SAN DIEGO — Mission Bay Golf Course, known for being the county’s only lighted course and the place where Tiger Woods won a Junior World title, might soon be on the cutting edge of environmental innovation.
Ongoing city efforts to restore lost marshland in Mission Bay could include dramatically reconfiguring the course to include marshes disguised as water features and natural habitat areas that serve as “rough.”
The transformation could also include adding retention ponds and bioswales, which would filter pollutants and sediment from La Jolla’s Rose Creek as it feeds into the Kendall-Frost marsh and land nearby that’s slated become restored marsh.
“There’s lots of opportunities to make the golf course not only environmentally benign, but an environmental benefit,” said Rebecca Schwartz, conservation program manager for the local Audubon Society chapter.
“The environment wasn’t on people’s minds in the 1950s when Mission Bay was created and they built the golf course — they were just thinking of recreation,” said Schwartz. “But for a while now people have been asking this question of how we can make golf courses less environmentally destructive.”
Instead of blending into existing natural terrain, traditional golf courses dramatically alter land to create a manicured and pristine setting that is often damaging to the environment.
They typically pollute waterways and force plants and animals out because they rely on fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and often feature fake ponds instead of natural water features and sand traps instead of real dunes.
That’s a particular problem for a course at Mission Bay, an environmentally sensitive area that’s home to many birds and that could be crucial to local efforts fighting climate change and sea level rise.
City officials decided this winter to include the 46-acre course in two planning efforts studying how to restore some of the marshes destroyed 60 years ago when Mission Bay was created with aggressive dredging.
Including the golf course, which was built mostly on marshland in 1955, in the studies doesn’t guarantee there will be big changes or really any changes at all, said Robin Shifflet, the city planner overseeing the process.
And the changes wouldn’t happen for at least a few years, maybe even longer depending on how much the plan that gets approved would cost.
But the course could be eliminated, relocated to less sensitive land, shrunk in size or significantly reconfigured into a remarkable example of environmental stewardship, Shifflet said.
“Those are all possibilities,” she said. “It’s an exciting idea to make the golf course more environmentally sensitive like other modern ones.”
Golfers interviewed Friday at the course agreed that the concept was exciting, but said they were worried the ongoing analysis might lead to its closure.
“This is a rare and important greenbelt so I don’t want them to get carried away and decide it needs to go away,” said Nick Bohl, who’s been playing at Mission Bay for about 10 years.
But he said transforming the course into something with wetlands blended in made sense and could increase awareness of the area’s history.
“Most people probably don’t realize the property was once a marsh,” Bohl said.
Bill Wible, a 35-year veteran of the course, said Mission Bay has unusual aspects that give it a crucial role in local golf.
It’s an 18-hole “executive” course, meaning it’s shorter than an ordinary course and has only par-3 and par-4 holes.
“It’s one of the shorter courses for people who are older,” he said.
In addition, it’s the only lighted course in the county, allowing people with full-time jobs a convenient way to finish a full round on weekdays by extending their play into the late evening.
Scott French, another player, said he frequently hits balls on the Mission Bay driving range because it’s the only range in the area where you can hit off grass.
Shifflet, the city official, said it only made sense to include the golf course in the area being studied by the city and Audubon Society.
The studies are analyzing how to restore as many as 170 acres of marshland in the park’s northeast corner near Pacific Beach.
They were prompted by two newly available properties in crucial locations for marsh restoration: the 76-acre De Anza Cove Mobile Home Park and the 50-acre Campland on the Bay RV Resort.
The city, which recently launched a three-year planning process for the area, hopes to turn the newly available land into a combination of recreational amenities and restored marshland. Early in the process, the golf course was added to the study area.
“It’s nice to have a bigger palette so we can really move uses around and make sure they really complement each other,” said Shifflet. “We have to make sure the whole area flows together or we could have an invisible line where nothing matches up.”
All three properties — De Anza, Campland and the golf course — are near the path that environmental experts say Rose Creek, which is channelized near Mission Bay High School, should take to connect with the Kendall-Frost marsh — the only 40 acres of marshland left in the bay.
Schwartz, the Audubon Society official, said the creek could be routed through a newly configured golf course or that a new tributary from the creek could be created to flow through the course.
She also said the course should probably be shifted a bit east and south to allow the creek a more natural path to the marshland, which will increase in size when the Campland resort becomes a restored marsh.
Clark Stevens, a landscape architect working with the Audubon Society, said environmentally conscious golf courses are becoming more common all over the world.
Recent examples include Bandon Dunes in Oregon and the Prairie Club in Nebraska. More famously, Stevens noted that the famed Old Course at St. Andrew’s in Scotland was built into the natural terrain with only limited alterations in 1552, an example of environmental stewardship well ahead of its time.
He said designing such courses requires a different way of thinking.
“Hazards should just be native habitat encroaching on the field of play,” he said. “Instead of hitting over an area of long grass, there would be a finger of wetlands running through the hole.”
Schwartz and Stevens stressed that they weren’t endorsing the reconfiguring of the course, just suggesting it as an option that the public and the city should consider.
Stevens said, however, that the Mission Bay course could be ideal because it’s relatively flat and close enough to the shore to be like a links course.
“You could have a stunning golf course there without doing hardly any grading,” he said.
City efforts to get public input on the future of Mission Bay are scheduled to continue on April 27 with a public workshop. Visit deanzarevitalizationplan.com for details.