golf bad for the environment?

Is Golf Bad for the Environment?

Is Golf bad for the environment?

Credit: Daniel50

There is a huge amount of debate over whether golf is bad for the environment. It is not necessarily the sport itself that is maligned, but the venue – golf courses take up an enormous amount of space, and are often prime land. Indeed, golf courses take a huge amount of maintenance, water and chemicals which are all harmful to the environment. 

Abbie Richards, the science communicator at Euronews, goes a step further by arguing “the game that exploded in popularity as a symbol of middle-class success now symbolizes waste, excess, and inequality”. This seemingly suggests that golf is not just bad for the environment; it’s plain bad.

And yet there are also counterarguments. An opinion piece on GreenKeeping stated “there is a media narrative that golf courses are bad for the environment. However, research is finding that…not only is this not true, but golf courses now play a pivotal role in how green a local area is.” 

In this article, we take a look at arguments on both sides to examine whether golf is genuinely bad for the environment, or whether the idea is overblown. 

Building a Golf Course

In order for a golf course to be built, a lot of land needs to be cleared. This can result in the removal of trees and natural habitats. Thus, many animals, birds and other creatures may end up losing their homes as a result of a golf course. This is true of any level of development. It will disrupt existing wildlife and, despite our best efforts to maintain green space, some previously established habitats will not naturally recover.

Of course, most golf courses do plant trees and shrubs along the edges of the course. They add in water features and create new natural habitats in the process of construction. Since a golf course needs to stay green, there is no doubt the trees, bushes and landscape will be well-maintained. Unfortunately, such maintenance takes a toll on local resources.

Golf Courses Use a Lot of Water!

One of the most common criticisms of golf courses is the amount of water used in their day-to-day running. Take the example of the golf courses in Salt Lake County in the state of Utah. Many parts of the state are currently experiencing ‘extreme drought’ conditions, and in spite of this, 30 or so courses in Salt Lake County alone use nine million gallons of water every single day. 

At a time when climate change is causing havoc with water availability, golf courses still use an excessive amount of water. Of course, there are steps courses can take to attempt to reduce their water usage. But there is always going to be an element of having to water large areas of grass to keep the greens in good condition. 

The Issue of Chemicals

Naturally one of the major problems on a golf course from an environmental perspective is the issue of harmful chemicals. The grass on a golf course needs to be maintained to a very high standard – this can mean utilizing pesticides, weedkillers and fertilizer – all of which can be harmful to the natural world, especially in large quantities. 

Even if we discount the massive negative impact these chemicals can have on insects, as well as further down the food chain, there is the issue that using these chemicals can begin to have an effect on people as well. Rainwater eventually washes these chemicals into rivers and streams, where they can start to cause problems for human populations near the golf courses (and those playing the course).

Golf Does Get People Outdoors

On a positive note, the sport of golf does get people outdoors. It’s an outdoor activity where most people spend their time walking the course and getting some natural Vitamin D. Plus, there are countless benefits to being unplugged and outdoors.

Those who use golf carts to get around on the golf course are a little less eco-friendly in their activities, unless those carts are powered by more eco-friendly means, such as solar power.

The Carbon Footprint of Golf Courses

It should be recognized there is significant evidence golf courses do have a large carbon footprint. A study into the subject revealed the carbon footprint on the average golf course is close to ten times the average person’s carbon footprint. This is mostly due to the level of care required of the course, including all of the mowing, fertilizing and ongoing maintenance. Lighting and other electric needs can weigh heavily on a course’s carbon footprint, as well.

It is also true many courses are aiming to improve themselves. For some, there is even the goal of carbon neutrality. Perhaps, then, we are getting to the point where we can argue it is the player’s choice of golf course that can have a truly significant impact on the environment.

If you support golf courses that acknowledge some of the inconvenient truths of their environmental impact, and are looking to offset their carbon footprint, this can be one of the best ways to ensure you are playing golf as environmentally friendly as possible. 

Best Practice for Courses

If you want to look for a golf course known for operating with integrity, and trying to do the best it can for the environment, it is important to recognize there are a number of different factors involved. As we have mentioned above there are a range of different ways a course can be bad for the environment, so you could look for a course with the following policies:

  • Water management – as mentioned above, water use can be a very serious issue for courses. However, there are things any course can do to reduce their need for water or use water more intelligently. Look for courses that minimize their water needs via drought-tolerant grass, reusing greywater and implementing efficient irrigation systems.
  • Habitat conservation – golf courses are best when they attempt to align with nature rather than dominate it. Consider courses devoted to creating and preserving habitats for wildlife, such as by creating wetlands, installing bird boxes and preserving natural areas.
  • Energy efficiency – many golf courses use a significant amount of electricity and power, however, there are ways this can be counteracted as well. Courses can reduce their energy consumption by using solar power, energy-efficient lighting and electric vehicles.
  • Chemical management – look for courses that minimize their dependence on harmful chemicals proven to damage the environment. Courses can use organic fertilizers and pesticides or implement integrated pest management.

Simulators Can Be a Suitable Alternative

It may be the case you are looking to reduce how much you use a golf course because you are concerned about its negative environmental impact. Thankfully, you can potentially use options such as golf simulators to get the experience of playing golf without the poor environmental credentials.

Golf simulators are becoming increasingly popular and can be more environmentally friendly than traditional golf courses. They allow players to experience the game indoors, which eliminates the need for a physical golf course. 

Of course, it is true golf simulators do use electricity, but this is actually very low compared to the electricity used by a golf course. And while a golf simulator cannot replace everything about the experience of playing golf on a course, it does allow you to play with significantly lower environmental impact.

How Bad Is Golf Compared to Other Sports?

Of course, it would not be fair to look at golf in isolation. If we are saying golf has a major environmental impact, we also have to understand how this impact stacks up compared to other sports. It can be argued there are many sports with more of a negative environmental impact – especially any requiring the use of cars or planes.

But the majority of these are not what would be considered recreational sports most people have access to. If you’re looking for a form of exercise or leisure, golf does potentially have an impact above most standard sports. Yes, any sport with a field or a pitch will need watering and maintenance, but golf courses cover a much wider area and also more regularly interact with the surrounding wildlife habitats. 

Ultimately, it has to be said golf does have some negative environmental impact, especially when courses are not managed in a way conducive to harmony with the natural world. If you are interested in playing golf, it’s a great idea to consider looking into the details of how individual courses are run and select one that is the least environmentally damaging.


  • Frank Perry

    Was reading this with an open mind until I got to the part about a simulator replacing actual golf. This is absurd. I’ve used simulators and they can’t replace the exercise, being in the green outdoors or the mental challenges (huge part of the game) of figuring out how to get the ball in the hole given the infinite variables of lie, slope, variations on grass from shot to shot etc. A simulator is an extremely simplified version of the real sport.

  • John

    I think one aspect in the discussion “comparison with other sports” should be how intensely the resources already spent on the infrastructure can be used. The more people that can benefit from already spent resources from the construction and maintaining of the course, the lower the per-person impact. The fields in many city parks are generally smaller than golf courses and would use less water, chemicals, and fuel for lawn mowing, and are also used by exponentially more people. I think this aspect was not mentioned in the analysis.

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