Golf And The Environment. The Pros, Cons And How We Can Improve

For once in my life, I feel (almost) fully qualified to write this article. I enjoy writing about golf as a hobbyist, however, when I am not on the golf course I am a wildlife biologist and I have a masters degree in Environmental Science. This doesn’t mean I tie myself to trees and am opposed to all human activity, but it does mean that I am switched on to what humans are doing to the environment and how wildlife is being affected by our actions (whether that be good or bad).

Most importantly, above all, I am an advocator of good science and a hater of blind shouty opinions with no balance. I am also a believer that humans are very good at learning from mistakes and putting things right given time. If golf has had negative impacts in the past, why can’t we work towards sorting this out for the future? And ensure that as golfs popularity continues to grow across the world, other countries don’t make the same mistakes we have in the past.

Golf gives millions of people around the world great pleasure and helps them get exercise in the outdoors, sometimes until they are almost too old to walk! Yes, there are still problems with golf being dominated by people from a certain background, but this is changing, golf is taking off in the developing world too and closer to home many people are working to make it a more affordable and accessible past time for all.

There is no denying though that golf’s ‘impact’ on the environment polarises people still. A study in the UK showed that whilst 80% of golf players thought golf benefited the environment, this figure fell to just 36% in non-golfers[1]. Bias? Or just more first-hand awareness? It’s time to attempt to look at both sides equally and try and draw some meaningful conclusions and, if required, find out what improvements can be made.

Before you say anything, don’t worry, I’m not going to start preaching to you about climate change, or anything on that scale. I just hope that as a fellow golfer, you, like me, love being in the outdoors. Part of which is enjoying the nature and environment that comes with it. You must agree that if we have to play golf in car parks or on artificial turf in 50 years time the world will be a pretty depressing place!

The Benefits of Golf Courses for the Environment


This really depends on the original land use of the golf course. If the course is in an area that would otherwise be farmland for example, then the benefits of it becoming a golf course can be high. However, if you are tearing down a rainforest to make way for 18 holes then the costs far outweigh any benefits. So this can be quite subjective and depends a lot on where we are in the world.

Likewise, the true environmental benefit or cost has to be viewed in relation to age. Many courses have existed for a long time, and they can therefore not be viewed in the same light as a brand new course. Like most things, all these different factors make it trickier to provide meaningful sweeping conclusions.

In the UK and Europe


In the UK (a relatively small island) open parkland is becoming scarcer, as a battle to keep up with the demand for new housing ensues. Golf courses therefore often provide a vital green space within vast areas of urban sprawl, they currently occupy a whopping 0.6% of all land cover in the UK. They often provide a ‘mosaic’ of different habitats which are essential for many animals to survive. You have areas of woodland that border the fairways, areas of shorter grass mixed in with areas of longer grass, ditches, and ponds (which are not fishing ponds, and so much better for amphibians), the list of habitats goes on.

In the UK, specialist wildlife biologists are working closely with golf course architects to enhance the course for wildlife as much as possible from the get-go. At the Wisley golf course in Surrey, wildflower meadows have been provided around the course. In fact, some golf courses in the UK form part of special areas of scientific interest and are even home to some nationally rare species. The European protected sand lizard and natterjack toad can be found at the famous Royal Birkdale on the Lancashire coast. In Devon, on the Dwalish Warren course, you can come across the rare sand crocus.

Image: Flickr: Laurent Lebois © CC 2.0

The case that courses can actually enhance biodiversity is there to see in the UK. The relatively low levels of human disturbance coupled with the active management that can be incorporated, funded by private individuals, provide an almost unique opportunity for wildlife to thrive. In some cases, the courses have even involved members in conservation efforts. At Temple Golf Course in Berkshire, the course is situated on undulating land with chalk soils, making for rich plant diversity, the local naturalist’s trust provides regular field survey data on the course and the results are always impressive.

Most golfers will be aware of the rich diversity of birdlife that can be encountered across golf courses. The First European Birdwatching Open took place in 1998. It was a one-day event, coordinated across 116 courses in 18 countries in Europe. In just one 24 hour period on 17th May 1998 a total of 272 species were recorded averaging 40.3 species per course!

In the USA


In recent times the USA arguably leads the way in the world in encouraging good environmental practices. The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System programme is designed to improve the quality of courses for wildlife by encouraging enhanced active participation in conservation by golf courses. The USGA and their Wildlife Links programme also acts as a fund for a variety of ecological projects across the USA. To up the ante even more; in America, awards are now available for excellence in environmental and ecological management with high standards and accolades being very prestigious.

Like in the UK and Europe studies have shown that courses can act as hubs for rare species and be full of bird life. As far back as 1992 papers documenting the value of golf courses for populations of Big Cypress Fox Squirrels can be found [2]. For these animals golf courses provided constant food supplies and habitat availability year round.

A study on a Kansas golf course in 1997  looked at the relative diversity of bird life in comparison to nearby natural areas. It was found that the course was just as rich in birdlife as many of the nearby natural areas and in many cases threatened species were also found [3].

Yes, But wouldn’t it be much better if all golf courses were parks?


I thought this was the most appropriate place in the article to address this point which comes up time and time again.

Not necessarily. The reality is that parks cost a lot of money to manage and to maintain. That money would have to be found from the public. Golf course maintenance is dealt with under the cost of the member’s fees and so the environmental upkeep is dealt with by them. So the reality is only a small fraction of these ‘parks’ would be possible, and in areas close to urban settlements the land value for real estate would be too tempting for many councils to resist. It may hurt hardcore environmentalists to hear, but golf course land is some of the most secure from development there is, a housing estate is probably more likely to spring up in a nature reserve than on a golf course.

We need to work towards improving affordability and the attractiveness of golf courses to all, in order to let this greenspace be enjoyed by as many people as possible. And often it may be possible to combine the two, and have public access to certain areas of courses where wildlife etc. can be enjoyed by all. And courses should be situated on areas currently of low value to wildlife so gains for all can be maximized.

The Negative Environmental Impacts of Golf Courses


A lot of the negative environmental views on golf and the environment were potentially well founded. Before stricter regulations and planning permission requirements came into place, golf courses were often built wherever one fancied. This may have been in areas of meadowland, heathland or even wetland, causing habitats to be destroyed or fragmented. These days with much stricter requirements in most western countries, courses must primarily be built on areas of former farmland which hold little in the way of ecological value.

However, there are still cases of what has come to be known as Augusta National Syndrome [4]. This is where golf courses try to emulate the most pristine courses they see on TV, the most famous of which is Augusta National, home to the Masters each year. As most of you will know, this course is known for its bright green fairways, not a blade of grass out of place. Canadian Wildlife magazine quoted in 2001 ‘For any ordinary golf course to become as verdant as the grounds that host a prestigious televised golf tournament would require a chemical fog thicker than that used in the most intensive of agricultural operations.’ But Augusta is pretty much maintained just for the purpose of the Masters, it takes everything to the extreme and should not be mimicked as this will inevitably have environmental consequences.

In comparison to natural areas

Flickr: eutrophication&hypoxia cc 2.0

If areas of forest are cleared and the lay of the land is altered significantly in the process of course creation, this will start the negative feedback cycle of many negative environmental outcomes.

Fewer trees mean more water hitting the ground without being intercepted and that means more erosion of soils and more runoff into rivers and streams. This can affect local wildlife and cause flooding in areas downstream [5]. Basically, clearing woodland should be a no-go when creating a golf course!

Several studies have been carried out which show that fairways and greens can act as barriers to many species such as insects. One study found that a fairway would act as a significant barrier to ground-dwelling insects[6]. The experiment involving several thousand ground beetles showed that not a single beetle bothered to cross the short grass on the fairway to get from one area of rough grass to another.

In the regions where golf is still developing, the problem is often worse. Regulations are still relatively slack and illegal practices still occur. In Japan, for example, land is a scarce commodity, and to fit a golf course into the landscape it is likely habitats will have to be destroyed. In Malaysia too, golf is exploding in popularity and the government is pushing for more courses as they see the economic benefits of the game and disregard the environmental aspects. This includes the loss of critical rainforests such as to build the Langkawi Island Course and resort where hundreds of acres of rainforest were cleared.

Fertilisers and pesticides


Nitrogen-based fertilizers are applied to golf courses to help the grass grow and keep the fairways that desirable green color all year round. But nitrogen doesn’t just make the grass grow, it makes all plant life grow more rapidly. So if any gets into streams or rivers, and then into the sea, this can cause algae to grow into massive ‘blooms’ which can smoother vulnerable marine life.

It is often desirable to locate courses in coastal locations and many have popped up in countries such as The Bahamas where areas of forest have been cleared to make way for the new holes. A study in 2013 following construction of Bakers Bay Golf Course on Guana Cay, Abaco found that highest nitrogen readings were found nearest the course and that this corresponded to the frequency of the damaging algal blooms [7]. A study on Colorado courses as recently as 2015 showed that US courses are still leading to a significant amount of fertilizer runoff into streams and that more monitoring is needed to keep an eye on this [8].

Flickr: eutrophication&hypoxia cc2.0

As far as pesticides go, they aren’t ever going to be beneficial for the environment either. And although the manufacturers say they are safe and not harmful to wildlife that isn’t being targeted, this relies on the golf course managers applying the correct amount in the right way. And too often this doesn’t happen, leading to negative impacts.

In 2009 golf courses were told they were exempt from new pesticide policy in Canada due to economic reasons sparking outrage amongst many environmentalists. Lessons have been learned though and incidents such as the accidental killing of 700 Atlantic brent geese in New York thanks to an application of the insecticide diazinon have resulted in the banning of the chemical on golf courses afterward.

But whilst the USA, Canada and Europe continue to improve practices the rise of golfs popularity in the developing world could lead to the same problems as before occurring elsewhere in the world.

Water use


Water use again is pretty variable depending on where in the world you put your golf course. If you decide to build a golf course in an area of desert and still want bright green fairways and greens chances are you will need a lot of water to help you. On the other hand, if you are building a course in the Lake District in England you are probably more worried about flooding than keeping the turf moist.

In the USA Audubon International estimates that the average American course uses 312,000 gallons per day. This rises to 1 million gallons per day in areas like Palm Springs! That is the equivalent of one families water usage for 4 years in just one day! But as with other negatives, the USA is making drastic changes to improve its environmental image over 1000 courses are now utilizing recycled or reclaimed water, and it is now a requirement for many areas in the Southwest by order of the United States Golf Association. On top of this, new specialist grasses have been developed that require less moisture to give the same green glow. Maybe the grass won’t be quite as lush, but this is all part of courses getting over the Augusta National Syndrome.

But in the other areas of the world the problem seems much worse when villages are physically struggling to survive due to a lack of water, all the while new golf courses take more and more water. Thailand is now home to over 200 courses which each consume approximately 1.4 million gallons of water each day, this same amount could be used by 60,000 villagers. In Malaysia whilst a cholera epidemic was happening on the mainland due to lack of clean water the government spent $7.5 million for a new water pipeline to take water from there to a new resort on the island of Rendang.

Conclusions and what now??


So as you can see, golf has definitely earned some of the environmental criticisms it has received over the years. In the past, it has been guilty of overuse of water, deforestation, loss of habitats and overuse of fertilizer and pesticide in a quest for Augusta-like appearances. But many countries are learning these lessons and in the UK, Europe, the USA and Canada in particular, strickter regulations on pesticides/ fertilizers, tighter rules on water use and more planning regulations, mean the environment is now at the forefront of many course architects minds and not the last thought.

In these countries, designers must continue to work closely with environmental professionals to ensure the best outcomes for wildlife and for the planet. Limiting new courses to areas currently occupied by farmland that offers little in the way of value for wildlife and designing courses around existing natural features such as hedgerows and trees, with additional planting using native species that fit the landscape not things that look interesting. On top of this, connectivity should be maintained with longer grassed areas crossing fairways to link areas of habitat. Getting members involved in wildlife counts and in enhancing features to encourage more wildlife has the opportunity to inspire and improve the environment for all.

But as we have seen these lessons must be adopted in developing countries before it is too late! Deforestation should be prevented and recycling of water should be encouraged as soon as possible. There is no denying the economic benefits that golf can bring to developing nations but is it worth the cost of nature and wildlife? I don’t think so! Like I said at the start of the article, part of enjoying golf is being in the outdoors and being surrounded by the sounds of wildlife, we must work to improve this so it is there forever and we are not playing golf in a desert in the future.


[1] Gange A C, Lindsay E D and Schofield MJ (2003): The ecology of golf courses Biologist 

[2]  Jodice P G R and Humphrey S R (1992) Activity and diet of an urban population of Big Cypress fox squirrels. Journal of Wildlife Management, 56, 685–692.

[3]  Terman M R (1997) Natural links: naturalistic golf courses as wildlife habitat. Landscape and Urban Planning, 38, 183–197.

[4] Klein (2012) Green with envy? Don’t be. Augusta is unique Golfweek

[5] Wheeler K, Nauright J (2006) A Global Perspective on the Environmental Impact of Golf Kit Wheeler & John Nauright

[7] Goreau T J (2013) – Global Coral Reef Alliance

[8] Jones M K (2015 – University of Colorado