January 9, 2024

Is Golf A Luxury The World Can Afford?

This July 4th was apparently the hottest day on record since at least 1979 and could very well be the hottest in about 125,000 years according to some scientists.

It's Getting Hotter

If you’ve ever golfed in Arizona or Palm Desert in the summer, you know that it’s borderline insanity if you try to play anytime near the middle of the day. And every time I play in the desert - I wonder - how much water do all of these courses use to keep the fairways green and lush? Should I even be wondering this, or care?

Maybe it’s just me but I do feel a tiny bit of guilt after paying $200+ for a round of golf on a hot day when we’re being told the world is burning on multiple fronts. Yet I continue to go back time and time again with no change to my behavior. I tell myself the personal benefits - being outdoors, socializing with friends, exercising-ish, and what it can do for your mental health - outweigh my ability to magically drop the earth’s temperature. Yet I am curious how we could make golf more sustainable while still being able to enjoy the game.

The world certainly has a lot of issues and always has. People love to debate what the most pressing issues are at any given point in time, and it can all feel helpless, like we’re just playing a big game of whack-a-mole. Yet no big issues are ever solved.

The Environmental Challenges

The other week a group of climate activists poured cement into holes across 10 golf courses in Spain, to denounce "the waste of water during one of the worst droughts Europe has ever suffered". If you haven’t paid too close attention, the situation does appear to be rather dire across Europe as it’s been locked in a cycle of high temps and low rainfall. Areas in Spain have resorted to banning swimming pools from being refilled, limiting showers to 5 minutes, turning off municipal fountains, banning car washes and limiting garden watering.  

So it’s no surprise the environmental movement has come for golf and as much as I hate that, it’s become such an easy target. Largely because it’s so visible and expensive and a leisurely activity that’s enjoyed by and benefits a small slice of the population. But are we supposed to lock ourselves inside and quit playing a game that provides so much joy? Or completely rearrange our hobbies?

Maybe Europe does end up putting restrictions or higher taxes on playing golf, or cuts off water supply to golf courses. After all, if the farmers don’t have water for crops, maybe golf does need to take a back seat. But it’s a much different political engine overseas and they could very well have the political capital to make such drastic changes.

Are we Overconsuming?

The reality is that no one wants to cut back on their consumption of anything. Especially in the US. The entire western world is set up so that capitalism thrives and rewards those that work and take risks. And individuals on the upper rungs of our economic ladder tend to spend more time on the golf course. And so golf isn’t going anywhere. Did you know, 16 of the last 19 US presidents played golf?

The Golf World is Evolving

Nonetheless, it feels like the golf industry stands at a critical juncture where we have the opportunity to shepherd the next generation of committed, responsible golfers and look for ways to mitigate the effects of climate change on the game and vice versa. Holistic and long-term considerations in golf course management need to be made nearly everywhere so the masses don’t come for golf. If done correctly, the future of golf could be both exciting and much different from the golf of today.

Thankfully we’re not starting from scratch and the USGA has known for quite some time of the importance of getting ahead of this issue as the impact of golf on the climate and environment has led to growing calls to make the sport more sustainable. According to a 2021 survey conducted by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), US golf facilities used approximately 29% less water in 2020 vs. 2005.

A Committment to Reducing Water; It's a Start

And earlier this year, the USGA committed $30 million over the next 15 years toward efforts to reduce water usage in golf, looking to accelerate underused strategies and technologies beyond those that golf course operators have already implemented. The message to the golf community was clear:

  • “The long-term economic and environmental sustainability of green-grass golf courses”... – “will be challenged in certain regions if the game doesn’t advance this critical work now.”
  • “The move toward greater water resilience requires everyone in golf to actively participate and bring their best efforts forward, with golf courses utilizing the assets available to them within their geographic region.”
  • “The USGA is ready to not only contribute our voice, but also our resources and expertise, to help our golf course partners and ensure golf’s future.”

And it’s not just water usage that’s an issue. Managing the turf on golf courses also means using carbon-intensive fertilizers, plenty of mowing and, in many cases, clearing forests or trees that were soaking up carbon-dioxide to make way for long tracts of fairway.

The Transformation of Golf

So golf will have to evolve and its transformation has already begun. When the 2015 drought hit California, the state responded by offering courses significant rebates to rip up turf. The total acreage of an average 18-hole golf course in the U.S. is 150 acres, of which 100 acres is maintained turf grass. It’s believed a golf course can easily tear out up to 25 acres of grass next to the fairways and around the clubhouse without affecting the game.

Thinking back to some of my recent desert rounds of golf and it starts to make sense. I definitely have noticed changes in landscaping, most notably around the tee box area. Photo below is was taken late last year at a public course in Indio, CA.  

The Robots of Golf

Elsewhere in the world, Finland’s Hirsala Golf aims to have 40 robotic mowers running on electricity that can be sourced from renewable sources, cutting the usage of 1,000 liters of diesel fuel, while solar panels at Golf de Payerne in Switzerland have saved 1,080 tons of CO2.

Like many things, there’s no single answer to the many problems the industry has. It’s going to take a combination of golf course redesign, more resilient strains of grass, cuts to overseeding, increased energy efficiency, advances in water recycling, and perhaps most importantly, consumer education.  

Together, Let's Make Golf More Sustainable

Something I recently discovered is that there’s an organization called The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf, which certifies golf courses with the mission of protecting the environment and preserving the natural heritage of the game of golf. They’ve developed a set of best practices for golf courses and help them enhance the natural areas and wildlife habitats that golf courses provide, as well as improve efficiency, and minimize potentially harmful impacts of golf course operations. Over 1,000 courses globally have become certified.

I would love to see more courses work towards this goal, and it benefits everyone. Golf course operators know change is necessary - if not to explicitly support the environment - then at least to keep them financially afloat. Golfers should love seeing new and interesting landscapes and obstacles around courses, making them more visually stimulating. We need to embrace the awesome biodiversity that golf landscapes offer.

So next time you have a chance, ask your local superintendent how they’re addressing these issues to create a more sustainable environment for your course. I hope you’ll be pleased with what you learn.