On the fareway - how the golfing green fares poorly on eco-credentials

Eifion Rees finds out that the golfing world’s eco credentials are simply full of holes.

It’s early morning on the first tee. Two players stroll leisurely across the perfectly mowed turf to line up the first shot of the day. Before them stretch acres of lovingly tended fairway, carefully manicured rough, trees and water features. The sprinklers are on in the distance; rainbows are forming in the fine mist. Everywhere is green and lush. Welcome to Egypt. Welcome to Saudi Arabia. Welcome to Afghanistan.

There are golf courses in 140 countries worldwide – 600 under construction at this very moment – and not all are as suited to the sport as inclement Scotland, where the game originated. Mature markets like the UK, US, Ireland and Australia may not be expanding, but the sport is still growing in the rest of the world. It has been exported to jungle nations, its courses carved from tropical rainforests, and to some of the driest places on Earth.

Golf is the thirstiest sport in the world. Some 9.5 billion litres of water are used daily to keep greens green – enough to meet the needs of four-fifths of the Earth’s population for a day. US courses are conservatively estimated to use an average of 300,000 gallons daily – Las Vegas’s 60 courses each uses a million. Working in Arizona, a greenkeeper from Scotland was shocked to see what would have been his yearly usage of three million gallons used in the course of a single night.

Joan Taylor, vice chair of the California/Nevada Desert Committee of environmental organisation the Sierra Club, believes golf’s water use in dry areas is neither tenable nor defensible. ‘Here in the Palm Springs area, astounding amounts of water are poured on golf courses – half a million gallons a day per course, times more than 100 golf courses,’ she says. ‘Not only is this an unspeakable waste of potable water, it’s also unsustainable. Southern California is a desert, and the snow pack on which we rely for water is steadily dwindling.’

Because of premiums on drinking water it can prove more cost-effective to use treated effluent, or grey, water, but if the quality is low and salt content high this can cause problems with the turf – meaning the difference between an eagle and a bogey. New strains of grass are increasingly being used that can survive on less water; seashore paspalum grass, a salt-resistant hybrid, can be irrigated with recycled or brackish water, but in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Dominican Republic this still means wastage somewhere along the line. Droughts are common in the Dominican Republic, for instance, and half the population lives below the poverty line, yet the country has two-dozen courses, the most of any Caribbean nation.

Water rights are also an issue in the US, where it’s possible effectively to buy first place in the queue – senior water rights – leaving those with less clout to make do with less water of a lower quality. People in other parts of the world aren’t as happy to allow the authorities to put their health and that of the environment on the line.

In 1995, residents of the Mexican town of Tepoztlan halted the construction of Club de Golf El Tepozteco, a business complex and 700 luxury residences, each with a swimming pool, built around a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course. The complex was to have been built in an ecological reserve above the aquifer supplying the town’s water. Environmentalists estimated the golf course alone would need 525,000 gallons of water a day; others put the figure at 800,000 gallons, five times the town’s consumption. One man was killed when police opened fire into a crowd of protestors. Jack Nicklaus told Golf Digest at the time: ‘I was told there was some uprising, but I didn’t know. I just don’t get in the middle of it.’ Nicklaus Design has 17 golf courses in Mexico; its website lists another 17 as ‘under construction’.

Putting golf into perspective

Golf originated in Scotland (ironically, it is first mentioned in two 15th-century Scottish laws that prohibit its playing) and as a sport it is There are 2,500 courses in the UK, more than 32,000 worldwide and 59 million golfers chipping and putting internationally – roughly the population of the UK. The billions they raise in revenue go some way to explaining golf’s global spread to places as incongruous as Kazakhstan and Nicaragua, and as questionable as Burma and Afghanistan.

‘Golf is fantastic for bringing tourism into a country and selling real estate,’ says Colin Hegarty, president of the Golf Research Group, a believer in the economic good the game can bring. ‘Developers will typically buy 4,000 acres and put in a masterplan over 20 to 30 years. 160 acres will be for golf – it’s just the space between the houses.’

By its very nature, golf is an exclusive sport. Lush fairways and air-conditioned clubhouses are accessible only to those who can afford the membership fees; gates and fences keep out the rest. Golfers the world over are nature lovers – they just want to love it in isolation.

Building a course costs between £4 and £6 million, and involves moving vast quantities of soil, quantities that have increased as the technology – from digging machinery to the clubs and balls that enable golfers to hit further – has improved. Some bigger courses require the shifting of 750,000 cubic metres of earth, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Developers unveiling the most recent phase of the Cap Cana resort in the Dominican Republic, which features three Jack Nicklaus Signature golf courses, described their development as ‘nature improved by man’. Bulldozers were required to ‘improve’ the site of 35,000 acres of mahogany forest before building could begin.

The average golf course is some 75 acres in size, meaning globally approximately two and a half million acres of land have been given over to the sport, though in some parts it is currently lying fallow. Golf mania gripped Asia in the 1990s, but Japan’s boom in courses fell foul of the financial bust of 1997. The same is true of Thailand and Malaysia, which bought wholesale into golf and the lure of golf tourism.

‘With the same pattern of overkill development seen in other countries, exclusivity has given way to a glut,’ says Chee Yoke Ling, legal adviser and environment coordinator of the Third World Network. ‘The first phase is golf as luxurious and elitist, followed by an overdevelopment phase and then a desperate promotion to fill the hotels and fairways. A small country like Malaysia has more than 200 courses, many of which are tied up with hotels. Thailand has more courses and has been promoting golf tourism even more aggressively. It is ironic and tragic that Malaysian companies are now targeting the Thai market.’

Social apartheid

Golf has always had an eye for scenery: the more beautiful a location, the more paying visitors it can attract. Along the Garden Route, on the southern tip of South Africa, the price of land has trebled in the past five years as a result of a rush to develop elite resorts. A decade of environmental opposition has yielded little joy; the sheer numbers of courses springing up in the region even less – not for nothing is it known as a golfer’s paradise. The Pinnacle Point Golf Estate goes so far as to call itself ‘golf’s new garden of Eden’, though its local reputation points out the hyperbole.

‘At Mossel Bay, Pinnacle Point Golf Estate has broken all the planning rules and developed to the edge of the cliffs,’ says Angela Conway of the Southern Cape Land Committee. ‘Now the run-off is destroying an archaeological site. The local community is fighting to regain use of Souweisia, a municipal beach put out to tender to developers. At Noetzie, Pezula Golf Estate tried to close off public steps to the beach. German investors Fancourt have bought up three more smallholdings to incorporate into their elite golf estate.’

Conway warns locals are becoming increasingly frustrated at the ongoing privatisation of their coast, but that the income-generating potential of such resorts has political backing. The 2,000-acre Lagoon Bay Lifestyle Estate – two golf courses, 1,000 residential properties, a hotel and a shopping village – has been earmarked for land that a Department of Agriculture report said had ‘high agricultural potential’.

‘A few months after the report, the Minister for Agriculture pronounced the land unsuitable for agriculture,’ says Conway. ‘Lagoon Bay will command a huge chunk of coastline and will mean wall-to-wall golf estates from Pacaltsdorp to Great Brak. The development has support high up, however, which may just override environment and planning officials.

‘A few months after the report, the Minister for Agriculture pronounced the land unsuitable for agriculture,’ says Conway. ‘Lagoon Bay will command a huge chunk of coastline and will mean wall-to-wall golf estates from Pacaltsdorp to Great Brak. The development has support high up, however, which may just override environment and planning officials.

When is a green not a green?

The Worldwatch Institute estimates that six times as much pesticide is used on golf courses as on agricultural land, and also observes an impact from numerous fertilisers, remarking that run-off ‘can lead to eutrophication [the introduction of excess nutrients] of nearby surface waters’. In 1994, the University of Iowa College of Medicine examined the death certificates of more than 600 golf course superintendents and found a disproportionately high number had died from cancers including brain cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, associated with pesticide poisoning. Jim Snow, a director of the US Golf Association (USGA), has warned golfers against putting tees in their mouths for fear of poisoning.

It’s undoubtedly true golf courses use less chemicals and pesticides than they once did, but that doesn’t necessarily make them green – sometimes even if they’ve been certified as such. The USGA Guide to Environmental Stewardship on the Golf Course, for example, recommends courses ‘consider the use of reclaimed water for irrigation’ and ‘protect sensitive habitats during construction’. The guide was prepared by Audubon International (AI) – not to be confused with conservationists the National Audubon Society. In 1991, the latter failed in a legal bid to get AI (busy bestowing ‘Audubon’ accreditation on golf courses across the US) to change its name. AI is financed for the most part by the USGA.

Mario Rodrigues, a golf researcher and editor of Mumbai-based All Sports Magazine, says chemicals are part and parcel of the golfing package: ‘These industries are linked, particularly in the US, and as long as new golf projects come with a heavy chemical pesticide-based component, golf will continue to pose an environmental hazard. Efforts to regulate its ill effects will only be partial and the question why harmful chemical pesticides for courses can’t be eliminated totally or to the maximum extent possible will not be addressed.’

A chemical Passover

Is there any way to keep fairways weed-free and use less pesticide? The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company thought it had found one. Its solution was to genetically modify grasses to withstand a single pesticide; spraying would result in a kind of chemical Passover, sparing the golf turf and nothing else. The pesticide was a solution called Roundup.

Creeping Bentgrass and Kentucky Bluegrass are two robust, weedy perennial grasses designed as golf grasses and genetically engineered to withstand Monsanto’s leading weedkiller, generically known as glyphosate. Passed fit for testing by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), these grasses were planted in a trial site in Oregon in 2003. It may have been tempting fate to trial them so close to a protected National Grassland.

Grass pollen can travel huge distances and there were fears that naturally occurring grasses could become contaminated, creating superweeds with increased resistance to pesticide, requiring more toxic substances to cope with the problem. In 2004, scientists found genetically engineered bentgrass pollen 13 miles downwind of the 600-acre test site. In a new study two years later, nine genetically engineered plants were found growing in the vicinity, the furthest almost three miles away.

The Center for Food Safety successfully sued the USDA in February 2007 for allowing the field trials of the Roundup Ready golf grass to proceed without having done a serious environmental assessment. Scotts was fined $500,000. Its appeal against the decision was thrown out of court in March 2008.

George Kimbrell of the CFS is under no illusions about the importance of the ‘perfect’ golf grass to Scotts and companies like it.

‘Scotts claimed the grasses were crucial to its biotech programme – to the tune of tens of millions of dollars – and that our legal victory should be overturned because it had created a ‘dark cloud of regulatory uncertainty’ over the future of its biotech grasses.

‘The legal victory has forced the federal government to take a longer, harder look at the significant potential and novel environmental harms from these grasses, but Scotts will continue to try to get genetically engineered grasses deregulated.’

From water to land use, pesticides and fertilisers to genetically modified grasses, golf’s environmental footprint is as vast as its fairways. Although a sport adapted to some countries in the world – those with high rainfall and where environmental regulations exist to rein in its worst excesses – it is one whose impact seems disproportionate to the number of players of the game.

‘Golf courses evolved in Scotland, not in the Sonoran Desert,’ the Sierra Club’s Joan Taylor points out. ‘There is no such thing as an “environmentally friendly” golf course. Some may just be a little less unfriendly than others.’

Eifion Rees is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2008

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