Is There Such a Thing as Sustainable Golf?

How to green your golf game

Sustainable business practices are fairly new on the fairways, but the golf industry, after years of bad publicity, public pressure, and dedicated activism, is slowly and voluntarily changing its ways. Here's the dope: first we'll give you the bad news and then move on to all the reasons golfers should be hopeful.

The Bad News

Not to overstate the case, nearly everything bad you've heard about golf courses has some basis in the truth. In Scotland, where the sport was born, golfers have teed off for five centuries on mostly natural fairways that are scrappier and less altered than the highly manicured 18 holes common elsewhere. In contrast, natural or sustainable grounds maintenance is so new in the U.S. that less than a fifth of golf courses practice it. The irony is that modern golf courses arrived at their current state of unnatural beauty by attempting to reproduce the lush, verdant Scottish landscape in places that nature didn't mean for Scotland to be—places like forests, wetlands, and deserts. This bizarre evolution caused excessive water use (sometimes potable water, to boot), reduction of wildlife habitat, and the introduction of non-native plant life that upset the local ecology and that require harsh pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in order to flourish, further harming water quality.

“A golf course is still development,” says Eric Antebi, national spokesperson for the Sierra Club. “It is not part of the natural landscape.” He points out that many new golf courses are part of major building projects such as resorts and planned communities, and are advertised—erroneously—as environmental amenities and open spaces offering natural beauty. A golf course “should not be considered an open space,” he says, especially when it means sacrificing part of a forest. Currently, the Sierra Club hopes to “protect 17,000 threatened Monterey pine trees from being cut down for yet another golf course in Pebble Beach.”

The Good News

Ironically, some of the country's earliest golf courses actually helped prevent worse sprawl later on. The Olympia Fields Country Club, for example, was built in 1915 just south of Chicago to offer relief from industrial urban life. In the mid-20th century, its existence meant that more density—buildings, streets and driveways—weren't built, and today, it remains a rare green space in the area, regularly hosting bird-watchers who can ogle up to 95 different feathered species in between birdies. Many new courses are striving to do good, too. The Kabi Organic Golf Course & Orchard in Australia, is a great example of this trend. More and more golf course superintendents are using fewer pesticides and fertilizers (or none at all), regularly testing water quality, mowing less often and in fewer areas, composting grass clippings, and using reclaimed rainwater. Some greens now provide sanctuary for local wildlife and are replanted with native grasses that require less harmful care.

These simple changes can be drastically effective. Courses watered with effluent from wastewater treatment facilities, for example, which also maintain vegetative buffer zones, will actually help purify the processed wastewater of salts, nitrogen, and phosphorous before it enters waterways.

The Golf Course Superintendent Association of America, a trade group seeking to avoid government regulation, advocates voluntary changes such as these and runs peer education efforts through its Environmental Institute for Golf. In March, it began a yearlong survey that will help set goals and measure progress towards environmentally safer practices. Among nonprofit groups, Audubon International engages the golf industry directly and has been preaching its gospel of greener greens to owners, superintendents, and developers since 1991.

“We work with anyone who wants to move their businesses in a more sustainable direction,” says Joellen Zeh, programs manager for Audubon's Cooperative Sanctuary Program. “Compared to strip malls and housing developments, golf courses are a lot more environmentally friendly.”

On average, Audubon-certified courses convert 22 acres of turf grass, out of roughly 120, back to natural habitat. The group currently works with a few thousand golf courses, and aims for 50 percent participation by the end of 2007. Cost-savings from using less water, chemicals, energy, and even grounds staff can be an incentive for courses to sign up.

Audubon has also partnered with the PGA to educate golfers themselves. At their Golf & the Environment website, golfers learn that small steps like properly replacing divots and repairing ball marks will help minimize the need for lawn maintenance. Most importantly, they're encouraged to vocally support their own course's superintendents' green efforts.

The Verdict

It's hard to argue with reducing toxins in our soil and water, no matter what industry—and at least some golf courses are trying. But are environmentally conscious golf courses really a boon for the planet? Or do they enable golf course developers to continue hogging valuable land? Antebi, of the Sierra Club, gets it about right. “Development is a fact of life,” he says, admitting that any lessening of golf's environmental impact is better than none. “The question is, can you have smarter development? There are appropriate and inappropriate places to put roads and buildings—and there are good and bad places to put golf courses. Even the best-run golf course in an inappropriate place is a bad idea.” For further reading: Sustainable Golf Courses: A Guide to Environmental Stewardship (Hardcover available at Environmental Institute for Golf  Golf & the Environment Audubon International's Cooperative Sanctuary Programs for Golf Courses Sierra Club Scottish Golf & the Environment

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