Mahogany Run Golf Course

St. Thomas, the most populous of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is a prime tourist destination in the Caribbean. Like many tropical tourist destinations, favorite activities here include diving, shopping, dining and, naturally, golf. Except, golf courses on tropical islands aren't as natural as you might think. Despite the imaginings of many people, "tropical" does not necessarily mean "rainy." In fact, for many islands, the opposite holds true, and water is one of the scarcest and most precious resources. Thus, while you can golf on St. Thomas, water is a major limiting factor for the courses here and significantly impacts management practices. In spite of such obstacles, one course-Mahogany Run-is managing to provide quality Caribbean golf.

Bring on the water Water availability drives many of the management strategies at Mahogany Run. Rain is scarce, so the bermudagrass turf-419 on fairways and 328 on greens-relies on irrigation. However, when Superintendent Frank Barnes arrived in 1994, the course had only 168 heads. Barnes was formulating plans for course renovations, but many of the improvements on which he was planning demanded additional irrigation. Therefore, adding sprinklers was a top priority, and the figure now stands at 740 (and is still rising).

Of course, sprinklers do no good without water to operate them. Only eight of 18 wells existing on the site still produce water, and not much at that. The 15,000 gallons of effluent the course uses daily fall far short of demand. Thus, with no rivers and a meager water table, Mahogany Run resorted to the more reliable option common to many small islands-a reverse-osmosis (RO) desalination plant.

Such facilities are not cheap-this one cost around $2 million to build and consumes $25,000 a month in electricity. However, its output can exceed 270,000 gallons a day, which can supply the entire course with nearly 1.5 inches of water per week. At times, the RO plant's output exceeds demand and the course sells its excess water to surrounding condominium developments.

The RO process-which forces water molecules across a membrane and literally strains dissolved minerals out in the process-produces water that's practically free of solutes. It strips the water so cleanly (down to 36 ppm of solutes), in fact, that Mahogany Run must buffer it by returning some solutes back into the water.

The byproduct of RO desalination is a heavy brine that requires careful disposal. Fortunately, when it comes from the ocean, you simply can put it back. However, Mahogany Run found it necessary to run a 500-foot outlet pipe through the nearest cove and out into open water to avoid trapping the brine in the cove. This was primarily for environmental reasons, but it also was necessary to prevent the RO plant's intake-located in the cove-from pumping in its own waste.

Location, location, location Geography affects Mahogany Run's operations in some other challenging ways. Hurricanes are an annual worry, and two recent direct hits-Marylyn in September 1995 and Bertha in July 1996-justify the concern. In fact, hurricane damage accounts for some of the high cost of the RO plant, which was struck during construction. Needless to say, Barnes keeps a close eye on the weather.

St. Thomas, like most Caribbean islands, is far from any major metropolitan area. Because of a lack of local distributors, all supplies must come from afar, which significantly increases their cost and delivery time. In fact, obtaining parts and supplies may be Barnes' biggest maintenance challenge. The price of equipment, fertilizer, pesticides and other supplies is as much as twice its typical U.S. price. Barnes mainly relies on Florida suppliers, which are the closest available. As a territory of the United States, the Virgin Islands are not subject to trade restrictions, so Barnes can purchase virtually anything you could find in the mainland United States. Thus, for example, Mahogany Run mows its turf with modern Jacobsen, Ransomes and Toro units and irrigates with a Toro OSMAC system.

Because of the challenges of maintaining a quality course on a Caribbean island, Mahogany Run is a rare commodity. Thus, the course enjoys a certain prestige. A Fazio design, Mahogany Run boasts a well-known, picturesque series of holes called "The Devil's Triangle" and hosts the St. Thomas Open, which usually draws numerous celebrities. A vacationing President Clinton even spent 2 days golfing there.

Mahogany Run has steadily improved under Barnes' stewardship during the past 4 years. With a new source of water and an expanded irrigation system at his disposal, Barnes is better able to manage his turf. Now he can implement some basic practices that most superintendents take for granted, such as the ability to use chemicals that require watering-in. Although some renovation work remains, Mahogany Run is reaping the tropical fruits of Barnes' labors.

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