Environmental Impact

Truth About Golf Courses - By David Thurnau

Perhaps the most important asset that any golf course has is its playing surface, grass. With that said golf course superintendents have gone to great lengths to make their courses as attractive as possible, much to the detriment of the environment.

EcoVision Sustainable Learning Center Fore!  That’s the glorious sound of a round of golf beginning.  Man and nature square off once again in sport.  With rolling green fairways, well-manicured greens, a scattering of trees, and even a pond or two, the golf course is seemingly the embodiment of nature, challenging the golfer hole by hole and yard by yard.  These elements often times make the course the crown jewel of a hotel.  Unfortunately this is too often a crown jewel from the alchemist’s workshop.  Despite their natural features and exquisite greenery, many golf courses are greatly challenging our fragile environment.

Golfer on a teeLawn Care on Steroids

Perhaps the most important asset that any golf course has is its playing surface, grass.  With that said golf course superintendents have gone to great lengths to make their courses as attractive as possible, much to the detriment of the environment.


Vibrant, green grass requires water – lots and lots of water.  And considering that the average golf course encompasses almost 75 acres of managed playing surface, golf courses require an exuberant amount of water. According to John Barton at Golf Digest.com, each course uses around 300,000 gallons of water per day! That’s enough water to meet the daily needs of over 4,000 Americans.  Now if there was an infinite supply of clean fresh water this wouldn’t be an issue, but almost a fifth of the earth’s population faces a water shortage situation each day and that number continues to grow.

As found in the United Nations Environmental Program’s 2007 report, by 2025 nearly two-thirds of the planet will experience stress on their water supplies, including many parts of the U.S. That sounds like a billion reasons to reconsider the watering practices of our golf courses.


Ever wonder what happened to all the weeds on a golf course?  The answer lies in chemicals.  From pesticides to insecticides to synthetic fertilizers, golf courses utilize them all in an effort to keep their grass healthy and aesthetically pleasing.  Though most of these chemicals are legal, they carry with them very serious risks.  They can contaminate fresh water sources both above and below ground, especially if applied incorrectly.  Some may carry health risks to humans and animals that come in contact with them.  For many chemicals, it is simply unknown whether they may cause long term health issues.  These chemicals can even harm the very grass they are supposed to protect by weakening its immune system and making the grass susceptible to disease.  Kind of defeats the purpose, huh?       

Golfer in a sand trapThe Grass Itself

Yes, even the grass itself can be an environmental issue.  Many courses have introduced non-native grasses to their courses, including several different types of genetically engineered grasses.  Though nobly developed to help reduce water and chemical use, genetically engineered grass can harm a local ecosystem.  Insects and animals may not be fond of these plants. They may not be as appetizing as native plants and may even be toxic, which may cause these creatures to find a new home.  This can become a problem reaching far beyond the golf course.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions    

With all that grass to cut, there’s no surprise that golf courses would create tons of carbon dioxide in an effort to maintain the course.  After all, lawn tractors don’t have the cleanest of reputations.  Thankfully the carbon dioxide catching qualities of grass help neutralize much of these carbon dioxide emissions, but many golf courses have adopted practices that undermine even this gift from nature.  Greens are being trimmed to about a tenth of an inch in length; fairways to a quarter inch.  Even the rough is being kept short!  Keeping the grass this short reduces its carbon dioxide catching prowess and also necessitates more frequent mowing.  Couple this with the use of two-stroke engines, gas-powered golf carts, which produce thirty to fifty times the carbon dioxide as an automobile, and it’s easy to see that golf courses have a CO2 problem.

Fairway on a golf courseWhat Can be Done to “Green” up the Golf Course

Now before you rush off to pull a Carl Spackler on your hotel’s golf course, you should know that there are a plethora of things that your hotel can do to help your golf course become more environmentally friendly.

  • Consider using non-potable water or greywater for your courses watering needs.  The grass will still get the water it needs, but you will not be using clean, drinkable water that is needed for so many other purposes. 
  • Try watering only the greens or fairways, but only do so when absolutely necessary.
  • Keep your course green with non-toxic paint.  This technique has been used for decades, and many golfers don’t even know the difference.
  • Utilize native grasses and plants throughout your golf course.  The local ecosystem will get a boost and you may find that the course is easier to maintain.
  • Don’t overseed grass during the winter months.  While this technique may give you grass in the winter, it weakens the grass and requires increased water and maintenance.  Sometimes nature just needs to run its course.
  • Maintain the grass at a longer length.  This will cut down on mowing, which reduces carbon dioxide emissions and saves you money, and may even make for an improved golf experience.  
  • Encourage golfers not to use golf carts unless absolutely necessary.  Or, maybe try switching to electric golf carts.
  • Look into placing solar panels on clubhouse or maintenance building roofs to supply clean energy to these facilities.     
  • Ideally you could transition to an organic golf course.  Generally an organic golf course is a course that uses no products, such as pesticides or fertilizers that contain synthetically produced active ingredients.  Course superintendents may need to get a little creative to maintain a premier playing surface, but it can be done.  Just look to The Vineyard Golf Club near Martha’s Vineyard. Hey, organic practices work well in agriculture, why not golf?  
Sustainability minded hotels absolutely need to consider their golf courses as they seek to become a more environmentally friendly place.  To not take a more pro-active environmental stance would simply undermine all of your other sustainable initiatives, because the golf course is such a large portion of your operation.  Golf courses should be in tune with nature, not working against it, and it’s about time we made this a reality. 

What are you doing to make your golf course greener?  

Contributor: David Thurnau has a background in political science, municipal government, and agriculture with an emphasis in environmental issues. 

This article first appeared on GreeningtheInn.com

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