Golf Courses Transform our Natural Landscapes and… What Else?!

Much like manicured and homogenized lawns and yards, golf courses are something of an oddity when considered within the context of the natural world.

Since enormous acres of tamed landscape don’t exist in the wild, curious minds have asked the question – Just how much work does it take to maintain what doesn’t make natural sense, and at what cost to the surrounding ecosystems?

More than a million acres of land on Earth are being split between around 35,000 golf courses all over the world, about half of which are in the United States.

Out of about 37 billion acres of land available on the planet, golf courses make up less than 1%. 

Maybe that doesn’t seem like much – but the effect golf courses have on the environment can be pretty profound.

And in more ways than one…

Golf courses take an enormous amount of water to keep the rolling fields a luscious green. 

In order to keep the lawns free of undesirable plant life and weeds at bay in huge swathes of land, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are used in enormous quantities, poisoning not only the soil, but the groundwater and the life forms in direct proximity to the golf courses themselves.

All of this modification is done in an effort to standardize and “beautify” areas that don’t support well-fed grass hills and treeless expanses. 

The desert regions of America, for example, can’t supply golf courses with the water they need to stay attractive through natural rain. Desperately needed water sources get diverted from communities in need to instead prolong the existence of an unnatural habitat disruption.

Typically, environmentalists can break down their assessment of golf’s effect on the world around us into three categories: lack of biodiversity, use of chemicals, and irresponsible water use. 

Let’s take a look at each…

Lack of Biodiversity

Now, golf courses represent more promise from a development standpoint than, say, an industrial park or a new shopping mall. 

But as it stands currently, the allotment of land for golf course creation tends to have adverse effects on the existing wildlife. 

Where once was forest and now exists a golf course, the plants and animals who lived in that forest no longer have a home. Since the average size of a golf course is about 150 acres, any golf course anywhere was once a vast and complex ecosystem that is now stripped of its parts.

However, in some areas, particularly desserts, the heavy water requirement actually encourages animals to thrive where they otherwise wouldn’t. Snakes, for example, thrive in golf courses out in arid land because water is more available to their prey than in the rest of their natural space. The same goes for certain amphibious breeds who are able to access water when they normally couldn’t.

The difference between a biodiverse golf course and a biologically stifling one seems to be how the edges of the course, the area between fairways, and seasonal ponds are treated. If allowed to thrive, they can support the natural organisms that are native to that environment. 

Use of Chemicals

Up until the high profile cases of golf course superintendents developing cancer in the 1990s, pesticide and herbicide use on golf courses was rampant and relatively uncontrolled. 

Several organizations, including the Golf Course Superintendent Association, partnered with an environmental group called Beyond Pesticides to address the problem.

And although great strides in regulation have been made, as recently as 2019 Beyond Pesticides have said their “efforts to eliminate a reliance on pesticides still lag behind other environmental action.”

Constant mowing on gas-powered motors doesn’t lessen the chemical consumption necessitated by golf courses as they’re currently run, either.

Water Use

Obviously, golf courses require a tremendous amount of water in order to stay green and healthy. 

Per course, you can expect to see nearly 130,000 gallons of water used each day. In a world where access to water isn’t even guaranteed for every citizen, that astronomical number feels pretty irresponsible, even considering that a portion of that water is recycled or grey (wastewater without fecal contamination.)

However, the effects on surrounding bodies of water can also be detrimental. Because of the changes made to the natural shape and features of land, soil erosion and gullying can be pretty safely predicted. 

When that happens, sediment runoff into nearby waterways is highly likely, and leads to problems for marine plants and animals.

The answer to all of these problems may not be the abolition of golf courses.

The Audobon International, an organization that advises business on sustainability practices, has laid out a series of suggestions and improvements for existing and future golf courses. 

In the list, advice is given to owners and investors about how to increase biodiversity, sustainable measures, rehabilitate landscapes, provide green spaces within urban areas, and cut down on drinkable water usage. 

If you’re considering going golfing, check the environmental score of the course you’re going to! Vote with your dollar. 
Support those with practices you respect, and let the ones you don’t want to go to exactly why you don’t want to support them!

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.