How Green Is Golf?

May 2008
How Green Is Golf?

In January 1995, 81 people got together in a conference room at Pebble Beach for three days to discuss what could be done to make golf more eco-friendly. Present were representatives from all the major golfing bodies, and all the leading national and local environmental groups, too. There had never been such a meeting before. "It was really difficult getting some people to come," recalls Paul Parker, executive vice president of the Center for Resource Management, which orchestrated the meeting. "Particularly from the golf-community side, there was a lot of suspicion about who these environmental people were, and why they kept criticizing golf. They felt that the environmentalists didn't understand the game and had not made much of an effort to understand it. They saw these guys as the enemy."

"We really expected an explosive atmosphere," says Ted Horton, who at the time was vice president of resource management for Pebble Beach, with responsibility for the whole property, including all the golf courses and 17 Mile Drive. "I had the job of welcoming the group on that first morning. My heart was in my throat. I thought, We could have some real fireworks here."

But the attendees talked. And talked. And today, 13 years later, after five national conferences and dozens of smaller meetings and workshops, they're still talking. Improvements have been made, reports, guidebooks and educational videos have been published, and the effort -- which has become known as the Golf & the Environment Initiative -- has allowed the game to claim that it's cleaning up its act.

Wait, you say, hasn't golf always been green? Golf courses have trees and grass, critters; all kinds of nature and stuff, right? What's not to like? Better than a strip mall or a parking lot, surely. Yes, yes, of course. But the fact is that before the 1995 meeting, there were serious issues surrounding golf and its impact on the environment. And -- despite much self-congratulatory hyperbole from the golf industry about environmental sensitivity, sustainability and stewardship, and the obligatory eco-claims of every new golf resort -- there are still plenty of serious problems today. There are issues about where golf courses are built, about how they're built, and especially about how they're maintained. Golf could do more. As Parker says: "There's a terrific opportunity for golf and golf courses to demonstrate real environmental leadership. The attitude generally is, yeah, we need to do some things to avoid getting criticized. That's where the vision ends."

To find out more about these issues, and how serious they are, and what's being done about them, I interviewed a variety of the leading thinkers who reside at the intersection of golf and the environment: a golf-course architect, an anti-pesticide activist, an organic golf-course superintendent, a government regulator, a golf-course inspector, a turfgrass expert, an environmentalist. We talked about golf, where it has been and where it's headed. The conversations were long and at times contradictory, complicated and confusing. We spoke of water tables, endocrine function, genetically engineered grass. Salamanders. The American chestnut. President Bush. From the many hours of transcribed tapes, plus plenty of other conversations, visits to obscure corners of various libraries, and late-night sessions with Google, here are some of my conclusions about golf and the environment:

There simply won't be enough to go around for golf courses to continue to do what they've been doing (one report says U.S. courses each use on average 300,000 gallons a day). Water is going to have to be increasingly carefully managed by everyone -- some have even described it as "the new oil." By 2025, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme's 2007 report, about 1.8 billion people in the world will be living in conditions of absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the planet will be subject to water stress. In America, demand for water grows while global warming has meant shrinking glaciers and mountain snow levels (and thus less snowmelt to fill our streams and rivers and reservoirs), more evaporation of freshwater reserves and lower rainfall in some areas and even unexpected droughts (not to mention rising sea levels threatening some coastal courses -- see page 207). There will be increasing financial and regulatory pressures on golf courses' use of water, especially in high-population desert areas where shortages are acute, such as Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing cities in America (the population has tripled to 1.7 million in the last 20 years, and by one estimate that figure might double by 2015). Recently the U.S. Geological Survey announced that demands on the aquifer beneath the Coachella Valley in California -- including from 126 area golf courses -- are so great that in the past nine years, large parts of the valley have sunk more than a foot.

In the short term, golf has already proved to be innovative in adapting to the challenge of conserving water. Some golf courses are using treated effluent water or wastewater instead of drinkable water, irrigating smaller areas of the property, irrigating more efficiently and with better equipment, raising mowing heights, and using new strains of grass that require dramatically less water. All of these things will continue. New courses in the desert will become rarer. The practice of overseeding fairways in the South with cool-season grasses in the winter will become harder to justify, and less common. A lot of golf courses might disappear.

To coin a phrase, there are known knowns when it comes to pesticides, but there are also an awful lot of unknown unknowns. Even if the superintendents at every one of America's 16,000 courses are rigorous in applying pesticides sparingly and with extreme caution -- and given the pressure they're often under to deliver unblemished, Augusta-like grass year-round, that's unlikely -- can we be sure these chemicals aren't harmful? There are many unanswered questions. Why are various diseases like autism, asthma and all kinds of cancers on the rise? Why are Western men and women increasingly infertile? Why did my friend's girlfriend's dog get tongue cancer and die? It's not unreasonable to think that exposure to synthetic chemicals -- some of whose residues are found in high concentrations as far away as the Arctic -- are to blame. There's a reason that, for instance, Connecticut recently banned pesticides from all school grounds (grades K through 8), and why more than 30 states have some kind of pesticide restriction on school property. There's a reason golf-course superintendents dress like Power Rangers when they spray the golf course. There's a reason the organic movement is growing.

As global warming increases, and common sense prevails, and the leaders of commerce and industry realize there's a buck to be made by being green-minded (or, more often, pretending to be), environmentalism is going to have large, growing and profound effects on all of our lives. What does this mean for golf? Like the fur coat and the SUV, the "Augusta look" -- freakishly green wall-to-wall grass on a life-support system of too much water and toxic chemicals, greens running at virtually unplayable speeds, ornamental flowers all over the place -- will become less admired, and even stigmatized. It works for the Masters, but that's just one week a year at an extremely wealthy private club that gets very little play (there are only 300 members, and the course is closed all summer). It doesn't work -- and isn't desirable -- at most other places. The aspiration -- obsession -- to be like Augusta has probably always had less to do with the needs and wants of golfers, who know that the game is all about taking the rough with the smooth, and more to do with the egos of golf-course owners, tournament directors and people who sit on greens committees.

As water becomes scarcer, as organic-management practices increase, as environmentalism and environmental legislation start to bite more than they have, as the economy struggles, and as we come to appreciate the aesthetics of golf courses in all their many natural, beautiful hues, the way the game looks will change. And the way it plays will change too, with firmer and faster turf demanding a return to shotmaking, creativity, the bump-and-run. It's starting to happen already: The hot courses are not dutiful apostles of Augusta; they are unique, wild and woolly-looking layouts like Bandon Dunes, Sand Hills, Chambers Bay. Americans increasingly love to visit the rugged, natural links of the British Isles, where the game began. That's where we're headed: back to the future.

But don't take my word for any of this stuff. Read what these guys have to say -- unfortunately they are all guys -- and make up your own mind.Then log into our Golf Digest Forums and join the conversation.

Christoph Niemann
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