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Two of the most mutually exclusive words in the modern world may be "golf" and "environment." The $49 billion sport has perhaps the blackest environmental reputation of any pastime around, and it can be a hard game to play with a conscience. Golfing enthusiasts, however, are working to change that with a new generation of courses whose greens actually are.
From an environmental perspective, golf courses have three basic problems: they require a lot of land that in most cases had been undeveloped; they use tremendous amounts of water; and they rely on pesticides and other chemicals to maintain playing surfaces.
Current estimates place the number of golf courses in the United States at roughly 16,000. These courses cover some 1.7 million acres, an area about the size of the state of Delaware. The typical course, according to Audubon International, uses 312,000 gallons of water per day. In arid locations, a single course can drink as many as a million gallons a day—a four-year supply for a family of four.
More damaging still are the many pesticides applied to greens and fairways each year, which can expose golfers and wildlife alike to a variety of health hazards. Because needs vary from course to course, no one knows the precise quantities used, but available estimates suggest an average of approximately nine pounds of chemicals per acre. A study in New York found that Long Island golf courses use between four and seven times more pesticides per acre than nearby farms.
But a movement to make golf courses more sustainable is starting to dig in its cleats. Golfers can join by asking their clubs to take steps to reduce environmental impacts and by choosing to play only courses that are working toward positive solutions. Here's what to look for:
- Grey water and/or treated wastewater—not drinking water—to keep the course green.
- Strategies that reduce water needs, including targeted watering, monitoring systems that prevent overwatering, raising mowing heights, and using hardier varieties of grass.
- Storm run-off systems that send rainwater through wetlands or turf grass for natural filtration.
- Better pesticide strategies including more targeted applications, integrated pest management techniques, and organic methods.
- Education efforts that reduce expectations about how links should look and teach players that the damage to environmental and human health caused by the pesticides needed to create perfect courses isn’t worth the trade off.
- Preservation of local habitats. This includes the use of native plants, wildlife-friendly policies, the establishment of wildlife sanctuaries on the property, protection of streams and other water resources, and set-asides of sensitive areas.
Conscientious golfers should also look for courses built in appropriate areas. The ideal course is one whose construction does not create a net loss by destroying undeveloped natural lands but rather restores a degraded area or an urban brownfield to provide a net benefit.
There are also places that are simply unsuitable for golf. These include desert and other water-scarce regions as well as habitats too ecologically sensitive to successfully host a golf course. Golfers will do their sport and the environment a favor by refusing to play the game in areas where even the best designed and managed course dramatically upsets the land’s natural balance.
Steps like these will go a long way toward transforming the game into one anyone can play without first having to handicap their environmental priorities. But can the sport with this many impacts ever hope to become completely sustainable? It's possible if all future courses are built on reclaimed urban or industrial lands and use every available strategy to eliminate each potential impact.
More probable is the scenario that occurred on Martha's Vineyard, site of the Vineyard Golf Club, a 100% organic course. Approved after a contentious battle and managed in conjunction with a local conservation organization, the course is likely the most sustainable ever built. At the same time, however, the links don’t replicate the habitat destroyed to create them. As such, the Vineyard Golf Club represents a compromise of sorts in which nature hasn't won but hasn't entirely lost either. That's likely to be the best outcome eco-golfers can hope for when they reach for their irons and try to drive the world to a better place.