Golf and the environment

Sean Dudley

The idea that golf is an environmentally unsound activity is pretty deeply established in certain parts of society. It may or may not be true, but in some ways that’s not the point. In parts of the golf industry there is a perception that anti-golf sentiment is based largely on political ideology and class envy rather than on sound logic. There may be some truth in this, but as Kyle Phillips points out in Holing Out it doesn’t really matter: communities might not be all that well informed about the realities of golf development, but ill-informed hostility is damaging nonetheless.

So it is necessary for golf to show that it takes environmental impact seriously – to be, in effect, whiter than white. The worldwide golf boom has meant that construction of courses in a wide range of locations that would not have been considered as optimal, or even feasible, decades ago. And, although less developed countries may be keen for the revenue that golf tourism can bring, they are rapidly acquiring environmental movements of their own

“You can’t get planning permission for a golf course without an environmental impact assessment,” says veteran course builder Brian Pierson. “That’s a good thing – I haven’t seen any obvious environmental vandalism for a long time.” Course builders and architects alike testify to the dedication shown by the golf industry in its attempts to preserve biodiversity and habitat – and even to restore it.

“Golf courses lock down wildlife habitat,” says Nigel Ely of J&E Ely. “Ecosystems like chalk download or heathland – which are increasingly rare – are preserved, even restored, by golf, but are otherwise threatened.” Ely knows of what he speaks – his firm is currently working with architects Mackenzie & Ebert on the construction of Portugal’s first heathland course at Bom Sucesso.

The heathland example illustrates a key part of golf ’s environmental challenge. The ideal sites for golf are typically important ecologically, and also both scarce and fragile: consider linksland sites, which are often vital areas for rare plantlife – such as the new course being designed by David Kidd at Machrihanish Bay in Scotland, Britain’s first ever course to be built entirely within a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The initial reaction from authorities and communities is often ‘We don’t want golf development, as it will be bad for wildlife’,” says Jonathan Smith, chief executive of Committed to Green, the golf industry’s environmental watchdog. “But if you look at a site such as Machrihanish, it will typically be very over-grazed, and by putting a golf course on the land it can be returned to something that is much better habitat for plantlife.” Routing a golf course to protect vulnerable habitat on a site is a key challenge for architects. At De Vere’s new Loch Lomond course, for example, architect Doug Carrick has been able to keep almost 100 acres of the 360 acre site as nature reserve, protecting valuable wetlands in the process.Which leads us to the most vexed environmental question of all: water.

“Conservation of water supplies and preservation of water quality is the single biggest issue for the golf industry,” says Smith of Committed to Green. “Climate change is driving legislators, and, across Europe, the planning process has been tightened so that proposals must now show real appreciation of the issues over water availability and storage. Water issues have got to be addressed through design and site master planning processes, as well as through ongoing maintenance.”

“In general, the idea that golf courses waste water is unsound,” says Bill Hawthorn of 2ic. “When you turn agricultural land into a golf course you make a major step forward in environmental terms – in general, agricultural land is being used as a factory.” Agricultural land will generally have been heavily fertilised for many years, and it takes a number of years to get the soil back into equilibrium. During this time, much though course managers might like to dial back the use of chemicals, some weedkiller application is inevitable, and, as with fertiliser, weedkiller can leach into watercourses, polluting the supply. “This is why golf courses need what we refer to as sustainable drainage,” says Jonathan Smith. “Good drainage can remove a large proportion of contaminants from the water – filtration through turf is a good way to get rid of silt particles, while swales, ditches and ponds are an excellent biological filter, removing pesticides, minerals and the like.”

“There is no water shortage in Britain,” says Hawthorn. “There may be a distribution problem, but there is no absolute shortage.” This is not, of course, true of every country where golf development is afoot – desert golf can hardly be natural golf – but in countries where it is so, the ideal environmental solution is a design and maintenance regime that, as far as possible, replicates the normal underfoot conditions. Overly manicured and watered golf courses may look pretty – although tastes among golfers seem to be slowly moving towards a less lush feel – but it is such courses that could justifiably attract environmentalist ire.

But golf courses that look and play more naturally are not just environmentally desirable. For an increasing number of golfers, the firmer, drier, less overwhelmingly green look is also a far better way to play the game. On a traditional links or heathland course this is quite obviously the case – consider Carnoustie’s overly lush condition during the 1999 Open if you doubt the truth of this. Other traditional courses that had been allowed to get too soft and green are moving back towards a firmer feel – Bill Hawthorn cites Royal Liverpool as an example. “I remember Derek Green, the late head greenkeeper at Hoylake saying to me ‘We’ll never get the Open back here unless we make the course more natural’,” he says. “So they reduced watering and went back to the waving fescue rough that looks so appropriate on a links.”

There is, of course, a very severe water shortage in other popular golf markets. The super-luxury Sandy Lane hotel and golf complex in Barbados uses a desalination plant to process sea water into a condition that is usable for irrigating its Bermuda grass golf courses. Desalination plants are being used elsewhere in the golf world – in the fastgrowing golf market of Dubai, for example – but the capital costs are extremely high, and thus the option is only viable for big money developments.

Other arid areas such as southern Europe, which is experiencing a severe drought in 2005, face their own problems. Southern Spain, for example, not only has a large and growing number of golf courses, but has also recently experienced dramatic growth in its agricultural sector, growing out of season fruits and vegetables in acres of glasshouses. In some areas of Spain, the water table has dropped dramatically, and the quality of water has fallen, too. This way desertification lies.

In these circumstances, water conservation is the only solution. “In the early 1990s I built a course in the Dordogne in France,” says Pierson. “Now we’d like to build another nine: we have planning permission, but we can’t draw any more water from the ground. So if it’s going to happen, it will have to be neutral in water terms.”

To be water neutral a course must be able to collect and store rainwater and runoff. This means reservoirs, one key reason why so many modern courses feature extensive water hazards. And in arid areas, this is, of course, especially important. Courses like Portugal’s Vale do Lobo and Vilamoura – which is cited by Jonathan Smith as an excellent example of sustainable development in a dry climate – need to collect all the water that is drained off the golf course, and preserve it for future irrigation use.

“There are no short cuts,” says Giles Wardle of Irriplan. “A course has to be designed from the bottom up to be water-efficient: how long is it going to be? How wide? What grasses will be used in the rough?” For the architect, the challenge is to balance competing claims. Wide fairways are popular among golfers, not only for the obvious reason, but also because, with cleverly placed hazards, wide fairways increase the strategic element of golf: where in the fairway must I place the ball to have the best possible line of approach to the green? But irrigation is a numbers game: the more grass to keep in good condition, the more water will be needed.

“At one time, watering was done by a man going out with his thumb on the end of a hose,” says Hawthorn. “Ironically, in the hands of a skilled greenkeeper, this was very efficient: because it’s a labour-intensive process you can’t spend too long watering, and the water can be applied to where it’s needed. It’s in the interests of the greenkeeper to minimise water consumption. He’s trying to keep the grass alive, not to make it grow rapidly.”

Grass choices are key. Bermuda grass, as used at Sandy Lane, is fairly tolerant of drought, hence its popularity in the south of the USA. But new strains such as paspalum, increasingly used in the tropics because of its salt tolerance (and therefore suitability where irrigation water comes from partial desalination) are more resilient still. In other environments, though, a return to the traditional, natural grasses of golf – fescues and creeping bents – is a better solution.

“Naturalistic golf courses (those using the natural environment of a region as a development template) offer much promise in the larger struggle to preserve plant, animal, and ecosystem diversity,” says Dr Max Terman of Tabor College in Kansas. “If managed correctly, naturalistic courses may fit well into the emerging new philosophy of ecosystem management that recognises the immense potential of smaller parcels of public and private lands for preserving nature.With the involvement of ecologists, golf courses – commonly thought to be environmental problems – could become ecological assets. Especially attractive in this regard are the naturalised golf courses built on already disturbed land such as old mines, landfills, and highly eroded or otherwise negatively impacted landscapes.”

The relationship between golf and the environment is complex, and is only made more so by the ideological agendas of many commentators. The golf industry, it’s clear, must not only work hard to ensure its impact on the world at large is as positive as it can be – but it must also work even harder to communicate this fact. What is abundantly clear is that the most environmentally-friendly golf courses are those that sit gently among their surrounds. And don’t they provide the most interesting golf too?

This article first appeared in issue 2 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2005.