CourseCo: A commitment to environmental stewardship

CourseCo’s mission to protect and enhance the environment through its golf properties has generated accolades and buzz. Meet some of CourseCo’s superintendents and discover facilities in its portfolio.


Palouse Ridge Golf Club
Palouse Ridge Golf Club in Pullman, Wash., is one of more than 30 courses managed by CourseCo. The facility is a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Palouse Ridge Golf Club

An estimated 20 million people participated in the inaugural Earth Day in 1970. Tom Isaak was among them.

No surprise. Isaak was there for the event that was staged from coast to coast, in the streets, in auditoriums and on campuses such as Stanford, where Isaak was a student. The demonstrators’ message — to enlighten citizens and politicians on the need for major upgrades in environmental protection — was an ideology-fueled movement that Isaak embraced.

“It came out of my background of having a conscience about the environment. My early mentors were strong environmentalists, so I came by it naturally,” says Isaak, who also worked on political campaigns in California in the 1970s, including for current Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. “It became part of my philosophy of doing business.”

Now you know the driving force behind CourseCo, which was founded by Isaak and is based in Petaluma, Calif. Isaak launched the golf course management company in 1989. Its core principles? CourseCo is committed to environmental enhancement, reduction of resource use, and sustainable management practices for all the golf courses it serves, and it involves its clients in all stages of development, whether they are municipalities, counties or private entities. CourseCo states that it “views corporate growth as a byproduct of service, not as a primary objective.”

Michael Bowen, project manager for the California State Coastal Conservancy, first encountered CourseCo several years ago. His viewpoint matches what Isaak imagined.

“The CourseCo staff and management were proactive, constructive and incredibly environmentally protective in the fashion in which they manage facilities,” Bowen says. “It was really just a unique experience to have that kind of relationship with a facility manager. It’s why they’ve received so much acclaim for their approach.”

Cherry Island Golf Course
The scenic Cherry Island Golf Course in Elverta, Calif., is overseen by superintendent Kurtis Wolford, whose degree in environmental horticultural science is a perfect fit with CourseCo. Photo courtesy of Kurtis Wolford

The latest commendation comes from GCSAA, with CourseCo selected as the 2019 recipient of the association’s President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship. “You have no idea how thrilling this is for us,” Isaak says. “It gave us affirmation, and it couldn’t have come from a higher place.”

The award was established in 1991 to recognize “an exceptional environmental contribution to the game of golf — a contribution that further exemplifies the golf course superintendent’s image as a steward of the land.” The winner is selected by GCSAA’s Board of Directors. Nearly 20 superintendents in CourseCo’s stable have been recognized in the GCSAA/Golf Digest Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards (ELGAs), including Gary Ingram, CGCS, director of agronomy at Metropolitan Golf Links in Oakland, Calif. Ingram has been the recipient of multiple ELGAs, including the 2014 National Public and Overall awards and the 2018 Communication and Outreach award.

“They usually give the President’s Award to a person. I think it’s great it went to a company,” Ingram says. “It’s the GCSAA’s way of saying we have to do this in collaboration. We can’t succeed in changing the attitudes of the general public by having one person do it. It has to be a company, an entire industry, showing that golf is for everybody.”

The award will be presented to CourseCo at the Golf Industry Show in San Diego on Feb. 6, during the Opening Session, which is presented in partnership with Syngenta.

CourseCo has received numerous other honors, including California’s most prestigious environmental achievement, the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award.

Jay Clements, general manager of Riverside Golf Club in Grand Prairie, Texas, appreciates the road map CourseCo established. “They work hard for it, but they don’t do it for the recognition,” Clements says. “They do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Palouse Ridge Golf Club

Todd Lupkes, CGCS, has made presentations to Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs and other organizations about the virtues of Palouse Ridge Golf Club in Pullman, Wash., which is among 35 golf courses operated by CourseCo. At times, though, his words are met with resistance.

“Sometimes, we, as general managers and superintendents, have to get up and crusade for the positive benefits that golf courses bring to the country,” says Lupkes, a 28-year GCSAA member and the former superintendent and current general manager at Palouse Ridge, which opened just more than a decade ago on the campus of Washington State University.

Conservationists and environmental groups were among those opposed to Palouse Ridge over water rights in an area with a declining aquifer. Now, every irrigation head is monitored from the office of GCSAA Class A superintendent Michael Bednar. Palouse Ridge is a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. City officials are involved in the recertification process, and an ongoing goal of CourseCo is to ensure all of its properties are Audubon-certified.

Palouse Ridge houses the university’s men’s and women’s golf teams and hosts First Green events. Corridors on the golf course that never had wetlands do now. Bee pollination areas are planned this spring, as is the addition of more birdhouses.

Palouse Ridge Golf
Washington State University’s men’s and women’s golf teams, members of the Pac-12 Conference, play at Palouse Ridge Golf Club. Photo courtesy of Todd Lupkes

Misconceptions about Palouse Ridge have also placed one club proponent, Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson, in the spotlight. His case: The benefits that Palouse Ridge brings to the table should be heard before making judgment.

“One of the things people accuse me of is going out and playing golf all the time. I don’t play golf,” Johnson says. “I’ve met a number of golfers who’ve come into our city to play here. It has become a really great attraction and a fantastic amenity for our city, and it is using water so much more efficiently than the old course (a nine-hole course existed before Palouse Ridge was built). Palouse Ridge is a wonderful addition, and it has proven that, yes, you can have a great golf course and have it be great for the environment.”

Bednar, a 12-year association member, was on-site when Palouse Ridge was just a nine-hole course. He knew when CourseCo arrived to oversee the new course that the company had a focused plan. “You could tell right off the bat that environmental concerns were top priority and that everything is done right. It isn’t just, ‘Talk the talk.’ They definitely walk the walk,” Bednar says. “We have the job of producing good playing conditions and doing it as safely for the environment as possible. Seems like common sense to me.”

Lupkes says Isaak and company President/CEO Michael Sharp “treat superintendents like peers and allow them to do their jobs,” which is in agreement with CourseCo’s philosophy of “detailed corporate supervision of site operations coupled with entrepreneurial motivation and freedom for site managers.” “Usually, a business is from the top down — here’s what you need to do,” Lupkes says. “CourseCo is from the bottom up.”

Foxtail Golf Club

Brandon Coulter fits right in at Foxtail Golf Club in Rohnert Park, Calif.

Coulter is a GCSAA Class A superintendent who will celebrate his two-year anniversary at the club in May. Although he hasn’t been there long, Coulter entered with a CourseCo frame of mind. “I’ve always been environmentally conscious,” says Coulter, a 24-year association member who is working to cement Foxtail’s Audubon full certification. Foxtail has already achieved one part of the certification process in chemical use reduction and safety by implementing its own containment system for mixing and loading.

Long before Coulter arrived, golf course architect Gary Linn oversaw the club’s North Course reconstruction in the early 2000s, which included relocating greens to alleviate soggy and unplayable conditions with better drainage. Other benefits of Linn’s work are newly created wetlands and additional native grasses. Being cost-efficient during the project was crucial. “One thing I learned a long time ago about CourseCo is, you are used to doing more with less — and doing it right,” Linn says.

Mather Golf Course

Located on an old U.S. Air Force base, Mather Golf Course in the Sacramento, Calif., area is all about community inclusion — another key element of CourseCo’s strategy.

“We have Easter egg hunts, family fun nights, and kids have helped with our birdhouses,” says superintendent Moody Ayeb, a 20-year GCSAA member. “We want people to look at the golf course in a different light — that it’s not just for golf.”

Mather Golf Course
Volunteers install posts and ropes around a native area at Mather Golf Course, which was one of the first 25 golf courses in the state of California to earn Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary status. Photo courtesy of Moody Ayeb

Ayeb is proud of the work he and his crew have done to establish native areas in an affordable manner, which goes hand in hand with Mather’s being among the first 25 courses in California to earn full Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary status. “We’re in the business to produce the best product for our clients, but we don’t waste money to do it. We are very conscientious of how we impact the environment, and we limit our footprint as much as we can,” Ayeb says. “CourseCo has been good about allowing us the freedom to do what we do here.”

Pacific Grove Golf Links

Rob Esposo is thankful to CourseCo for believing in him.

“I was just an assistant — really green. I didn’t have a turf background. They made me superintendent, took a chance on me. They gave me all the support I have needed. I’m grateful,” says Esposo, a five-year GCSAA member who oversees Pacific Grove (Calif.) Golf Links.

Pacific Grove Golf Links
Pacific Grove (Calif.) Golf Links has taken multiple steps to be a sound contributor to the environment. It has done a dunes restoration project and manages a protected natural freshwater pond as part of its efforts. Photo courtesy of CourseCo

Esposo has rewarded CourseCo for its support. Three years ago, Esposo and Pacific Grove received an ELGA merit award. Ecological preservation is always on Esposo’s mind at Pacific Grove, where he manages a protected natural freshwater pond. Esposo has reintroduced native and endangered plant species and participated in a 10-year dunes restoration project.

“I grew up in this area and appreciate the natural beauty of the landscape,” Esposo says, “and working for CourseCo is all about the landscape. I like what they do. They show they really care. I’m on board with what they believe.”

The future for CourseCo

In six years, CourseCo’s stable of properties doubled. Is further expansion on the way? Currently, CourseCo properties are located in four states: California, Oregon, Texas and Washington. The first CourseCo-managed facility was Riverside Golf Course in Fresno, Calif.

“Growth is exciting because it creates new opportunities and career advancement for everyone on our team,” says Lance Merrihew, CourseCo vice president of sales and marketing. “We look at growth as an opportunity to work with clients who share our core values, and when we find them, we usually remain partners for a very long time.”

Riverside Golf Club
Riverside Golf Club in Grand Prairie, Texas, is the only Texas facility in CourseCo’s portfolio. So far, that is. The company is open to looking at potential partners that match their core values in Texas and beyond. Photo courtesy of Jay Clements

Whatever is on the horizon, Sharp emphasizes the important role superintendents will play anywhere CourseCo goes. “Winning the President’s Award is extremely rewarding, but it’s really our superintendents who have earned the award,” Sharp says. “They have done the work that reflects our core values. We know we are stewards of these large pieces of land, and it’s our duty and responsibility to conscientiously maintain them.”

GCSAA Class A superintendent Jay Neunsinger of Boundary Oak Golf Course in Walnut Creek, Calif., is honored to be part of it all. “It’s really a privilege to work for a company that believes in the environment and communities we serve.”

Inter-company competition

A friendly, family-type of competition exists at CourseCo.

“The environment is one of their core values. It’s ingrained companywide in our culture,” says Carl D. Thompson, CGCS, who oversees the CourseCo property Columbia Point Golf Course in Richland, Wash. “We believe in it. It becomes something of a competition for each of their courses. We’re all trying to push the needle.”

CourseCo’s vision includes:

Facilities. CourseCo courses use integrated pest management (IPM) and chemical application management plans (CHAMP). Each plan describes the cultural and non-chemical control measures that will be taken to reduce the use of pesticides. The plans emphasize an understanding of the microenvironments throughout a course to allow for the efficient employment of cultural practices that will decrease pest populations by strengthening turfgrass’s natural defenses.

Prioritizing a healthy wildlife habitat. The company maintains memberships in both the Wildlife Habitat Council and Audubon International.

Research support. Crystal Springs Golf Course in Burlingame, Calif., collaborated with the University of California on a five-year USGA project that identified bentgrass cultivars with lower input requirements.

Outreach. All properties do some community outreach, including hosting cross-country races for high schools and colleges. Several courses host students through First Green or similar programs, including the Oakland Turfgrass Educational Initiative (OTEI). When CourseCo took over Metropolitan Golf Links in Oakland, Calif., in 2001, the city asked the course to provide job training. Ray Davies, CGCS Retired, created a program that introduces kids to the green industry. The program welcomes youths who may be at risk of not graduating and introduces them to a career path they may not have otherwise considered. OTEI exposes a more diverse population to golf by targeting Oakland’s inner-city youth.

“There is some competition between (CourseCo) courses, but there’s also collaboration. We collaborate on outreach,” says Gary Ingram, CGCS, director of agronomy at Metropolitan Golf Links. “We all compete at the ELGA (Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards) level. We all send stuff in. Some win; some don’t. But in retrospect, we all win. It’s a win-win situation.”

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.