The future of golf in a world of climate change


With the amount of water needed to keep a golf course in good shape and the effects on surrounding land, climate change may have the sport on borrowed time.

While the climate crisis is throwing the future of the whole planet into question, when it comes to sports, there is perhaps none that stands to be more affected by climate change than golf. After all, what other game requires acre after acre of pristinely maintained grass? As the climate becomes more volatile, droughts and extreme storms threaten golf course ruin, but perhaps the aspect of the game taking the biggest hit is its reputation.

Golf has lost favor among the eco-conscious due to its reputation for sucking up water and harming natural ecosystems. In August, French climate activists even filled golf holes with cement in protest of the courses’ water ban exemptions. Although golf course superintendents are making great strides when it comes to adapting the game to environment-related obstacles and making golf more eco-friendly, it often seems that external factors are outpacing them. Will golf survive, or will it become the first climate crisis casualty in the sports world?

Water usage is a big factor in the uncertainty of golf’s future. California has seen widespread drought conditions for decades, yet the average 18-hole golf course in the state uses 90 million gallons of water for irrigation each year, enough to fill a little over 136 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Then there’s the coastal erosion threatening links courses — the style of golf that began with the origins of the sport itself in 15th century Scotland. Links courses are characterized by their open, rolling fairways and holes that run along the sea, but rising sea levels are encroaching on some of the most famous links in the world, like St. Andrews in Scotland. There, dune restoration work has continued for over a decade in an attempt to prolong the life of the course. Meanwhile, Montrose Golf Course, the world’s fifth-oldest, has experienced sea level rises of 130 feet between 1990 and 2018 alone, with twice that predicted over the next four decades. British Isle golf courses were once the hallmark of the sport, but they may be the first courses to, quite literally, go under.

Another historic British Isles course is the Cullen Links Club of Scotland, which was started in 1870 and boasts a rich legacy of excellent golf in the generations since. In 2017, Storm Aileen triggered massive flooding along the Moray Firth Coast, which caused landslides to come down from the hills and ravage the golf course. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Cullen Links was able to make some repairs, but the damage seemed like a harbinger of worse events to come.

A view of the scoreboard on the flooded 18th hole fairway as rain falls prior to the second round of the 144th Open Championship at The Old Course on July 17, 2015 in St Andrews, Scotland. Play is suspended due to adverse weather conditions. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
A view of the scoreboard on the flooded 18th hole fairway as rain falls prior to the second round of the 144th Open Championship at The Old Course on July 17, 2015 in St Andrews, Scotland. Play is suspended due to adverse weather conditions. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images) /

“I feel that climate change has massively affected the environment around the golf course and the immediate area,” says James Swanson, golf course superintendent at Cullen Links, “In a short time we have had to be more conscious of how our drainage works and increase the maintenance of these areas [that are prone to flooding].”

In 2019, the course experienced another set of landslides, which led to a lot of standing water on the links and prompted more aggressive action. Later this month, Cullen Links will work alongside the charity SUSTRANS, the Moray Council and Seafield Estates to install a pipe down the embankment that was flooded in 2017 and open a ditch by the golf course to allow drainage from the pipe to flow into the sea. Swanson takes the responsibility for these actions seriously.

“Every new project we now undertake has to take into consideration what effect we will have on the water levels and what drainage we can use without affecting the amazing ecology of the Cullen area. This is a very challenging but also exciting time, and I have certainly learned a lot.”

Luckily, golf course superintendents are not alone in their mission to make golf courses more sustainable — they are supported by organizations like the UK’s GEO Foundation for Sustainable Golf and US-based Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP) for Golf. Both offer opportunities for golf courses to earn certification by meeting various environmental standards, and both work to find climate solutions for the golf industry. ACSP for Golf Membership is available to all golf courses around the world and includes a site assessment, environmental planning form, and educational materials that cover everything from wildlife habitat management to water conservation, chemical use reduction and safety, and more.

“The program is designed to do two things,” explains Frank LaVardera, director of the Environmental Programs for Golf at Audubon International, “One, to help implement sustainable practices, but then also a key component is outreach and education. We help courses with sharing what they’re doing on the golf course in terms of being environmentally sustainable so the perception of golf and golf courses hopefully changes.”

Although the original Audubon group was established in the 19th century, it wasn’t until 1987 that the Audubon Society of New York State was founded. The organization’s golf program stemmed from a desire to create guidelines and principles that could contribute to the sustainable management of golf courses.

“Because at that time — the late 80s early 90s — golf courses, in general, had a negative perception amongst the general population in that, when you tuned in on Sunday afternoon to watch golf on TV, you saw these meticulously manicured golf courses where every blade of grass was the same…” says LaVardera, who has been with Audubon International for four years after over three decades as an environmental consultant.

“The program is very robust, we continue to get a lot of new members.” LaVadera adds, “Courses are joining the program for all the right reasons — helping with the environment — but a number of our members are also using their certification as a marketing tool, and advertising that their course is ACSP certified as a way of being a differentiator between two prospective clubs that [someone] is looking to join.”

After providing the materials listed above, ACSP for Golf helps courses identify their strengths and weaknesses and make plans for improvement until they can meet the requirements for certification. Once the paperwork has been reviewed, ACSP for Golf conducts a site visit for authentication.

“The backbone of our program is what we call the reduction of managed turf.” Explains LaVardera. “Managed turf” includes the parts of the golf course that require upkeep, like greens, fairways, tee boxes, and rough. A typical 18-hole course may span 150-200 acres of land, but the actual managed turf areas only make up around 67 percent of that area. When courses join ACSP for Golf, they are encouraged to identify areas that they can deduct from managed turf and revert to a more natural state. This could include the land surrounding the cart path in between holes, for example, or the deep rough just yards from the tee box where not many balls end up. That way, the course’s water usage goes down and the naturalized land can support a thriving ecosystem.

An aerial view of the Dubai Creek Golf and Marina Yacht Club golf course on February 1, 1992 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Howard Boylan/Getty Images)
An aerial view of the Dubai Creek Golf and Marina Yacht Club golf course on February 1, 1992 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Howard Boylan/Getty Images) /

Along with certification, the organization also works on new climate initiatives, such as Monarchs in the Rough, the result of a partnership between Audubon International and the Environmental Defense Fund. Through Monarchs in the Rough, which currently has around 1,000 participants, ACSP for Golf provides golf course superintendents with milkweed seed and other native plants that monarchs are attracted to, helping to develop a habitat for the endangered butterflies. In general, LaVerdara says, ACSP for Golf is “not a one-size-fits-all program, we really work with the course and depend upon where they are coming from and what potential options they may have.”

One popular change that courses are making, both as part of certification programs and not, is switching out the kinds of grass they use. Some opt for types like Buffalograss which are considered low-maintenance species, or paspalum grass, a versatile breed that can be watered with salty or brackish water. Many golf courses in California and the Southwest have switched to grass that has been engineered for drought tolerance, and the availability of moisture monitoring technologies allows superintendents to find the minimum amount of water required to keep turf in optimal shape for golf. A lot of these innovations come from superintendents leaving college with degrees in course management, which LaVerdara labels “Another great step in the evolution of the golf industry.”

When compared to the bigger picture of climate change destruction, the effects of the climate crisis on golf may seem trivial, but for millions of avid golfers, they are something to mourn. Despite the bleak outlook for golf’s future, the number of players has soared in the past years. In 2021, a record number of people played golf for the first time, at 3.2 million (the previous record was set in 2000, during Tiger Woods’ reign as world No. 1).

The hope is that continued efforts from golf courses and organizations like GEO for Sustainable Golf or Audubon International will help the game adapt enough to stay alive, although the loss of some courses, especially links, may be inevitable. Cullen’s superintendent Swanson muses, “The planet is going through a big change and we need to do all we can to embrace that and work with Mother Nature.”

Although this kind of attitude is reassuring, as with all measures being taken against climate change, one has to wonder: will it be enough?

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