Can Golf Transform From an Elitist Hobby to a Public Good?
Why this matters
The golf industry uses tons of land and water and injects damaging chemicals into the environment, but golf courses also have the potential be a place for recreation and natural beauty in a community.
As Earth responds to a changing climate, golf faces some fundamental challenges right off the first tee. A typical golf course takes up a lot of land, 150 acres or so. It uses a lot of water, about 312,000 gallons per day. Its care relies heavily on the use of nutrients, chemicals, and pesticides that can be harmful to the surrounding environment.
Then there’s the question of who actually benefits from all of the above – and who doesn’t. In a given day, only a few hundred people might use a course: 18 holes, no more than four players at a time per hole, all cycling through the course during daylight hours, plus practice areas like a driving range or putting green. Some elite courses cost hundreds of dollars to play. Others – around 25 percent of American courses – aren’t open to the public in the first place.
Add it up, and it’s easy to imagine a future in which golf becomes increasingly unjustifiable – a sport with environmental costs that far outweigh its social benefits, especially as the world struggles to cope with climate change, environmental degradation, and socioeconomic inequality. However, professionals who work at the crossroads of golf and environmentalism see another way forward: one in which the sport becomes greener and more inclusive, with environmental and economic sustainability working hand in hand.
In fact, some of those professionals say, efforts to remake the sport along these lines already are well underway. For golf, there’s a lot on the line.
“There’s a public perception of golf that it’s a wasteful user of resources, [that] it’s an elitist land use with restricted accessibility, and it uses the chemicals and water and all these things,” says Parker Anderson, the founder and lead consultant for Greener Golf, a company that consults with courses on sustainability issues.
“But I think that’s a very small percentage of courses that fall into that category,” Anderson said. “And I think the majority of golf courses have a really positive story to tell. And I think we as an industry and we as individual courses can do a better job of sharing those stories.”
A Greener Future – But Maybe Not Literally
The environmental picture of golf courses is not entirely grim. Researchers at the University of Minnesota and Michigan State University found in 2020 that courses in the Twin Cities make their neighborhoods cooler in the summer and mitigate “heat islands” that are warmer than their surroundings, even compared to other outdoor spaces. Courses also can provide a good base of operations for bees and other pollinators and act as places for wildlife to live in relative peace in urban areas – something familiar to anyone who has ever stepped off an approach shot to let a herd of deer run past.
But there is no denying the sport’s overall environmental footprint. The country’s 15,000-some courses take up about 2 million acres nationwide, according to a 2018 Bloomberg analysis of American land usage. That’s about a tenth of 1 percent of the country’s total land acreage (2 billion or so), though golf courses take up a higher percentage of the land – and certainly the green space – in some urban areas.
Those courses slurp up water in quantities that are hard to comprehend. Researchers affiliated with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, National Golf Foundation, and PACE Turf — two industry groups and a turfgrass management advisor, respectively — reported in 2015 that U.S. courses were using about 1.9 million acre-feet of water per year. For a sense of what that means, one acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons, and an acre-foot is what it takes to cover an entire acre of land with a foot of water.
According to the same group of researchers, American courses in 2014 used tens of thousands of tons of various nutrients to treat their grounds. The EPA cautions that some of these substances create a significant runoff problem, something the golf industry has long known and tried to manage. Golf courses also use pesticides, which can pose risks to humans.
Related: Played Among Livestock, Medicinal Plants, ‘Rez Golf’ Builds Community Among Navajo
Some moves toward a greener sport are already underway. Golf courses around the country are likely using less water and potential pollutants now than in the past. The same superintendents association survey (which represents one of the industry’s biggest efforts to collect data on itself and is cited throughout this story) reported a 21.8 percent drop in water usage from 2006 to 2015. From 2007 to 2014, the association reported a 34 percent reduction in nitrogen treatment, 53 percent in phosphorus, and 42 percent in potash. Those are among the most prevalent nutrients in the maintenance of courses, and they can drive both water and air pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Surveys are subject to response bias, and data collection at golf courses tends to filter through organizations that are committed to golf’s success. So it’s hard to be certain of national trends. However, courses have financial incentives to cut back on resource consumption – doing so can save money – and, in certain circumstances, altruistic and reputational reasons to become more sustainable.
“I think both definitely play,” says Cole Thompson, who leads the United States Golf Association (USGA) Turfgrass and Environmental Research Program. “I think it probably varies by what the golf course is. If you take a golf course that has a little bit of a strained budget anyway, they’re looking for cost savings. And so, in that situation, those are probably the benefits that I would extolI.
“I would say, you know, ‘Look how much water you can save,’ and, ‘This is gonna save you this much money a year, this much water a year.’ For a golf course that is not strained in water or budget, I think then it’s more of the, you know, ‘This is for the good of the game.’”
As Golf Course Solutions Sales Manager for the USGA, Jeff Kinney has the job of getting golf courses to adopt technology that helps them operate in a more environmentally friendly manner. “They’ve been very receptive,” he says. “Superintendents are looking for additional ways to always be improving.”
Companies like Anderson’s and the USGA through its course management system have begun to use GPS data to help courses figure out where on a course golfers are and aren’t going. A course might ask 200 golfers to carry a tracker throughout their round, and then superimpose a walking heat map over a satellite image of the course. If it’s clear that golfers rarely end up in a certain area of the layout, then the course can work to turn that ground into something other than “managed turf” – the soil that needs to be regularly irrigated and treated to make for ideal golf conditions.
For example, if large pockets of a course in Arizona aren’t taking on foot traffic from players, the course’s management can discern that from GPS readings. Then it can stop watering that space, allowing the desert terrain to take over. Doing so saves water, as well as labor time and costs. While the superintendents association saw little change in golf course acreage from 2005 to 2017, it saw a noticeable reduction in managed turf, from 99.2 acres to 95.1 acres. At some courses, that means significant money savings, which is good for the course, and water savings, which is good for everyone else. In some cases, previously managed turf can even become a place to capture rainwater.
“It’s hard to put all golf courses in the same box,” Thompson says. “I think it really depends on what the background landscape and weather are. If you’re looking at somewhere where there’s 50 inches of rain a year, and there’s less strain on the water supply, it's probably less of a concern locally to keep things a little greener if that’s what the local clientele want.
“But as you move west, where you get to under 20 inches of rain a year, when you keep going further west in the U.S., where it’s more arid, then there’s competition for those freshwater sources. And, at that point, I think first we need to eliminate as much irrigated turf as we can. We need to make sure that we’re not irrigating areas of rough that players aren’t going.”
The American golf community long has preferred immaculately green terrain that looks like Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament. In certain climates – like those in the American Southwest, where it takes several times more water to keep a course green than a course needs in the Northeast – both Thompson and Anderson expect that golfers will have to get comfortable with browner and firmer courses. (Count the legendary Tiger Woods among the golfers who have expressed admiration for countries that throw less water into their courses, albeit on competitive terms rather than environmental: A less water-soaked course is a faster course, and it makes for a noticeably bigger challenge when elite golfers try to get a ball to stop near the pin.)
The USGA says it invests $10 million in sustainability initiatives every year through the Greens Section, its course consultancy. Much of its work focuses on minimizing the resources – water, nutrients, pesticides, and chemicals – that go into golf course grounds. One current project uses sensors to gauge soil moisture in different parts of courses to guide decisions on where to water. The USGA is exploring pest forecasting models to reduce and improve pesticide use.
“Site-specific management is going to manifest in many ways,” Thompson says. “I think it’s something you’re going to see more of and something that we just need to continue investigating to make sure we know how to use those technologies and have them ready to go when they’re needed.”
Sustainability That Goes Beyond the Environment
But smarter resource management is only one piece of the puzzle. To become truly sustainable, golf will need to become significantly more accessible – expanding beyond the predominantly White, male, and wealthy demographic that has always dominated the sport.
The rough calculus works like this: If more people, and more kinds of people, are playing golf, then the environmental impact of the sport becomes easier to justify. People who work in golf sustainability envision a future in which eco-friendlier courses cost less money to manage; those savings result in lower prices and a broader group of people who can afford to play; and a larger and more diverse group of golfers transforms courses into institutions that serve their surrounding communities.
“Sustainable golf is where many different kinds and lots of people are playing, because you’re going to have a larger pool of golfers,” Thompson says. “And it’s more affordable to play. And so that affects the business, the economic sustainability, and the business and economic sustainability is affected by the environmental sustainability in some ways, right?
“When we’re using fewer resources, we’re making it more affordable for a golf course to maintain its property and then hopefully they can pass those savings on to consumers and make a round of golf more affordable. That’s something that I certainly hope would happen.”
Related: When We Were Patched
To an extent, this is already happening. The National Golf Foundation, an industry group, says that 36 percent of junior players today are women, up from 15 percent in 2000. It also says more than a quarter of those players are non-White, up from 6 percent at the turn of the century.
There is more the sport could do, starting with investing in non-traditional experiences such as putting-only courses or layouts with fewer holes, as well as gamified versions of the sport like Topgolf party venues. These can make golf more eco-friendly by reducing land and water use and make it more accessible by freeing new players from the intimidating prospect of a five-and-a-half-hour round on a brutally difficult and long course.
“The 18 hole(s), par 72, 7,000 yards on 250 acres is kind of what people think about in golf, but there's some really great examples of par-3 courses,” Anderson says, pointing to putting courses like The Punchbowl at Oregon’s Bandon Dunes and nine- or 12-hole courses with shorter yardages as ways to get more players involved.
But friendlier formats go only so far. For some golfers and potential golfers, greater accessibility also means not facing racial exclusion on the course – like the ranger keeping an unusually close eye on you, or White playing partners being particularly quick to ask “What do you do?” as if it’s a litmus test of your worthiness. Vernel Bennett, who started the Queens, New York-based United Black Golfers Association, says that he has experienced both scenarios repeatedly and that the ultimate effect is to drive away non-White golfers and their business.
“We’re not the Globetrotters,” he says of his community playing group. “We’re not out here to give you a show. But we’ll bring a lot of money to that clubhouse that day.
“If I feel in any way disrespected in any form, I’ll pull it away and go somewhere else. Because I’m not gonna spend my money and bring my people to a place where they’re not gonna feel comfortable and safe. Not gonna do it.”
A Shot the Sport Can’t Afford to Miss
It is clearly within golf’s control to be more welcoming and accessible. More debatable is just how far new technologies and sustainability efforts can take the sport as it attempts to limit its negative environmental impact, particularly with regard to the classic 18-hole experience.
“I think certainly we can get to a point – or we need to continue to try to get to a point – where hopefully we’re getting somewhere close to breaking even,” Thompson says. “There will be cases where golf is a net (zero) resource-user or a net (zero) carbon-emitter. And there will be cases where golf courses kind of break even on their resources or get close to it anyway, or are net carbon sequesterers. I think there’s room for both. It’s just that we have to be acknowledged and authentic about which side of the balance we’re in.”
The golf industry is not a unified blob. A private country club in the desert without a renewable water source has a vastly different sustainability profile from a public track that costs $25 to play in a rainy part of the country, where the course captures water on site and uses it to irrigate. Some solutions may be scalable and transferrable, but others will be course- and community-specific. There is room to experiment and to be creative.
Anderson works with interested clients on beekeeping programs, both to keep bees away from players and to give them a stable pollinating environment. His “dream course” is one that has a farm on its property and serves food that it grows on site.
“Golf courses are these irrigated landscapes, and if they’re going to be irrigated, why not utilize that entire space to maximize your land use?” he says. “And agriculture is a significant part of that. Beekeeping is a part of that. Having some gardens really opens the door up to a larger population of people that are interested in agriculture that might not know much about golf, but now they see, ‘Wow, this golf course has a garden added. Maybe they're not so bad. I'm going to go check it out.’
“So there’s some (courses) kind of breaking down these barriers and creating all this additional value and additional programming at a golf course. The industry always talks about growing the game, and I think that’s just a great way to do something like that.”
Related: Is Golf Becoming More Diverse?
Anderson is both an optimist and a realist. He talks more about “opportunity areas” than problems, and he wants golf courses to not just be net neutrals but to give the world something positive. At the same time, he believes that the courses that don’t take sustainability seriously will be the ones that get into trouble as the planet warms. Some might have enough money to forestall that fate, but many others do not. It’s already clear that courses, particularly those in low-lying coastal areas, are in real danger as the Earth gets hotter.
“I envision golf courses being regenerative and being (valuable) to their communities,” Anderson says. “Golf courses have an opportunity to be more sustainable, but more than that, there’s a responsibility of golf courses to be sustainable.
“The trend of our planet is really pointing us into a direction of we need to really value and utilize our land uses, and if golf courses don’t really demonstrate their value, I think many of them will face a lot of adversity.”
The Sustainability of Sport
Sport is a large-scale global pursuit that brings together people and places, often creating deep roots with the environment in which it is played. As a result, sport both contributes to ecological change and is affected by it.
As efforts intensify to address decades of carbon emission, commercial growth, and environmental deterioration, sport can take the lead in championing progress. If current trends continue, however, sport could face some of the more serious consequences of a changing Earth.