Are Golf Courses Bad for the Environment (or Good)?

There are few things more visually attractive in the sports world than a well-maintained golf course.  It probably won’t surprise you to learn that keeping the average golf course in impeccable condition takes a good deal of time and effort. Golf courses are known to increase home and property value, but a related question often is not considered: Are golf courses bad for the environment?

This table summarizes the positive and negative effects of golf courses on the environment:

PositiveNegative
Improves water qualityMaintenance costs
Wildlife shelterCarbon footprint
It’s common for golf courses to replace landfillsLost balls and other litter
Provides jobsUse pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to maintain aesthetics

On the whole, the answer is no, golf courses are not bad for the environment.  If you are interested in learning about golf course construction and the factors that determine their effect on the environment, read on!

are golf courses bad for the environment

Environmental Effects of Golf Course Design and Construction

To better understand how a golf course affects the environment we will first start with learning how golf courses are constructed. The process may seem simple to the casual observer, but a great deal of planning and decision making goes into building a proper golf course.

Design

Today’s golf courses are traditionally broken down into the “front nine” and the “back nine.”

More modern designs emphasize convenience by having the front nine and back nine in a loop, with the front nine heading away from the clubhouse and the back nine ending back at the clubhouse.

Older courses have a more extended layout, with the entire course positioned with each hole taking place further from the clubhouse.

Construction

Constructing a modern golf courses usually undergoes a four step process:

  1. Topsoil
  2. Hills and Dips
  3. Drainage
  4. Healthy Grass

Topsoil refers to the first step in the process, involving removing all topsoil from the construction area and replacing it with with a special soil composition.

Hills and dips is the second step and requires the designers of the course to mark areas where hills and hollows will appear, ensuring that the course maintains a certain level of symmetry and aesthetic beauty.  The markers are made of different colors to indicate which operation needs to take place at that area. For example, a red marker could mean an area that needs to be filled, while a blue marker indicates the slope of dips.

A robust drainage system is essential to proper golf course construction. If the system is faulty or lacks proper capacity, the course could end up unplayable due to excessive standing water as well as other marshy conditions. Standing water could also attract pests such as mosquitoes, causing the course to be further unplayable.

Keeping the course’s grass irrigated is extremely important to the health and playability of the golf course. The most popular way modern courses keep grass watered is by employing an automated irrigation system. Although these systems can become costly, proper and consistent irrigation ensures the course’s beauty and longevity is maintained.

(Positive and Negative) Environmental Effects

Whether golf courses affect the environment in a positive or negative way has not been studied extensively. However, the weight of current evidence indicates golf courses are not bad for the environment.

Negative Effects

Perhaps the most common critique of golf courses from environmentalists is the costs to maintain the course.

Modern golf courses require meticulous care which involves extensive mowing, watering, and fertilizing. This in turn causes a significant amount of greenhouse emissions to be released. A recent Swedish study found that the carbon footprint of an average golf course is almost ten times more than that of an average person.

Another possible negative impact of golf courses is the prevalence of lost balls and other types of litter.

A recent estimate indicates that upwards of 300 million golf balls are lost annually around the world. Most golf balls are not environmentally friendly, and when they are lost in the weeds next to the course or in a water hazard, the probability they could cause damage to to the area are significant as golf balls release heavy metals when they eventually decompose.

Finally, some modern courses make use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to maintain the aesthetic appeal.  Proper disposal of these cleansing agents often involves using irrigation techniques which, if not monitored closely, could cause the chemicals to pollute the local water supply.

Positive Effects

Golf courses can have positive effects on the environment in a number of ways.

First, golf courses are designed to improve water quality of surrounding areas.  Many modern courses use cleansed wastewater to irrigate the grass. The course’s grass also acts as a type of filtration system, further purifying the water as it is used.

Some courses are an ideal environment for certain types of wildlife to thrive. For example, the presence of a golf course in an otherwise bustling urban environment can often provide a hospitable living environment for plants and animals that otherwise could not survive in the area.

One of less commonly known practices of modern golf courses is to design and build the course in areas that were previously used as a landfill. This practice has two positive effects on the environment:

  • First, the area previously polluted with refuse will be transformed into an area far more clean.
  • Second, all the previously discussed positive effects, such as water purification, will likely be present.

Conclusion: Are Golf Courses Good or Bad for the Environment?

As you can see, the question of whether golf courses are good for the environment is a complicated one, and the answer is not a simple yes or no.

Before modern times, the vast majority of evidence pointed to golf courses being harmful to the environment. However, the advent of  technology such as automated irrigation systems combined with modern course design techniques have made the weight of evidence tip in favor of golf courses helping the environment.

As long as technology improves and designers take care in creating courses with the environment in mind, modern golf courses will likely continue to help the environment improve.