How Sustainable is Golf?

How Sustainable is Golf?

Jun 30, 2022

Jun 30, 2022

We've finally crossed the June 21st summer solstice finish line and it's officially summer. With the hot weather and sun shining, not to mention the days off, some of us may be hitting 18 holes for some rest and relaxation. That said, some of us also may not be familiar with the history of this sport...or the impact it can have on the environment. We're here to give you the sustainability 411 (or hole-in-one?) on golf, people and planet included.

What do sports have to do with sustainability?

You may think the answer is...nothing! Sports have nothing to do with sustainability! If that's the case, get ready to be proven wrong.

Fun fact: Sports are included in the United Nations' Global Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Global Agenda consists of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a list of 17 interconnected goals designed to create a path towards a more sustainable future by 2030. The SDGs include topics from poverty to food insecurity to clean water, all with the aims of reducing inequality and encouraging more sustainable practices that consider both people and the planet. And, these goals are not at the expense of economic growth. In fact, the SDGs are structured to also encourage the private sector to adopt more sustainable practices.

As part of this UN resolution, sport is acknowledged as having the ability to advance social progress and sustainable development, through peace, tolerance, and community empowerment. The UN even has a specific office dedicated to sports - the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP). The UNOSDP has put out studies on the impact sport can have on physical fitness and reducing the likelihood of non-communicable diseases (like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes). And, as we know, human health is inextricably linked to planetary health. For example, the warming climate impacts the prevalence of infectious disease, and pollution can cause respiratory health problems, among other connections that all disproportionately impact historically marginalized populations.

So, what about golf, specifically? This is where things can get a little sticky...

What's the history of golf?

Golf (like many, many things in the United States) has an unfortunate history of highly exclusionary and racist policies and practices.

The Professional Golfers Association (PGA) was established in 1916 and is still the main organizer of professional golf tours and tournaments in the United States. In 1961, the PGA removed its 'Caucasian-only clause' from its Bylaws, allowing players of other races to finally participate. In 1997, a famous golfer of Thai, Black, Native American, and white descent became the first African American to win the Masters Tournament, one of the four major global golf tournaments. This opened the door for more diversity within the historically white sport, but to this day golf is still overwhelmingly white and male - there are only two Black men in the top 100 worldwide rankings and only one Black woman in the top 300 worldwide rankings. To dig deeper into golf's racist history, consider perusing Complex Magazine's list of the most racist moments in golf's history. Disclaimer: it's not pretty.

Not to mention golf is expensive. Private clubs offer membership fees of upwards of $450,000 (ahem, Liberty National in New Jersey where membership costs an initial $450,000, with annual dues of $25,000), and a 2010 paper investigated how private golf clubs were established to maintain (and foster) the advancement of already wealthy individuals. It might not be a surprise then that a study found that CEOs who are better golfers are paid more. This classism is reflected in the segregationalist histories of private golf clubs, excluding members of color, LGBT2QIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Two-Spirit, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) players, and Jewish players. Surprise, surprise.

And, where there is human injustice, there is also often planetary injustice...

How is traditional golf unsustainable

Ahhh... those lush green lawns are just so visually appealing. What doesn't meet the eye, however, is the biodiversity desert and the overwhelming water use that makes these possible.

Golf turf must be mowed to regulation height, which makes the grass more vulnerable to pests. Enter: pesticide use. The maintenance of green golf courses can have adverse impacts on nearby water sources and cause degradation of local ecosystems. Not to mention, the water used to keep that fairway so green reflects, on average, the amount of water consumed in a day by 8,000 inhabitants. And, the water used is often potable - aka drinking water that could be used to prevent thirst and dehydration among marginalized communities. Those greens can also cause soil degradation and runoff, and require huge swaths of land. In fact, golf requires more land per player than any other sport. Not to mention that the land is then not available for agricultural or other more productive activities that can create socioeconomic wealth for local communities.

Does sustainable golf exist?

Yes...though we have some hard work to do before we can fully transition away from the exclusionary and extractive history of golf and move towards a more sustainable, inclusive sport.

Here's the good news! Many golf courses are beginning to implement alternative water uses, transitioning from potable sources to recycled, untreated wastewater or collected rainwater. Untreated wastewater can be harsh on the fragile grasses traditionally used for the courses. This has led to the development of salt-tolerant grasses that can be watered with salinated sources (think: ocean water). These grasses can also be selected to include native grasses that thrive in local climates and require less pesticide use. Booyah.

One golf course in Italy, the Golf de la Montecchia, also known as the Yellow Course, has begun to use 'Biogolf' protocols to manage its greens. They treat turfgrass using organic farming principles - celebrating native plants, reduced and recycled water use, and no pesticides. And, the course is thriving!

As for making golf more equitable, we still have quite a ways to go. Black golfers make up only 5% of the nation's players and an even smaller percentage of high-level amateurs and professionals. Diversifying the sport will require a reckoning with the conflation of golf with whiteness and status, creating more opportunities for players of color and women, and investing in pathways for youth interested in the sport to create access.

TLDR: a more sustainable world of golf is possible. We just have some work to do first.