Land use; the case for golf

Golf is often criticised for being a luxury use of land, but is this accusation justified?

Royal Liverpool Golf Club, an Open Championship venue, prevents the environmentally sensitive coastal strip from further encroachment of housing.  

An 18-hole golf course can take up a large amount of land; 30-40 hectares for the playing surfaces and perhaps the same for the fractured landscape that separates the golf holes.  There are over 33,330 existing courses in 200 countries, with 54% of that total situated in the USA and Canada.  80% of the rest of the world’s golf courses are to be found in the following 10 countries:



United Kingdom












South Africa






New Zealand




In addition to this total, there are currently 775 projects in planning or construction, with 60% of them resort/tourism related.  Thousands more are forecast for China, Southeast Asia, South America, India and Africa as the game develops worldwide.  So, can using all of this land for golf be justified?

5 over quarry

The 9 holes of the Quarry Course at Joondalup, Australia, utilises old limestone quarry workings on a number of holes.

A strong case for the development of golf facilities can be made where they are:

  • helping to restore a quality landscape from former damaging land uses, e.g. quarrying as at the 9 holes of the Quarry Course at Joondalup, Australia
  • enhancing biodiversity, e.g. conversion from arable farming use
  • bringing green space into urban areas, by building on brown field sites.  The limited land available for such sites may make these more suitable for urban golf, e.g. par-3 or pitch and putt courses, which may be ideal for the golf market in such locations, i.e. providing facilities for golfers with little time on their hands, or people interested in starting to play but with no inclination to travel out to what can sometimes be  intimidating private clubs
  • creating employment and other economic and social benefits, without damaging the environment.

There are plenty of instances where none of the above scenarios are in place. In these instances, in order to obtain the necessary planning permissions, developers will tend to cite a list of economic and social benefits that will accrue from including a golf course in the development, without assigning the same weight to environmental concerns.  Those who decry golf are, more often than not, complaining about such forms of land development, arguing that, in the vast majority of these cases, the projects would have proceeded with or without a golf course being built on the site.

Golf courses should only be built in suitable environments where they can bring a range of economic, social and environmental benefits. Planners have a real responsibility to ensure this is the case; the game itself does not have a veto on poor projects.

There are guidelines available to planners to help them understand the potential negative and positive impacts of a golf course, whatever the nature of the overall development.  The problem is that many planning authorities either ignore these or have no strategic planning protocol in place to guarantee that the development will be environmentally and financially successful.  There are some sorry examples of mass development of real estate/resort-related golf courses in areas where there is simply not the capacity to build them in terms of land, resources such as water, nor a sufficient number of native golfers to sustain them.  The coast of southern Spain is probably the classic example.  In some instances, planners, and their political overlords, have allowed golf courses to be built on land holding environmental designations intended to protect sensitive landscapes and rare wildlife, or in areas with severe issues of water scarcity, or on land that has a more important primary use, e.g. providing core products essential to human life such as food. 

Great hole and arable field
The Golf National, outside Paris, supports far more wildlife than the arable land it was built on.

If a golf course is built to sell real estate, the course may be nothing more than a manicured lawn for the privileged few who can afford such exclusivity.  The same applies to many exclusive resort developments because, whilst golf tourism may bring financial benefit to local communities, this has to be balanced against loss of access to land which may have been better used for other activities. Such exclusive resort developments also tend to have limited value when it comes to growing the local game, or for that matter when it comes to benefiting local businesses because few tourists choose to venture beyond the resort’s gates to spend money in the wider local community.

Golf courses should not be built where they:

  • cannot demonstrate real benefits for the environment, economy and community of the region
  • degrade biodiversity.  Golf courses should at least preserve biodiversity, and ideally enhance it
  • displace local communities against their will
  • remove land from food production, or other primary uses, where this is a higher priority
  • add to water scarcity where there is no alternative, sustainable source of irrigation.

For the 30,000-plus existing golf courses, the focus should be on reducing their reliance on resources, providing a better environment for wildlife and contributing valuable services to local communities.  They can only do this if they are financially viable.

That should be a prerequisite for all future developments but in the meantime, in order to counter those individuals whose default position is to demand all golf developments be returned to nature, it is worth putting golf’s environmental and social impact into context:

  • the proportion of water used for golf can be lower than other industries, and golf courses can utilise water sources not suitable for drinking or other purposes
  • only 0.3% of European pesticide use by volume is applied by the amenity sector and golf is a subset of that sector
  • golf courses provide stable green spaces and protect land from other forms of development
  • golf courses can provide green corridors, buffers around ecological hotspots and havens for biodiversity
  • the vegetation on golf courses can sequester carbon and purify water
  • golf provides life-long health and learning, teaching sporting integrity to young people and healthy recreation in the great outdoors
  • golf clubs encourage volunteering and are a hub for social interaction
  • golf provides employment and supports local businesses.
16 from tee
The Centro Nacional in Madrid was built on a brown field site.

Developers involved in the projects currently in planning or construction, and all those forecast to be built in development hot spots around the world, need to learn from the mistakes of the past, be able to provide a sanctuary for wildlife and be models for sustainable resource use.

The good news is that golf, in the right place and in the right quantity, can become part of the solution to the environmental, economic and social issues that we, and future generations, are facing. However, at present, a lack of understanding and control of unsuitable developments often shows the game in a bad light. Golf is caught between a rock and a hard place; we want to grow the game, but not in a manner that is dictated by developers who have little interest beyond financial gain.

Examples of the sustainable use of land by golf courses include:

Centro Nacional, Spain

Golf National, France

The Jockey Club Kau Sai Chau, Hong Kong

Golfpark Nuolen, Switzerland

Jinji Lake Golf Club, China