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How sustainable is golf, and how is it addressing sustainability?

June 22 2023

Golf is intimately connected to the natural environment: grass, sand, earth, water, and weather all shape the game, and golf courses consume a vast amount of resources. But golf courses are also feeling some of the most extreme effects of climate change, and amateur and professional organisations alike are beginning to address their role in the crisis.

In a world that is increasingly waking up to the urgency of the climate crisis and the need for social change, how is the world of golf addressing sustainability?

Floods, fires, heat, and droughts: the impact of climate change on golf

The impact of climate change on golf has been well-documented. Extreme weather events pose an existential risk to golf courses, threatening them with shortened and postponed tournaments, reduced opportunities for play, and even their destruction and closure. A 2021 study, for example, found that the Old Course at St. Andrews could be submerged as early as 2050 due to increased flooding and sea level changes, while golf clubs in Florida are increasingly affected by floods.

Meanwhile, heatwaves pose a huge risk to both golfers and their environments. Recent heatwaves and spiking temperatures from Europe to Australia have led industry bodies like Golf Australia to introduce formal hot weather guidelines. Extreme temperatures raise the risk of heatstroke, heat stress, and even death, particularly in older players. As golfers have a relatively high average age, this is a particular worry for the sport.

Forest fires resulting from extreme heat can also lead to poor air quality and threats to courses and their environments. Golf courses in the Algarve in Portugal were closed last summer as fires drew threateningly close, while in 2019 the Australian Open was disrupted by smoke from nearby bushfires.

It’s clear that, like other outdoor sports, golf is feeling the effects of climate change more and more. But what is the sport’s own impact—and how is the industry addressing it?

Water: Achental Golf Course in Germany (copyright Thomas Himmel)

Water: Achental Golf Course in Germany (copyright Thomas Himmel)

The sustainability conversation in golf

Golf has been widely criticised for its own role in the environmental crisis. Golf courses use huge amounts of land, water and pesticides, affect local biodiversity, and have a social and economic impact on its neighbours. Resorts drive high levels of tourism, increasing carbon emissions and affecting local communities. Meanwhile, international events generate their own large carbon footprints, while funds generated from fossil fuels are directly supporting the sport’s biggest tournaments.

In many of these areas, however, changes are taking place. Meanwhile, organisations such as Golf Sustainable, an independent news platform dedicated to shining a light on sustainability stories in the industry, are creating platforms to help to further the conversation.

Petra Himmel, journalist and founder of Golf Sustainable, has covered golf for leading German-speaking outlets for over 25 years. Over the course of her career, she has increasingly become aware of the issues facing the industry, including erosion, water shortages, and pesticide use. She has travelled the world to understand exactly how the industry is addressing sustainability. ‘I have visited around 150 courses in the past three years and met countless interesting people and projects,’ she says.

To accurately assess golf’s position on sustainability, and where to affect change, it’s important to distinguish between the different sectors of the industry, says Himmel. ‘A distinction must be made between amateur golf, professional golf, and the equipment industry,’ she says.

This is because funds, access to resources, environmental and social impacts, and local, regional, and national regulations can vary hugely between these organisations.

At the same time, sharing stories and information is critical if organisations, athletes, and fans want to make positive changes in the industry. As golf’s relationship to sustainability is ever-evolving, getting to grips with the key issues facing the sector will make positive change increasingly possible.

Petra Himmel, founder of Golf Sustainable, at the Open in 2022 (copyright Petra Himmel)

Petra Himmel, founder of Golf Sustainable, at the Open in 2022 (copyright Petra Himmel)

Four key issues: water, pesticides, biodiversity, and carbon emissions

When it comes to four of the biggest issues facing golf—water use, pesticides, biodiversity, and carbon emissions—it’s clear that each section of the industry faces its own problems, and is increasingly looking to find its own solutions.

Water use is a huge current issue for the industry. Large amounts of water are required to maintain the grass on large golf courses, and this has been the focus of widespread criticism and public protest, particularly during periods of drought and high temperatures.

The industry is now facing a key moment of transformation as it looks to address its water usage. Local, national and international regulations differ dramatically, meaning that individual courses must often make their own policies. ‘Options for reducing water consumption include using low-water grass varieties, reducing the size of playing areas, and installing modern sprinkler systems,’ says Himmel. Connecting to a recycled water supply can also help to reduce the environmental impact.

The ability of courses to make these changes is hugely dependent on their size and resources. As water use affects course quality, it can have a direct effect on recruiting and retaining members. Golf courses of different sizes will need to find their own ways of sustainably addressing the issue.

Pesticide use is another hot topic in the industry. The European Commission has proposed a regulation on the use of pesticides, which would require a dramatic reduction in their use on golf courses from 2024. The European Golf Association has stated that a full ban on pesticide use would dramatically impact course maintenance. Nonetheless, use of pesticides in Europe has already been declining over the past decades: in the Netherlands, for example, there is almost a complete ban on pesticide use, while 10% of Danish golf courses are also pesticide-free. In other golfing countries in Asia, and in the USA and UAE, however, usage is much higher.

Beyond their upkeep, golf courses also have also been criticised for their impacts on the local natural environment. However, research has shown that courses also have the potential to restore and enhance local biodiversity. As a normal golf course only needs roughly 50 per cent of its area for tees, fairways and greens, other areas can be left to nature, paving the way for flowering meadows, local wildlife, and habitat resettlement.

The industry is increasingly promoting biodiversity: R&A’s Golf Course 2030 project includes a biodiversity focus, while a German research project, GolfBiodivers, is investigating biodiversity on 64 courses across Germany.

Finally, the carbon footprint of the golf industry is also beginning to draw more attention. When it comes to emissions, there are huge differences between professional sport and normal amateur golf courses. The professional footprint is far larger, as players and spectators frequently fly between continents for large-scale tournaments, but normal golfers also have a part to play: a 2018 study by the German Sport University Cologne found that golfers had the second-highest CO2 footprint from a total of 20 sports.

There is currently no industry-wide standard for carbon reporting, and golf professionals have not committed to reducing their carbon impacts. Calculating and reducing carbon emissions, then, is a critical area that the sport is yet to comprehensively address.

Severe weather with droughts and heavy rains are the consequences of climate change (copyright Petra Himmel)

Severe weather with droughts and heavy rains are the consequences of climate change (copyright Petra Himmel)

Social responsibility

Beyond its environmental impacts, golf also plays an important social and economic role. Amateur courses play a role in local communities, while the professional golf industry sets standards and has a wide public influence. Ensuring the social sustainability credentials of golf is increasingly important for its public image. ‘The perception of the golf facility as a “good neighbour” is important,’ says Himmel.

Golf has many social and physical benefits. The sport can get people outside, increase activity levels, create connections with nature, and enhance community.

Beyond this, golf clubs and courses can also play a positive role in their communities, particularly where they have access to more resources. In Germany, the Golf and Country Club Seddiner See has invested in social and ecological initiatives that benefit the local community and have cooperated with other local organisations to support Covid vaccine campaigns. In Scotland, the St Andrews Links Trust provides free golf tuition for children and supports local community projects. These sorts of initiatives can help golf courses play their role as a ‘good neighbour’, and can work in tandem with their efforts to reduce their impact on the environment.

However, in the professional sport, the recent shock LIV Golf and PGA Tour merger has drawn more negative attention. Funded by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), the merger means that the international game is receiving substantial financial support from fossil fuel exploitation. The professional game still has a long way to go to establishing itself as a leader in addressing climate and sustainability issues.

The future of golf

Like many outdoor sports, golf has felt the direct effects of climate change in recent decades. It has also faced criticism for its own environmental and social impacts. Along with the rest of the sports industry, golf is facing a future where it must find a sustainable way to keep the benefits of the sport while also preserving and protecting society and the environment.

While many amateur golf clubs are beginning to develop solutions, the professional industry still has a long way to go. Introducing industry-wide standards and best practices, and using golf’s international platform to promote sustainability, would be one way to initiate change.

Importantly, raising the profile of sustainability in golf will be crucial if golf is to create a sustainable future. Keeping social and environmental issues on the agenda, educating athletes and fans, and sharing stories and solutions will all play their role.

It is increasingly clear that all sports have their own unique part to play in protecting the planet—and golf is no exception.

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    Read moreBethany White