My View

Golf: nature's friend or foe?

Richard Holland of WWF shares his views on the value of golf courses to wildlife.

By Richard Holland

Golf and nature work well when courses 'fit' into the landscape  

Growing-up in the 1970s in a small town in Scotland, it never occurred to me that golf was anything special or that it could have adverse impacts on nature. The course on which I learned to play blended into the hillside between farmers’ fields, a main road and the woodlands above.  The grass grew well because it rained a lot, rather than because of sprinklers, hills and hollows provided a natural challenge, and only the sand was an import from further afield. Or that’s how it seemed anyway.

Golf is nowadays a multi-billion dollar industry and is an important part of the recreation and tourism sector. Employing in Europe about 400,000 people and providing 9.4 billion in wages annually, it is also an area of potential growth in times of economic difficulty.  Golf has found a special place in many Mediterranean countries and in southern USA where many ‘northerners’ find the combination of good weather and golf an irresistible combination.

What has also changed since the 1970s is our awareness of the damage being inflicted on the planet, its ecosystems and a wide range of (now) endangered plants and animals.  What’s more we know that it is all connected in a complex web of physical and ecological systems on which we all ultimately depend.

WWF’s 2012 Living Planet Report shows that we are using renewable resources about 50% faster than they are replaced.  Indeed, humanity has a ‘footprint’ that is 1.5 ‘planets’ in size and will grow to 3 ‘planets’ in the coming 40 years following current trends.  For example the amount of carbon dioxide we produce is more than nature’s ability to absorb it leading to its build-up in the atmosphere with related rising temperatures and an unstable climate. We are also extracting other vital resources at unsustainable rates, such as water, fish, and timber and replacing diverse natural habitats with man-made landscapes.  Golf’s contribution to these problems is real though currently small, but its claiming of fertile and well-managed land could become problematic in future as food and investment pressures grow.

It is the richest countries that unsurprisingly have the largest footprints on Earth’s life support systems: for example the Netherlands footprint is three and a half times higher than what the Earth can sustain, the USA four times, and several Middle-Eastern countries are as much as five times higher.

Does golf in the sun, and associated real estate, enhance nature?

It is also in these richer counties where the most golf is played, though it is also developing fast in many Asian ‘tiger’ economies. It is not that golf should somehow compensate for humanity’s overall impact, but rather this provides the context in which sustainability and care for nature become ‘need to have’ rather than a luxury for those who can afford them.

In this respect golf has come a long way in recent years. In part this is driven by simple economics as it makes sense to save money by using less water, herbicides, and fuel.  But also to reduce criticism of what is perceived by some as an elitist sport that over-rides the interests of local people when decisions are made about new developments.

More positively there is also an incentive for golf courses and tourism destinations to advertise themselves by showing that they can work with nature and are taking measurable steps to become more sustainable. In this way they attract golfers who care about the game and also about the impact of their own lifestyles. 

In this respect the establishment of the Golf Environment Organization (GEO) which provides independent certification of improvement programmes for courses is a welcome development. It helps golf developers and managers to think beyond economic efficiency and to include other aspects such as biodiversity conservation, pollution control and education into daily operations. 

GEO provides golf with independent environmental certification

Although the idea of certification is new to golf, it is standard practice in many other industries.  And what is today a market advantage is likely to become a required condition in future. GEO is a relatively new organization and needs to continue improving its criteria, systems, assurance, and transparency, indeed the same as it asks of its members. Still, GEO is a good place to start.  

Also positive is the example of the KLM Dutch Open tournament that has taken steps in recent years to show that a major golf event can be run on (more) sustainable lines. The carbon footprint of the event was calculated and action taken to reduce it where possible with the remainder compensated by ‘Gold Standard’ carbon credits.  The event also made special efforts to educate the public about waste recycling and renewable energy.  Played on the GEO-certified Hilversum course, it is perhaps no surprise that the Dutch Open was ranked no. 1 in the 2012 Sustainable Golf Index which ranked 82 professional golf tournaments.

Coming back to where I started in a small town in Scotland. This also contains a lesson in that where golf works with its local environment the potential for sustainability increases. In other words if you try to recreate Scottish (or Scandinavian) conditions in the Mediterranean or Middle East then the road to sustainability is decidedly uphill, if it exists at all.

Golf is a sport that thrives on the diversity of the challenge. Each time you play a hole it is never exactly the same as the last time. I would argue that golf should apply this principle more widely and create courses that reflect the natural environment where they are located. This may take some getting used to, but could make the game richer as a consequence.

Golf can share its green space with the local community

It is also vital that golf becomes part of the community in its many and varied locations. Access and recreation opportunities for local people, as well as jobs as noted above, are a more durable solution than fences and ‘private keep-off’ signs.  Again for me this is part of where golf started and needs to get back to. If golf is not part of and supported by local communities it is unsustainable in another way.

Golf started as a pastime that worked with nature and had little negative impact.

Whether golf ends up being nature’s friend or foe remains in the balance.

The institutions and companies that manage golf, and profit from it, must take a lead and direct it strongly towards a more sustainable pathway. Individual choices that golfers make are also important – everyone has a role to play and a responsibility. Done well, golf can contribute in its own unique way to helping us pass-on a better world to our children and grandchildren.  One in which we stay within ecological limits.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not, necessarily, those of The R&A or WWF.