The Environmental Impact of Golf Courses: How They Can Thrive amid the Global Ecological Crisis
Amid the relaxing green landscape and the breezy atmosphere of a golf course is an underlying environmental problem that needs to be addressed. For one, golf courses guzzle up tons of water per day to keep their grass green and pristine. And this can do more harm than good when left unmanaged.
Climate change is real. To reinforce this, let’s take a look at the numbers:
- The past eight years have been the eight warmest on record.
- In China, 70% of groundwater is unsuitable for human contact.
- Around 6 billion people will lack access to clean drinking water by 2050.
These facts clearly tell us that our planet is in crisis. To counter this, everyone, especially business establishments like country clubs and golf courses, needs to be responsible for protecting the environment.
This article sheds light on the environmental impact of golf courses, their benefits, and eco-friendly alternatives they can consider to keep their operations without harming the planet.
A Brief History of Golf Courses
The game of golf can be traced back to the 13th century when the Dutch played a game where they hit a leather ball to reach a target. The player who hit the target with the fewest shots became the winner.
However, in 15th century Scotland, the Scottish beat the Dutch to it in naming a similar sport: golf. With golf, players aim to hit a ball to shoot it into a hole. Throughout the years, golf has undergone different phases and reached different countries. Americans were known to play it starting in the 18th century.
But it was in 1894 when the United States Golf Association was formed and became the US ambassador of the game. In 1910, it hosted about 267 golf clubs in the United States.
Today, there are over 38,000 golf courses in the world, with North America comprising 51% of the world’s golf courses and the US 43%.
How Do Golf Courses Impact the Environment?
While golf is an outdoor sport usually held in scenic gorgeous valleys, the environmental impact of golf courses is sky-high. From their construction to maintenance, golf courses inflict several negative effects on the environment.
For instance, a huge land-clearing effort is required to start the development of a golf course, often leading to the destruction of entire ecosystems. To clear all this land, heavy machinery is used, which contributes large amounts of carbon emissions and affects nearby waterways.
Let’s discuss the effects one by one.
Compared to any other sport, golf requires more land per player. Due to the development of golf courses, natural habitats are destroyed and native species are forced to leave their homes. This also leads to soil erosion and water pollution due to sediment runoff.
Golf courses in Utah need around 9 million gallons of water a day to maintain their lush condition, the same size as 13 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Wasting this amount of water in drought-ridden areas threatens not just plants and animals but also communities in the area. An overuse of freshwater sources can leave farmers, manufacturers, and residents with little water to survive.
The golf industry uses approximately 50 pesticide active ingredients, including chlorpyrifos—an insecticide that is banned for residential use by the EPA due to developmental hazards. Having to trim golf turf to low heights also makes it even more vulnerable to pests, which leads to more pesticide use.
How Are Golf Courses Trying to Improve?
The above negative effects have called the attention of many golf establishments in the past years. While the planet does not need more golf courses to be developed, many existing ones try to lower their ecological impact through alternative, more eco-friendly ways, such as the ones outlined below.
Protecting Biodiversity and Wildlife
Golf clubs like Le Dinard Golf provide their customers with a booklet introducing them to all the plant and animal species in the area. This allows golfers and guests to identify, appreciate, and protect the course’s natural inhabitants.
The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP) also launched Monarchs in the Rough, which helped hundreds of golf clubs transform their courses into safe ideal habitats for endangered monarch butterflies.
Off-Grid Golf Courses
Eco-friendly golf courses are installing solar panels in their journey to energy independence. Entero Energy, an Austin-based solar plant development firm, partners with golf course facilities to practice environmentalism while saving on energy bills. Aside from installing solar panels to clubhouses and parking areas, this effort also involves transitioning to electric golf carts and landscaping equipment.
Sourcing Irrigation from Wastewater
To lower the environmental impact in terms of water usage, many golf courses use reclaimed water to maintain their landscape. This water, also known as “gray” wash water, comes from water irrigated from showers, toilets, and more. When treated well, this recycled water can be used to wash equipment and maintain a course’s greens. This uses significantly less energy, thereby lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
Golf Course Development
Many modern architects have renovated golf courses while prioritizing the environment. In fact, the American Society of Golf Course Architects has recently named five golf projects to receive the 2022 Environmental Excellence Awards.
Two of the awardees, Dana Fry and Jason Straka, did a complete overhaul of the Union League National Golf Club, where they collaborated with conservationists and national reserves to create wetlands and expansive lakes for the course.
The Environmental Benefits of Golf Courses
There is always a heated argument when it comes to golf and the environment. However, many do not realize that golf courses can have huge benefits to the environment when done right. In fact, the United States Golf Association (USGA) has supported over 90 university studies to assess the relationship between the sport and the environment.
Below are some of the potential benefits golf, particularly its trees and natural areas, brings to nature.
1. Habitat for Wildlife
Non-play areas are often rough and filled with natural trees and shrubs, making them an attractive habitat for wildlife. In fact, the ACSP has created a sanctuary program focused on enhancing and protecting wildlife habitats on and around golf courses.
2. Protects Topsoil from Wind and Water Erosion
Turf on golf courses prevents wind and water from eroding into bodies of water as it captures and slows surface water runoff, which is highly beneficial during rainstorms. Compared to bare ground, well-maintained turf holds most of its topsoil during heavy rains.
3. Absorbs Rainwater
Rain makes up most of our clean groundwater, which is a valuable drinking water supply. But when there are severe storms, rainwater can reach streams and lakes where water is trapped and doesn’t reach the groundwater. When there are plenty of turfs, runoff water can be easily absorbed and filtered in case of storms.
4. Captures and Filters Dirty Runoff
Pollutant-filled water can collect in streets and vacant lots of urban areas. Turf areas, on the other hand, can help cleanse the water by digesting and breaking down these pollutants. Plus, turf also makes a great habitat for many microorganisms that are essential in our own ecosystem.
5. Improves Air Quality
The trees and turf in golf courses provide shade and cool down high temperatures. This reduces the need for air conditioning in nearby communities. Turf growth also improves the air quality, generating enough oxygen for many people. In fact, studies show that turfgrass has the potential to sequester more carbon than it emits, offsetting greenhouse gas production.
6. Discourages Pests
Well-maintained turf helps minimize weeds and pollen that cause potential allergic reactions. Since golf course turf is mowed regularly, flowers are not able to produce pollen-releasing flowers.
Aside from this, turf also keeps pests like ticks and mosquitoes away, reducing the threat of Lyme disease and mosquito-borne diseases.
7. Restores Damaged Land
With turf’s dense system, it makes an excellent choice to restore areas that have been damaged by mining and landfill operations. Turf growth adds organic matter to the soil and improves its ability to absorb water, reducing erosion and flooding.
8. Enhances Community Aesthetics
Aside from cooling the air in the community, turf reduces glare from bright sunlight better than concrete buildings and pavement. Plus, having lush, green landscapes adds more beauty to the community as compared to damaged areas due to mining and landfill reclamations.
9. Contributes to the Community’s Economy
The golf industry contributes billions to local economies, supporting almost 1.9 million jobs and nearly $60 billion in compensation. The numbers continue to boom as the USGA is working to make the sport accessible to everyone.
10. Improves Overall Mental Health
Physical activity, including sports like golf, is known to improve a person’s mental well-being, boosting their confidence and self-esteem. In fact, a Golf in Society project aims to improve the lives of aging people, particularly those with dementia and Parkinson’s disease, by introducing them to the health benefits of golf.
Eco-Friendly Ways to Develop and Maintain a Golf Course
If they want to continue operations, golf courses should not ignore the significant impact they have on the environment. The good news is that there are many ways they can lessen or even eliminate this impact by applying eco-friendly practices to their business.
Protect the Biodiversity in the Golf Course
The key is respecting the fauna and flora that reside in and around the golf course. Golf clubs can achieve this by renovating their courses to add more bodies of water, which are crucial in maintaining biodiversity.
Another tip is to designate an area entirely for natural life, minimizing human impact on that area as much as possible. On a similar note, allow an unmowed space to promote the growth and expansion of natural vegetation.
Lessen the Use of Pesticides
The impact of pesticides on the environment is no longer novel. It’s time golf courses limit the use of these chemicals when maintaining their property. They may find more eco-friendly, organic alternatives and fertilizer options to lower their environmental impact.
Use Effective Water Irrigation and Drainage
Water management has long been an issue for many golf courses. To minimize their water usage, recycling water is the next best step. Golf courses in Southern California are already doing this to keep their greens lush.
It’s also worth considering using certain types of grass seed that are more resistant to heat and drought, such as Bermuda, zoysia, and St. Augustine grass, as they will need less water.
Leveraging Solar Energy
Solar power allows golf courses to operate via cleaner energy, which means cutting back on fossil fuel emissions in mowers and other landscaping equipment. Recharging their electric golf carts via solar batteries or installing solar panels on the carts themselves is also an innovative choice.
Environmental Principles for Golf Courses
Leading golf and environmental organizations have created a set of eco-friendly principles that anyone in the industry should abide by. From planning to construction to maintenance, golf courses and clubs should be governed by the following principles:
- Support local communities, economically and ecologically.
- Develop environmentally conscious golf courses while being economically viable.
- Develop golf courses as a habitat for wildlife and plant species.
- Efficiently use natural resources.
- Recognize that golf courses should respect the existing unique conditions of their area’s ecosystem.
- Create playing conditions while preserving environmental quality.
- Support ongoing research, establishing innovative ways to develop and manage eco-friendly golf courses.
- Educate golfers and golf course developers about their environmental responsibility.
The above precepts are some of the vital foundations of the USGA environmental principles.
Golf Courses Need to Take Action
Golf courses have their pros and cons, but without proper guidance based on the right environmental principles, they can do more harm than good to the planet. It’s high time existing golf courses and potential developers take necessary actions to protect the environment and the very land their business is standing on.
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