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Hugo Chávez Is Right: Let's Get Rid of Some Golf Courses

With the Masters in full swing, it's good to remember how bad golf can be.

At the Masters tournament this weekend, the 26-year-old Venezuelan phenomenon Jhonattan Vegas is making his tournament debut. But socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez certainly won't be tuning in. He hates golf.

"Let's leave this clear: Golf is a bourgeois sport," Chávez said during a live broadcast of his TV show in 2009. In the ensuing years, he's systematically shuttered six of Venezuela's golf courses in order to make room for public housing. Vegas won't comment on his president's actions, but it's safe to say the two aren't very fond of one another.

Autocratic tendencies aside, Chávez may be onto something. There are nearly 19,000 golf courses in the United States today; that's more than double the number of colleges. And not only are many golf clubs insanely bigoted—women still can't join the Augusta National, where the Masters is played—they're also a huge drain on resources.

Just look at Florida, which has more golf courses than any other state. A 2001 study (pdf) found that only 419 of Florida's more than 1,200 courses used recycled water for their irrigation. The rest used freshwater, to the tune of 187 million gallons per day. (Audubon International estimates the average course uses 312,000 gallons per day.) This in a state that, as NPR termed it in 2007, "faces a vanishing water supply."

In Palm Springs, California, which boasts more than 120 golf resorts, scientists have discovered places that have sunk more than a foot due to a rapidly depleting groundwater supply. This sinking could eventually ruin structural foundations and underground sewer pipes. Yet despite this scary reality, only about a third of the city's courses use recycled water or water imported from the Colorado River. Even estimating liberally, Palm Springs officials say that only about 50 of their golf courses can be irrigated with recycled water by 2015. The rest will continue to use groundwater, sometimes pumping six million gallons a day in order to reseed. For context, Palm Springs averages less than three inches of rain per year.

Beyond water usage, golf courses use awful pesticides to maintain their greenery. "Pesticides pose health risks, both acute and chronic, from common coldlike symptoms, nausea, dizziness, headaches, rashes, to birth defects, learning disabilities, infertility, leukemia, various cancers including brain cancer, breast cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma," Jay Feldman, co-founder of the nonprofit Beyond Pesticides, told Golf Digest in 2008. "Asthma rates in the U.S. have skyrocketed, and there are studies linking asthma to pesticides that are widely used on golf courses."

Of course, there are people working diligently to clean up the golfing industry. Eco-friendly courses are leading the green golf movement by eschewing chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and others are using fake turf instead of natural grass to cut down on water consumption. But as of now, the vast majority of golf courses just aren't sustainable. With that in mind, let's close some of them.

Does Palm Springs really need more than 120 golf resorts? Does Scottsdale, Arizona, need 174? With about 28.6 million golfers over the age of six in the United States, and about 19,000 courses, we've got a golf course for every 1,500 golfers. It seems excessive no matter how you look at it. And unlike, say, power plants, which use a ton of water in the name of keeping cities alive, golf courses eat up vast amounts of resources simply to provide wealthy people with a leisure activity.

Whether Tiger finally finds his footing and wins this weekend is mostly irrelevant. With golf as it is, we all lose.

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