The game of golf as we know it is in decline.
According to the National Golf Federation, in the United States, more golf courses closed than opened for the eighth year in a row, participation among 18-34 year-olds has declined thirty percent over the past twenty years, and the U.S. has lost around five million players over the last decade.
What do these statistics say about the state of the game? Basically, people are losing interest in the game, and many Millennials are forgoing the experience altogether.
While this is sad news for owners of golf courses and enthusiasts of wearing silly pants, this is potentially positive news for the environment.
Good News for the Environment
Since the goal of golf course maintenance is to have a pristine stretch of grass that more closely resembles Astroturf than anything from nature, best ecological practices are not necessarily a top priority.
Golf courses keep the grass short, well-manicured and free of any living organisms by spraying generous amounts of herbicides, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and mowing frequently.
Pesticides and Herbicides
Golf courses are historically known for their overuse of herbicides and pesticides. After controversy in the 1990s surrounding high rates of certain types cancers among golf course superintendents, player organizations and the Golf Course Superintendents Association joined together with the environmental advocacy group Beyond Pesticides to push for the adoption of Environmental Principles for Golf Courses in the United States.
The Green Star Awards, introduced by Golf Digest in 2009 went a step further to recognize golf courses that participate in energy conservation, recycling and green cleaning efforts.
However, according to Beyond Pesticides, “efforts to eliminate a reliance on pesticides still lag behind other environmental action,” and “more attention is needed to the basic turf management issues related to soil microorganisms and building soil biomass as a tool for enhancing plant health and resistance to diseases.”
Another problem not addressed is excessive mowing. Grounds Magazine says that a typical golf course mows every day and recommends frequent mowing to improve turf quality. Since golf courses tend to use riding mowers fueled by gas, this translates into a lot of fuel burnt to cover massive amounts of land – repeated on a daily basis.
Runoff and Erosion
Golf courses also promote the destruction of natural habitats, and changes in local hydrology and topography, according to the study, A Global Perspective on the Environmental Impact of Golf.
Golf course maintenance commonly involves deforestation and clearing native species of vegetation, which in turn causes gullying and soil erosion, leading to sediment runoff into nearby bodies of water. This is detrimental to lake and stream plants and animals.
Runoff also provides excess nutrients to bodies of water that can cause out of control downstream algae blooms.
Other (Better) Uses for Golf Courses
Golf courses take up about 1,504,210 acres of land in the U.S., which arguably could be put to better use. The late comedian George Carlin was greatly bothered by the amount of space taken up by golf courses and even suggested solving the problem of lack of availability of low-cost housing by building houses for the homeless on golf courses.
Aside from turning golf courses into homeless shelters (which likely won’t happen anytime soon), just letting the land go fallow and less manicured would be beneficial for the environment.
Granted, it probably wouldn’t be much of an improvement if it were paved or taken over by urban sprawl instead. Better potential uses for the space include wind farms, areas for solar panels, parks, community gardens, or land for free-range livestock grazing, to name a few examples.