Water-hogging, pesticide-laden golf courses occupy more than 2.3 million acres of United States green. Thanks to pressure from environmentalists, however, some courses are trying to bring the sport back to its roots: in nature.Back in 1898, a decade after the first permanent golf clubs opened in the United States, the Chicago Daily dedicated an entire page to the restorative powers of this peculiar Scottish import. The story quoted a physician who regarded golf as a "cure" that "oils the wheels of life." He'd even presented his claims at an American Neurological Association meeting, concluding that golf "combines exercise, pleasure, and fresh air without the risk of injury to the heart, lungs, or nervous system."Four years later, in 1902, William Garrott Brown, Harvard lecturer and contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, wrote an essay called, simply, "Golf." The game, Brown wrote, was "one method of returning to nature." To him, playing golf was a "means of awakening a sense of the beauty of wild flowers, and many another delicate loveliness in nature." At the beginning of the 20th century, this was not a controversial sentiment (unless, perhaps, you were seated at a table with Mark Twain).At some point over the course of the next 100 years, golf's relationship with Mother Nature took a sharp turn. So much so that in 1990, the British environmentalist and author George Monbiot called golf "a pox upon the planet." Thirteen years later, a representative from the Sierra Club-the environmental organization just slightly younger than golf in the United States-labeled the sport "the sleeping giant threatening the environment." And today, it's not uncommon to hear that not only are golf courses an example of unforgivable waste, but that they also make some people physically ill.Golf, the argument goes, is a land-hogging, chemically dependent pursuit enjoyed by a small number of people that is depleting the world's water supply, destroying natural habitats, harming ecosystems, and relying heavily on pesticides that sicken a variety of living creatures, including human beings.There is some truth to all of that, which puts Brent Blackwelder in an awkward position. He's both an environmentalist (he's been president of Friends of the Earth since 1994) and an avid golfer (he likes to point out that he played on Duke University's golf team). "My brother once said that an environmentally sound golf course is an oxymoron," chuckles Blackwelder. But that may be changing. He is among the growing number of people behind the green golf movement, an effort to implement better practices on the world's-and America's-30,000 golf courses.
"My brother once said that an environmentally sound golf course is an oxymoron."It wasn't always this way, of course. In golf's early days in Scotland, nature was course architect, and rabbits were often the greenskeepers. The game was a rugged walk through the countryside, with fairways determined by the grazing habits of sheep and bunkers formed by burrowing animals. Early accounts of the game in the United States are equally rustic, with descriptions of courses on waste meadow and cast-off pastureland. Creeks, barns, stone fences and dirt roads served as hazards.Nowadays, according to Blackwelder, who lives in Washington, D.C, "often what is billed as a salubrious walk through greenery could be a walk through a chemical-laced soup." Somewhere around the middle of the last century, Blackwelder believes, a "neatness fetish" took hold. You could see it manifested in the way people manicured their lawns-and, of course, their golf courses.Perhaps not coincidentally, this is around the same time CBS began televising the Masters golf tournament, beaming images of Augusta National Golf Club's meticulously groomed fairways and greens into living rooms across America. The Masters's unnatural perfection became the ideal, spawning what many today still call "the Augusta syndrome." Golfers adopted unreal expectations of what a golf course should look like, and course superintendents inherited pressure to create such a playing surface. Often the recipe for perfection includes copious amounts of water and a fearsome mix of chemicals to keeps pests at bay. Back then, before most people knew better, it wasn't uncommon for cadmium, mercury, lead and even arsenic to find their way onto the turf.Today, the chemicals have changed and some courses used recycled water, but the pressure for immaculate green remains. "This bugs a lot of the superintendents I talk to," Blackwelder says. "They say we want to do more, but the members are demanding these perfect conditions to play. No one seems to want to hit out of a bad lie any more. It's not the spirit of golf."And it's simply not sustainable. Water, we know, is a finite resource, and depending on who you ask, a golf course goes through anywhere between 200,000 and 800,000 gallons of it on a daily basis. (An average household, to put that number into perspective, uses approximately 150 gallons per day.) The Worldwatch Institute estimates golf courses consume enough water each day to keep 4.7 billion people from going thirsty.Pesticides are a trickier issue. Their use is often backed by studies that say their negative effects can be minimal to nonexistent when used correctly. But there are enough contradictory studies and anecdotal pieces of evidence to make you wonder otherwise.Just this past July, residents near a golf course in Tampa, Florida, citing health problems, won their yearlong battle to halt the use of a synthetic soil fumigant, the active ingredient in which is considered likely to be carcinogenic by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The manufacturer said the residents' claims were unfounded, but agreed to the stoppage to avoid further negative publicity and legal fees. The fumigant, not used in colder northern states due to fears it could poison drinking water, continues to be used on other golf courses in Florida.
In golf's early days in Scotland, nature was course architect, and rabbits were often the greenskeepers.It is true that golf, a $76 billion dollar a year industry in the United States, can be considered a bit of a scapegoat here. Golf is highly visible-Clint Eastwood and Donald Trump both recently fought public battles with activists over planned courses-yet enjoyed by very few. Even in the United States, home to around 16,000 golf courses, more than half the global total, golf is played by less than 10 percent of the population. Still, courses here occupy a combined area of roughly 2.3 million acres-nearly the size of the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America will point out that golf courses take up a tiny fraction of land compared to agriculture, another pesticide-heavy industry. They'll also mention that, based on research by their own Environmental Institute for Golf, only 14 percent of golf courses in the United States use municipal water supplies, and that more golf courses would use treated effluent if it was made available to them. The United States Golf Association, to its credit, has done a lot of research identifying alternative strains of turf grass that require less water. (Of course, this saves them money, too.)"Golf courses are a managed landscape similar to that of an office park, a soccer field, a shopping mall or a parking lot," GCSAA spokesman Jeff Bollig says. "So the question is what value does this managed landscape provide and what is its environmental footprint. Research and testing indicates professionally managed golf courses are compatible with the environment and in many cases enhance it. Ask yourself what do the acres and acres of parking lot asphalt do for the environment?"Bollig has a point. But an ecological shift is afoot. The U.S. organic industry has grown from a $1 billion a year niche in 1990 to a $24.6 billion force in 2008, a 17.1 percent increase over 2007. In 2005, the Danish Golf Union moved to phase out the use of pesticides on the nation's golf courses. In 2008, the town of Greenwich, Connecticut, banned the use of pesticides on all of its athletic fields. And many a golfer has wondered: "If the pesticides on my golf course are safe, why is the person spraying them wearing a full body suit and a respirator?"
Often the recipe for a perfect golf course includes copious amounts of water and a fearsome mix of chemicals to keeps pests at bay.In 1995, at Pebble Beach Resort in California, members of the golf and environmental communities sat down for the first time to discuss ways to make golf more environmentally friendly. The 81-person meeting was at times was contentious but in the end a document was produced: The environmental principles for golf courses in the United States. The principles are voluntary, asking golf courses to "go beyond that which is required by law.""The principles, I think, were very good," says Blackwelder, whose Friends of the Earth organization was among the document's collaborators. "The challenge now is to get them to adopt those principles. And that is where I think there are not enough resources being applied."The closest thing to an environmental golf course regulator in the United States is a nonprofit called Audubon International (which is not related to the 104-year-old National Audubon Society). Audubon International runs something called the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, which certifies courses if they meet goals related to a variety of areas, including water conservation, wildlife habitat management and chemical use reduction. The certification process costs $200 and usually takes between one and three years. As of 2008, around 2,300 golf courses had entered the program and 755 of those had achieved certification."It's a good program," Blackwelder says. "But it's not like there are a lot of sanctions if you don't fulfill it. It's an attempt to get golf courses to think about these issues. Sure, we'd like some more stringency, but we don't have it yet, other than relying on basic federal laws and an inadequately staffed EPA to implement this."What may ultimately drive more golf courses to adopt greener practices is their bottom line. Simply put, going green can save them money-especially when it comes to water conservation. Imagine what a little conservation could mean to a golf course that normally consumes several hundred gallons of water per day."I think the courses have gotten a lot smarter," Golf Digest's John Barton says, noting that Sebonack Golf Club on Long Island, N.Y., recently became the first U.S. golf course to outfit its entire fleet of golf carts with solar panels. "And I think the current economic crisis is actually having a significant effect on this. Courses are irrigating less, partly because it makes good environmental sense, but also because it saves a lot of money."The environmental golf movement got a boost earlier this year when pop star (and golf fanatic) Justin Timberlake opened Mirimichi, his $16 million public golf course outside of Memphis, Tennessee. Mirimichi, which has an "environmental specialist" on staff, is the first U.S. golf course to be designated an Audubon International Classic Sanctuary, which means it displays elements of outstanding "wildlife conservation, habitat rehabilitation and enhancement, water conservation, and water quality protection." The Mirimichi project replaced an existing golf course and turned much of the land back over to nature: only 85 of the complex's 300 acres are now mowed.There are a handful of other courses worldwide pushing the environmental envelope, opting to go totally organic-using no synthetic pesticides at all. One of those pioneers is Kabi Organic Golf Course, in Queensland, Australia. In addition to 27 holes of golf, Kabi is home to 1,200 organic fruit trees and 200 acres of land for wildlife. Kabi is organic right down to its compost toilets, the waste from which is treated by a sand filtration system and pumped back into the forest as fertilizer. Kabi is certified organic and monitored by Australia's Biological Farmers Association."When I took this job up here it was quite an eye opener to see exactly what really is organic and what isn't," says superintendent Troy MacLaren, who worked on resort courses before joining Kabi for its opening eight years ago. "You know, these people that run golf courses and go ‘Oh yeah, we're organic. We just spray a little bit here and there.' I mean, they're joking themselves."MacLaren says the number of chemical-free products available to him has increased dramatically in recent years, and their quality has improved, as well. For a fertilizer, he'll use things like rock dust, blood and bone meal, composted cow manure and, for lack of a better term, worm poop-Kabi has its own worm farm on site. For a pesticide, he might spray an extract from the daisy flower. Often, he and his staff will pull weeds by hand. MacLaren admits that going completely organic is an "amazing challenge" and "labor intensive," but he believes that it's worth it, and can actually save a course money in the long run."But what's the real cost? That's the question the golf industry has to ask," MacLaren says. "What's the cost to the environment if they continue raping the soil and putting up these artificial surfaces? We definitely have the golf course up to a passable standard. Sure, we're not Augusta, but we can provide the public with a clean green environment and they can be assured that they are playing on a golf course where they don't have to worry about nasty chemicals."