Fore! Water-Sucking, Pesticide-Covered Golf Courses Try To Clean Up Their Act

The links have been a frequent target of environmentalists, due to how much it takes to maintain them, often in places where manicured lawns aren’t supposed to grow. But a new generation of courses is making major headway on the fairway.


Golf is a game that environmentalists love to hate–and not without reason. 

The planet’s 31,000 courses take up land the size of Fiji (roughly 7181.5 square miles), and you can find plenty of stories of heinous water use (desert golf anyone?), dangerous use of pesticides (including the very noxious methyl bromide), and cases in the developing world where the poor have been expelled to make way for new developments. 

In an age of fast-declining water supplies, the average U.S. course uses 312,000 gallons of water a day, or the equivalent of what a family of four gets through in four years (some courses use as many as one million gallons). And, many courses use huge quantities of chemicals, as they try to live up to an ideal of a bright-green, perfectly presented course. A mid-1990s estimate by the Neighborhood Network, a Long Island environmental group, found that U.S. courses used an annual 65 million pounds of dry bulk pesticides, and 2.9 million pounds of liquid pesticides. 

What is more, many golfers don’t seem to agree on some basic environmental touchstones. A 2008 Golf Digest magazine survey found that 41 percent of golfers thought climate change was a myth, for example. 

If the ire of environmentalists is well known, though, what is less appreciated is that the game has been cleaning up a little in recent years. While there are still many environmentally damaging courses, there are hundreds having zero–or even a positive–impact, and several influential programs that are cajoling owners and superintendents to manage their turf differently. 

For example, about 5% of the nation’s 16,000 courses now belong to a eco-certification scheme organized by Audubon International, a upstate New York nonprofit. Another 7% are in the process of recieving that credential. Joellen Lampman, cooperative sanctuary programs director, says environmental consciousness among golf administrators has grown steadily in the last few years. 


“The biggest change is with new golf courses. They are building in the use of effluent water, and they’re putting drainage in different areas. In the past, it was out-of-sight-out-of-mind, and they would go directly into creeks. You are seeing more filtering now, and less run-off issues.”

Audubon encourages courses not to put manicured grass close to water features, not to cause erosion by moving large amounts of dirt, and to ensure there is always runoff protection. Lampman says courses that use gray water can offer additional filtration to waste-water plants, and can be used to control flooding.

Among the most famous “green” courses is Mirimichi, Justin Timberlake’s course near Memphis, which received Audubon’s first International Classic Sanctuary certification, in 2009. Audubon praised Mirimichi for halving its manicured acreage (and thereby its use of water and chemicals), for its areas capturing rainwater for re-use, and its irrigation system reducing the need for fresh water. 

Another course popular with green golf enthusiasts, including President Obama, is the Vineyard Country Club, on Martha’s Vineyard. Claiming to be the first “organic” course, it uses boiling water to remove weeds, and imported worms to attack fairway-eating grubs. But that care comes at a price: $350,000 to sign up, plus annual charges of $12,000. 

Jeff Bollig, a spokesperson for the Golf Course Superintendents Association, says the U.S.’s 100 organic courses tend to be labor-intensive, pricey, and dependent of clientele prepared to “tolerate some conditions more than others”. 

But he sees the organic courses influencing the wider market over time. “In five years, with new products, it may work. You are in the early adoption phase, where some people have the budgets and maybe tolerate the imperfection a bit more.”


Bollig points to courses like the Presidio, in San Francisco, the North Shore, in Chicago, Whistling Straits, in Wisconsin, and Colliers Reserve, in Florida, as leading the way in environmental performance.

The key, he believes, is to re-educate golfers and superintendents about how courses should look. “We spent so many years building up the color green as a measure. TV and media played a big role in that. If consumers can accept different hues, and courses become less competitive with one another, we’ll move forward.”

Outside the U.S., the Golf Environmental Organization, in Scotland, is working on a global certification scheme, backed by the European Tour, and golf’s governing body, the R&A. The one-year-old program has so far approved about 50 courses in 22 countries. One of the first was Riviera Cancun, near the venue of last year’s COP 16 climate summit (Riviera employs a full-time biologist to oversee course health). 

GEO spokesperson Benjamin Warren says there is a widespread acceptance of the need for change in how courses are fed, watered, and tended. “There has been a culture of having every blade of grass being lush. But people have figured out the more a course is fed, the weaker and more disease-prone plants become, and that heavy inputs can be detrimental to playing conditions anyway.”

The aim of GEO-certification is not only to assess certain courses, but to spread knowledge about the way to manage courses successfully. “We’re trying to help everyone get better. Although there’s a certain marketing advantage for the course, we want people to see there are efficiencies and opportunities from maintaining the land in good ways.”

As for golf’s critics, Lampman recommends that environmentalists get involved in trying to improve their courses, rather than simply criticizing them. Part of Audubon’s scheme involves environmental experts working with their local courses on issues they might have. 


“I would encourage environmentalists to get involved. You have been open to the opportunities, and not just say ‘golf is bad,’” she says.

[Image: Flickr user alljengi]


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.