A design for life

  • Golf Sustainability Week
    The R&A

    Royal Liverpool played firm and fast for the 2006 Open, as a course “perfectly comfortable in its environmental surrounds”

Jonathan Smith
By Jonathan Smith

Today is the final day of GEO Foundation’s Sustainable Golf Week. This year the focus has been on helping golf to continue to drive a nature-positive planet. For the April 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture, we asked GEO Foundation’s Jonathan Smith to reflect on progress since he wrote about the need for ecological design in the very first issue of GCA, in 2005.

It’s 18 years since I penned my first GCA article back in 2005, and reflecting on that was slightly unnerving. How much progress have we made? What has changed in that time? Are the same things still important? The answers are ‘a lot’, ‘a lot’ and ‘a lot are, plus many more’.

I vividly remember the following year when the Open was at Royal Liverpool. The golfing world saw a course perfectly comfortable in its environmental surrounds and adapting its presentation to the changing British climate. Tiger Woods was in his pomp, and the sea breeze smelt extra sweet that summer.

Well, just like the professional game today, things got complicated. Sustainability has morphed into something that is beyond environmental concerns. It is now a global climate challenge to us; to foster nature, conserve resources, strengthen communities and take climate action. The challenge touches many parts of our lives, and we are seeing increasing focus, from international panels to local agencies, on reliable solutions that have a tangible, positive impact.

The way the industry approaches the challenge today is encouraging. In 2005, I remember fearfully introducing the idea of environmental stewardship to golf meetings, not really knowing what the reaction may be. Today, it is overwhelmingly positive, and we can see real change in golf developments to not only try to halt biodiversity loss, but to implement innovative approaches to reduce water demand, reduce inputs, save money and time on turfgrass management, and focus on inclusivity and community.

It takes a comprehensive approach to multiple issues to make a real difference – and that is what we must carry on. Since 2005, golf now has thousands of sustainable golf highlights to champion, hundreds of golf courses, and dozens of developments and tournaments independently verified and certified against a published set of voluntary sustainability standards. We have international support from NGOs, governments and other sports, for golf’s climate change actions.

We should be proud of our industry’s collective efforts and the meaningful progress our sport has made – and that we can continue to play the sport in a diverse range of places.

What the next 18 years will bring for the sport is hard to say – but we know it will take a collective effort from all of us to continue to see golf lead the field.

Jonathan Smith is the executive director and founder of GEO Foundation.