetland strives to bring his entire staff on board when it comes to following eco-friendly practices. “I like to empower my employees and give them responsibility,” he explains. “If they buy into it and take ownership, they’re going to work harder for the betterment of Brooks.”
Taking Environmental Ownership
Having support for environmental initiatives from the property’s owners has been a boon to the club as well. Brooks National, which was built on a cornfield in 1932, was purchased by a group of investors in November 2006, and the preservation of green space was a motivating factor for the acquisition.
“The previous owner wanted to build a housing development that would have incorporated two of the golf courses,” says Davies. “The new owners bought the golf course not as an investment, but to keep it as the pristine golf course that it was, and is.
“Since then, things have improved immensely. The golf course has never been more beautiful, and the playing conditions have never been better. It’s one of the premier golf courses in the Midwest, and has become something of a destination resort—a lot of people now come to Okoboji just because of Brooks.”
Each of the nine-hole layouts has distinctive features, says Bramblett. One has a tree-lined, parkland setting, one is noted for its water features, and one is a Scottish links-type course, with native grasses and few trees. “Golfers can play any combination of the three; they complement each other nicely,” he notes.
The same goes for the strong working relationship between the golf and course maintenance staffs behind the scenes. “Brett is my sounding board; I pump him for local knowledge,” says Bramblett, who has been at Brooks National for four years.
No Shortage of Answers
While he may have local knowledge, Hetland also casts a wide net when it comes to finding innovative ways to do his job. “I’m always trying to learn things from other people,” he says. “I love networking, and I don’t think you can create a network that’s big enough.
“Our profession is probably one of the coolest ever,” he adds. “We compete with each other, but if a mower breaks down, I can call another superintendent and borrow one. If I have a problem, I know what another superintendent will say: ‘Disease? What’s wrong? Need an irrigation part? Come get it.’ ”
Each winter, Hetland attends the Golf Industry Show (GIS), to network with other industry professionals and take classes on topics ranging from water conservation to business to human resources. “The hardest part for us, being in the North, is that we have to wait two months before we can implement what we learn at GIS,” he says.
Like many of his colleagues, Hetland is finding that social media is becoming a bigger part of his skill set. Beyond his own blog, he often searches those kept by other superintendents for solutions to turf problems. He even uses Twitter to update the Brooks membership about course maintenance practices. “People get bombarded with e-mails, so I set up a Twitter account,” he reports. “If they want to follow it, that’s their choice.”
Hetland also documents many of his maintenance activities with a digital camera, and expects a smart phone, which he could use to run the irrigation system, to become the next technology-related piece in his maintenance arsenal.
Regardless of the tools at hand or the plaques on the wall, however, maintaining high standards and protecting the environment are the driving forces behind the course and grounds operations at Brooks National. “Showing that we’re environmentally sound gives us marketing leverage,” notes Hetland. “Our name is gaining recognition as being a golf course that is environmentally friendly, and that makes us really proud.”research