One common misconception about golf courses is that they are bad for the environment. Sure, golf increases footfall and erosion, however, in the vast majority of cases, golf courses are beneficial for the environment and provide green space in an otherwise shrinking green world.
So are golf courses bad for the environment? According to the United States Golf Association, golf benefits the environment as it:
- Provides wildlife habitat
- Protects topsoil from water and wind erosion
- Absorbs and filters rain
- Improves air quality
- Captures and cleanses runoff in urban areas
- Restores damaged land areas
Yet this is just a broad overview of the benefits of golf courses. We will get into the details momentarily. In this article, I will cover the following aspects of golf courses and their impact on the environment:
- Are golf courses bad for the environment? Pros and cons
- How golf courses impact the environment
- How golf courses try to help the environment
- Golf’s impact on the environment compared to other outdoor sports
Are Golf Courses Bad for the Environment? Pros and Cons
The vast majority of golf courses provide countless benefits to the environment and community. However, there is also the idea that golf courses are a potential threat to the environment. This concern stems from a few isolated stories that some have seen as a more widespread problem.
Below, I will share the countless positives golf courses provide to the environment. With the idea of being balanced in mind, I will also share the few potential environmental negatives that happen in isolated situations at some golf courses.
Pros: How Golf Courses Help The Environment
According to the United States Golf Association, there are countless positives that golf courses provide for the environment. Let’s explore a few of those…
Golf Course Roughs and Trees Create Good Wildlife Habitat
The vast majority of acreage on a golf course, as much as 70%, is made up of rough and areas that are out of play. Combined with the golf course’s playable areas, these “out-of-play” areas create a vibrant habitat for animals in the area to call home. As I’ll touch on later in this article, the USGA and Audubon International have developed the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses. Through this long-standing program and partnership, golf courses can become certified as stewards of embracing and looking out for the environment at their facilities.
Turf Protects Topsoil From Water and Wind Erosion
Many may not know, but the topsoil in our lawns, open fields, and golf courses is not a renewable resource. There are several things that mother nature throws at our topsoil, including wind, heavy rains, and more, that can erode topsoil into our waterways. At that point, the soil is lost forever.
Where golf courses come to the rescue is by way of the turf itself that blankets the fairways, greens, and surrounds of the course. Turf can control erosion. It does so by capturing and slowing the flow of water that storms can enhance.
How does this work? Well, golf course turf has a very dense root system, and its growth creates organic matter. That organic matter and dense root system can slow water runoff, even in the heaviest storms, and reduce soil erosion. According to the USGA: “Even during extremely intense rainstorms (3 inches per hour), studies show that turf holds up to 20 times more soil than traditionally-farmed cropland.”
Not only do golf courses improve community aesthetics, but they also…
- Keep things cooler on hot summer days
- Reduce noise pollution in a city environment
- Reduce the glare that can come from bright sunlight that bounces off buildings, parking lots, and sidewalks
In terms of improvements visually, golf courses can bring green spaces to areas in need of repurposing, such as landfills or areas damaged by mining operations.
More From Golf Span: Gas vs Electric Golf Cart: Which Should You Get
Turf Absorbs Rainwater
One massively important positive of rain is that it helps replenish clean groundwater. Why is this important to us? Well, that clean groundwater supplies a great deal of our drinking water. Yet, sometimes, during heavy rains, water tends to take a different route and makes its way to waterways such as lakes, streams, and ponds. When that happens, rainwater does not move through the soil and into the groundwater table.
The benefits that golf course turf provides in this regard are simple. Its properties allow it to absorb rainwater more efficiently than other forms of turf. One interesting reason why is the presence of earthworms. According to the USGA, well-maintained turf encourages up to 300 earthworms, or more, per square yard. The tunnels these critters dig throughout the soil allow for more pathways for water to run through. Water that works through the soil is filtered and cleaned as it percolates into the groundwater table.
The general public would never think this to be the case, but the process has become so effective that many golf courses have become water recycling sites for their communities.
Turf Helps Beat the Heat and Improves the Air We Breathe
Did you know that turf can help cool temperatures during the hot summer months and improve the air we rely on to breathe?
In city settings, where concrete is the norm, the green space that a golf course can provide, and the trees lining the fairways can reduce the energy needed for air conditioning.
In terms of air quality, growing turf takes carbon dioxide from the air and releases the oxygen we need.
Turf Captures and Cleans Dirty Runoff in Urban Areas
Believe it or not, golf course turf can clean the dirty water runoff that collects in street gutters and parking lots. The turf on a golf course provides an excellent environment for beneficial microorganisms to flourish. These microscopic creatures play a significant role in cleaning out the polluted water and speeding up their normal breakdown process.
Pests, Pollen, and Disease
Another little-known fact is that well-maintained turf free from weeds can help those suffering from certain types of allergies. Golf course turf that is cut regularly does not produce the seedheads which release pollen, which is the cause of allergy-related symptoms.
Additionally, turf kept low, as is the case on golf courses, helps create an environment free of ticks, mosquitoes, and other nuisance insects.
Turf Can Help Restore Lost and Damaged Land Areas
As briefly mentioned earlier, golf courses can bring green spaces to areas in need of repurposing, such as landfills or areas damaged by mining operations.
Many examples of beautiful and flourishing golf courses are being put in on properties that were once abandoned quarries, strip mines, and landfills. In these situations, not only are these repurposed areas beautified, but all the other benefits mentioned above can begin to take place…all thanks to golf course turf.
Cons: How Golf Courses Hurt The Environment
Before becoming a PGA Professional, I went to college to pursue a degree in Golf Course Operations. The focus of that degree was to become a golf course superintendent. Through my studies in that program in the mid-90s and my continued interest today in the golf course side of the business, I know full well the numerous positives and perceived negatives that golf has on the environment.
While rooted in actually confirmed concerns, the perceived negatives are largely blown out of proportion in most cases. Or, isolated negative situations at courses where misguided superintendents took shortcuts, or conducted business in a way that is non-typical of the profession, were greatly exaggerated by the media. The media, or environmentalists, take these isolated situations and paint golf with a broad brush as something that is bad for the environment.
Some of the perceived negatives that exist regarding golf courses and the environment include the following:
Golf Courses Waste Water
Why is golf bad for the environment? “They waste tonnes of water!” Not entirely true. Golf courses wasting water was indeed an issue and valid concern two decades ago, and in some instances, it still is. However, the reality is that many golf courses have gone to using reclaimed water to irrigate their turf. This water source is not the same as the freshwater that is often scarce during drought situations in many parts of the country.
Additionally, golf course turf does not like to be over-saturated. It is simply a misconception that the turf on a golf course needs more water than any other turf on sports fields, parks, or residential lawns. Golf course superintendents know that overwatering is indeed not good for maintaining turf.
True, some golf courses do indeed overuse water, but the overwhelming trend has been quite the opposite by superintendents. Water sustainability in golf has been respectable for some time.
It also seems that this scrutiny is heavily targeted toward golf as opposed to other green areas. Rarely do we see a similar discussion relating to football, baseball, soccer fields, or public parks.
Golf Courses Are a Poor Use of Land
Many claim golf courses are a poor use of land. I have long had a problem with this argument, especially when the environment is concerned. At a time when green space is constantly being gobbled up for concrete parking lots, buildings, and other non-natural areas, a golf course is a far better use of land for the environment.
Overuse of Harmful Chemicals
One of the most publicized major concerns golf courses present to the environment is the overuse of harmful chemicals. However, much like with the water overuse perception, the overuse of toxic chemicals is far less of an issue than it is made out to be.
Primarily because of isolated but very public situations over the past few decades, golf course superintendents have stringent protocols to follow regarding chemical use and disposal.
The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has strict golf course regulations in place, and golf course superintendents are very conscious of the importance of being environmentally responsible.
According to the EPA: Regulated areas at golf facilities include fuel storage, nutrient use, disposal of used oil, pesticide use, irrigation, above ground and underground storage tanks, spill prevention and notification, and wetlands concerns. The specific requirements applicable to a golf facility will be highly dependent on its operation and location.
Lost Golf Balls
While the negatives thus far are largely blown out of proportion, golf course pollution in the form of lost golf balls presents a very real negative effect. Estimates suggest around 300 million golf balls are lost each year — that’s something we golfers can’t shy away from.
The issue is that golf balls are harmful to the environment. They can take anywhere from 100-1000 years to decompose, and when they do, they release harmful materials into the environment such as heavy metals.
Fortunately, the golf ball recycling industry helps offset this problem. It gives players an incentive to find and collect lost golf balls in return for cash. Other players can then purchase these balls at a discounted price. Everybody wins!
Golf Course Initiatives to Help the Environment
As mentioned previously, Audubon International, along with the USGA, have created what is known as the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Programs (ACSP) for Golf.
In a recent conversation with Christine Kane, CEO of Audubon International, she told me more about their golf course sanctuary program.
“We actually have two certifications specifically geared towards golf operations. The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP) for Golf is for existing/operating golf courses, and the Signature Sanctuary Certification is for new golf course construction or significant renovations.”
Additionally, through a recent agreement between the EPA and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, golf course superintendents will continue to do what many have already been doing for decades… being responsible and aware of the environmental impact of golf courses.
Check This Out: How Many Golf Courses Are in the US? And Are They In Decline?
Golf’s Impact on the Environment Compared to Other Sports
In the interest of fairness, I think it’s important to discuss other sports’ effect on the environment, not just golf. This helps us better understand where golf truly sits in the environmental conversation.
Right off the bat, it’s clear golf is not one of the worst offenders when it comes to environmental harm. Any sport involving the heavy use of vehicles, such as cars and planes, is very bad for the environment. They spew out harmful gases while offering nothing in return. Sure, golf may have its issues, but as we’ve discussed, golf courses bring many benefits.
However, such sports are not quite as common or accessible as golf. And when we pivot our focus to such sports, it’s clear that most don’t have as big of an environmental impact. Of course, fields and pitches may need construction and maintenance, but ultimately, they cover a much smaller area, meaning they have less impact.
Then, if we slide over to the most environmentally friendly sports, we have little environmental effect at all. The likes of darts and table tennis require little more than the construction of equipment for the game and a fitting area to play. So in the scope of environmental impact, golf certainly seems to be on the strong end. Still, it’s clear current procedures are minimizing the effect, and there are also many positives to consider.
Environmentally Friendly Golf Course Alternatives
Currently, there are over 70 Topgolf facilities worldwide and five fun games to choose from.
If you’re concerned about the impact of golf courses on the environment, you can always pick up a golf simulator. They seem to be getting better every year and you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your own home to use one.
In terms of golf simulator environmental impact, you only have to consider the effect of sourcing the materials, building the simulator, and ongoing electricity usage which is fairly low.
If you want to learn more, check out our favorite golf simulators.
Read More: How Many Acres Is a Golf Course?
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Golf an Eco-Friendly Sport?
Yes, golf is an eco-friendly sport. Despite what some conservationists may claim, golf, for the large part, is an environmentally friendly sport. Massive efforts have been made over the last 20 years to ensure this.
Why Are Golf Courses Bad for the Environment?
Golf courses encroach on natural habitats, use up large volumes of water, and contribute to the release of harmful chemicals. However, they bring many benefits such as improving air quality, topsoil protection, and rainwater filtration.
What Are the Most Environmentally Unfriendly Sports?
Sports such as NASCAR, Formula 1, and drag racing are unfriendly to the environment. Likewise, skydiving, aerobatics, and even motorized water sports are also bad for the environment. The reason for this is that they spew out harmful fuel emissions which is bad for the environment.
Are golf courses bad for the environment? It’s a mix of yes and no. Despite what some environmentalists may claim, the overwhelming majority of golf courses make countless efforts to be stewards of protecting and enhancing the natural environment.
Relationships between the GCSAA, USGA, EPA, and organizations like Audubon International have solidified those efforts. However, the reality is that many superintendents have been maintaining practices that promote golf course sustainability for a very long time.
PGA Professional Brendon Elliott is the founder of Little Linksters, LLC, and its nonprofit arm, the Little Linksters Association for Junior Golf Development. He is the winner of 25+ prestigious industry honors, including the 2017 PGA National Youth Player Development award. Brendon is a respected coach, businessman, writer, and golf industry expert.