Golf started as a local community recreation played lightly over land that naturally suited the game.
Today, golf is a significant global industry, with 33,000 courses in over 200 countries, 700 new courses in planning and construction and thousands more forecast in emerging markets across Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and South and Central America, and an estimated gross worth of $90 billion, fuelled by increasingly diverse business interests such as real estate, tourism, merchandise, media and sponsorship.“
Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland enhances and improves the ecological value of its SSSI designated site, providing a wonderful natural links golf and award-winning experience for visitors.
Quite an evolution – but not out of step with the rapidly transforming world around us. During the same period that golf has grown and spread, the industrial and communications revolutions have sparked a globalisation that is driving very significant changes in the way the environment, society and economies interact.
One prominent outcome has been the emergence of the global environmental - now sustainability – movement, with businesses, governments and society grappling with how to develop in a way that meets the needs of the present without compromising the future. Regardless of any growth or change, the one constant is that we live, work and play on the same one planet.
And within this context, it's no secret or particular surprise that people in government, environmental groups and communities have valid concerns about the future development of golf.
How many courses will there be? Where will they appear? How much land and water will they consume? Will they pollute? Will they close off access to land? Will they damage or destroy sensitive habitats?
There are practical things that can be done, now and ongoing, to ensure future golf development is part of the world’s solutions, rather than part of the problem.
While some argue that golf will automatically have a negative impact across these areas, wasting land and resources that could be put to better use, there is much evidence to the contrary. Done well, golf developments can return long-term social, economic and environmental benefits to the people and the places they touch.
This leaves golf perceived as something of a sustainability dilemma; not sure if it’s positive or negative. Not necessarily a good place to be, especially given the strong forces likely to make life hard for what may be deemed as 'un-essential' and ‘un-sustainable’ land and resource based sectors.
So, is there a pathway for the expansion of the game? Is there a way to legitimise golf’s growth in the eyes of public, governments and the sustainability movement? Is there a way to cooperate with governments and other stakeholders to strategically plan golf development in emerging markets? Is there a way to design and construct facilities according to the highest standards?
Clear Outlook. The industry can vocally unite around a clear, credible outlook for its sustainable development. The IGF policy is a good start but needs to also add reference growth and development.
Strategic Planning. Resources should be allocated to reaching out to governments (especially tourism ministries) in emerging golf markets. There is tremendous value to all stakeholders, including the golf development community, from setting out clear expectations from the start, helping to avoid overdevelopment that harms business models as much as it harms habitats.
Project Criteria. Set clear social and environmental criteria for the planning, design and construction of individual facilities. Then promote and reward the use of programmes that guide projects away from potentially negative impacts, help make the most of opportunities unique to the site, and comprehensively and credibly monitor and report progress at key development milestones.
Sustainable development of golf is within grasp, but it won’t happen, nor will it be widely recognised, with just words, data gathering or select marketed outcomes.
It will happen with strong and unified golf industry commitment - led by credible advocacy, backed by targeted investment in modern, credible and industry-specific solutions that support informed government planning; a comprehensive and proactive approach in projects; and interesting and credible communications which tell the real, verifiable stories of the value golf delivers in villages, towns and cities around the world.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not, necessarily, those of The R&A.