Golf is a game known for its lush greens and its ability to humble even a legend like Calvin Peete. When I started playing golf nine years ago, I fell in love with the art and beauty of the game. Still, it was hard to keep showing up to practice when one day you hit a perfect shot up the middle of the fairway and the next you are playing army golf (hitting left, right, then left again).
I played in Florida most of my life, and during a rough match, I could always count on a gator sighting or a fly-over by a colorful parrot to take my mind off my score. For me, golf and the environment had a symbiotic relationship. It was a place where people could connect with the natural world more intimately, and in return, golfers encouraged the construction of green spaces in urban areas. I dreamed of playing at Pebble Beach or Augusta National because of how freeing it would feel to play in a snapshot of the great outdoors.
In the United States, 25 million people play the game of golf, and there are roughly 16,000 golf courses. But, when the Europeans established the game of golf in Scotland during the 16th century, the modern concept of global warming and climate change did not exist. Most of the population made a living from farming and did not rely on the aggressive use of pesticides that we have today. Interestingly, golfers played on fields shared with livestock when the sport started in the 16th century. The livestock served as unofficial groundskeepers because their grazing kept the grass at an appropriate length. The domesticated landscapers were before mechanized approaches to land management existed. So, it was no surprise to me when I learned that golf courses are not at the forefront of the fight to save the environment. Maintaining these beautiful courses demanded human intervention to combat the reality of an ever-changing landscape.
In the 1960s, Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring, which sparked a movement focused on protecting the natural environment. This tell-all on the link between planetary and human health urged people to reconsider humans' relationship with their environment. But, more importantly, it encouraged readers to reevaluate their role in destroying the immediate environment around them.
Price of Beauty
On average, golf courses spend $500,000 - $1,000,000 a year-round groundskeeping, including pesticides and water usage, to maintain a pristine image. As a result of the accumulation of chemicals in the groundwater, wildlife and plants are impacted.
The Environmental Protection Bureau of New York State conducted a study and found a high risk of groundwater contamination from using pesticides on golf courses. They discovered that golf courses in Long Island applied an average of 7 pounds of pesticides per acre/year. Meanwhile, the average American farmer uses 1.5 pounds of pesticides per acre/year.
An investigation of toxic land in South Florida found that the beautiful International Links Melreese Country Club sits on top of horrific environmental failures. The soil under Melreese contains remnants of ash from a 1920s municipal incinerator, arsenic from pesticides, and other toxic chemicals from the landfill that occupied that land before. The revelation of this poison came to light when the famous soccer player David Beckham bid to have Melreese be the site of a new stadium for his soccer team. Inspection of the area led to the realization that the golf course was keeping the chemicals contained, but if disturbed, there would be a $50 million toxic waste cleanup.
In 2006, the Grapeland water park next to the course had its soil tested and arranged to have the toxins excavated to protect guests from contamination. Contractors were able to remove 86,000 tons of ash and other toxic chemicals for the price of $10 million. The water park is 9x smaller than the golf course, which means the volume of toxins under Melreese and the cost to remove it would be astronomical. Golf courses are not the ultimate solution to combating climate change, but they are a great way to repurpose land while providing a space for people to engage with the environment. However, pesticide usage would have to decrease drastically to avoid turning courses into the next municipal incinerator case.
A hole in one for climate action
I believe that golf courses could contribute to our climate goal on a larger scale if the methods for constructing and maintaining courses changed. They could function as a land repurposing tool for areas with high demand for outdoor recreational spaces. [Mackey 1996] If this outdoor activity were made more accessible to the general public, it would compensate for the lack of public parks in certain areas. Studies have shown that golf courses play a part in maintaining biodiversity in regions impacted by the Anthropocene (the current geological period when human interaction has the most impact on climate and the environment). The artificial environment provides a habitat for local species and sometimes supports reproductive efforts. [Colding & Folke, 2009] Therefore, one solution would be to intentionally rewild closed and condemned courses to stimulate the reintroduction of species (both plants and animals) that were driven out by the initial construction of the course. During the rewilding stage, there should be a simultaneous effort to remove any existing invasive species. Although the game of golf is loved by many, it should not come with a price for the environment's health.
Colding, Johan, and Carl Folke. “The Role of Golf Courses in Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.” Ecosystems, vol. 12, no. 2, 2008, pp. 191–206., https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-008-9217-1.
“David Beckham's MLS Stadium Site Contaminated by Arsenic, Says Report.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 Aug. 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/aug/20/proposed-site-for-david-beckhams-mls-stadium-reportedly-twice-legal-limit.
Garris, Whitney. “Could the Golf Course Green Be Poisoning You and Your Child?” Medium, Medium, 14 May 2018, www.medium.com.
“Golf Industry Facts.” National Golf Foundation, 11 July 2022, https://www.ngf.org/golf-industry-research/.
Mackey, Robert E. “Three End-Uses for Closed Landfills and Their Impact on the Geosynthetic Design.” Geotextiles and Geomembranes, vol. 14, no. 7-8, 1996, pp. 409–424., https://doi.org/10.1016/0266-1144(96)00025-8.
Sullivan, Paul. “Money Game: Here's How Much It Costs to Maintain a Golf Course for a Year.” Golf, 7 July 2020, https://golf.com/news/features/how-much-cost-maintain-golf-course-year/.
“Toxic Fairways: Risking Groundwater Contamination From Pesticides on Long Island Golf Courses .” Beyond Pesticides, Office of the New York State Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, July 1991, https://www.beyondpesticides.org/assets/media/documents/documents/toxic-fairways-1995.pdf.
Villano, David. “Toxic Parks: Miami Officials Have Known for Years about Poison in Water Park, Golf Course.” Miami New Times, 27 Sept. 2013, https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/toxic-parks-miami-officials-have-known-for-years-about-poison-in-water-park-golf-course-6521301.