How the game is moving towards a greener future

What is golf course sustainability?

The golf industry, aided by the likes of the GEO foundation and the R&A's sustainable program, are making a real difference to the environmental impact of golf by creating a clear guide on golf course management and best practices.


To develop and create sustainable golf courses the GEO (recently renamed SustainableGolf, a golf environment organization) have created a program for golf course sustainability called OnCourse. By following their best management practices, focusing on environmental benefit which is described as an "Easy-to-use sustainability and climate change programme made for you by people who understand golf." golf clubs can be become GEO certified.


In the US, the environmental stewardship of golf's green spaces is being promoted by Audubon International. These organisations help clubs develop a long term sustainable approach and in recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of clubs that have undertaken accreditation.


Many of the historic and most famous clubs/courses have full GEO certification such as St. Andrews, Wentworth, Gullane, Carnosutie, Royal Aberdeen, Castle Stuart, Royal Dornoch and Royal Troon to name only a few.


But what does it mean for a golf course to be sustainable? The R&A definition: "To be considered sustainable, the golf operation (be that a new development, existing facility or golf tournament) should protect nature, benefit communities and conserve resources."


The key areas:


1. Water Consumption

2. Emission Reduction

3. Carbon storage

4. Chemical usage


Water consumption: probably an area that most people would guess, golf courses generally require gallons of water for their irrigation system. The availability of quality drinking water has been highlighted as a major climate and environmental issue. Case studies by the R&A highlight the need for better water management "Many golf courses use too much water and golf courses are often criticised for taking water that could be used for a better purpose. In 2004, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 cubic metres of water per hectare were being pumped out of freshwater supplies to keep golf courses green in south-east Spain, which was enough water to supply a town of 12,000 inhabitants for a whole year!"


The average golf course consumes 50 million gallons of water per year. Comparable to the annual usage of a small village of 1,400 people.


Water usage and the amount of water used on golf courses has increasingly come under the spotlight by water conservation bodies. Using less water should be the principal goal for all golf clubs.


The goods new is there are simple ways that clubs are reducing their water consumption:


Recycled water: Many golf courses are looking at ways to become self-sufficient when it comes to irrigation. Great examples of this include using greywater and rainwater rather than supply from the mains. A good example is At Belas Clube de Campo in Portugal, all course run-off is collected into lakes before being re-used for irrigation.


Turfgrass selection: some grass is less thirsty than others! Selecting the right turfgrass in relation to the clubs soil type can help to reduce inputs across the board, including water. Added benefits of this can be reduced fertilizer and pesticide use, better playing surfaces and less CO2 being emitted from machinery.


Naturalisation: as the GEO explains "With so many courses locked down during parts of 2020, greenkeepers and course managers have been looking at ways to take what they’ve learnt from essential maintenance into ongoing practices. Lots of courses have been reaping the benefits of naturalization for a long time though when it comes to cutting water use. Royal Birkdale Golf Club in England made a 35% saving on water by choosing not to irrigate certain areas of rough around the course. And over in China, one club was able to turn off 300 irrigation sprinklers to let the turf grow wild and gradually become deep rough."


Sprinkler usage: simply put, using sprinklers less without reducing the playing quality of the golf course. Which can be done, a fine example At Hirsala Golf in Finland, their audit resulted in a 50% reduction in water use via readjustment of sprinklers on the tees.


Clubhouse & Golf facilities: replacing energy inefficient aircon with high quality efficient air con, harvesting rainwater from the clubhouse roof and in general considering all resource consumption.


Image below: Ocean Course, Kiawah Island Resort. The Paspalum grass variety is now used on all the course’s greens. A grass that utilizes little water and no chemicals, and remaining in top condition thanks to simple tender loving care from its keepers.

Emission reductions: carbon emissions created from all golf course activities can be reduced.


Use clean renewable energyTry and use recycled materials where possible and avoid single-use plastics and materials that will end up in landfill.Shorten supply chains and the amount of transportation, buy local produce as much as possible for food menus as an example.


Using solar panels for energy, ensuring a switch to all electric golf carts, focusing on using recyclable materials and general responsible management will all play an important role in better resource management and are already in place by the more advanced sustainable golf clubs.


Carbon storage: by conservation of its natural environment, golf clubs can maximise their ecosystem through naturalisation which has a number of environmental benefits. Planting native trees, protecting wildlife habitats and natural areas. This can also help reduce carbon footprint by producing natural offsetting.


Chemical usage: reducing the use of pesticides by cultivating a more natural growth of grass on the course. This may mean that the pristine manicured greens won't be as prevalent but creating sustainable turf will also reduce water use.


All the reports suggest that clubs can also benefit from the economic benefits as reducing the use of fertilizers, finding way to use the least chemicals, reducing the usage of natural resources, having less waste etc will all help to reduce costs for golf clubs whilst also ensuring they are part of a sustainable future.


The wider golf community all need to contribute, ask your local club what initiatives they are undertaking, bring a water bottle with you when you play instead of buying plastic bottled water and support /encourage your club’s efforts.


The pro shops can also play their part by considering the level of sustainable product they stock, ask your club shop what they are doing to increase their sustainable offer, reach out on social media to your local pros and golf course managers.


Many golf tournaments are also GEO certified including the major tournaments such as The Open, BMW PGA Championship, Solheim Cup, Scottish Open and the British Masters. Tournaments can have a heavy environmental footprint, but a golf event can be sustainable by focusing on procurement, recyclable vendors and easy recycling access for visitors and how energy is used and the subsequent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Let's hope the Ryder Cup commits to hosting a sustainable tournament in Italy in 2023.


Image below: Open Water Initiative, free purified water was available on-demand through the water filling stations to fans who were notified in advance that no single-use plastic bottles of water would be sold to the public during the championship.

The impact of travel of all tours including the pros that compete is another area that is starting to change. Rory Mcilroy recently explained his increasing focus on the changing climate "I flew back home privately, and it was just me on the plane," he said. "And I just got this massive sense of guilt come over me, just because this can't be good and all that sort of stuff.


"So we ended up reaching out to the GEO Foundation who do a lot of great sustainability things in golf."


McIlroy now pays extra fees, thought to be around $150,000 (£110,000) a year, to offset his carbon footprint.


"I wouldn't self-profess to be an eco-warrior," he added. "But I'm someone that doesn't want to damage the environment. So how can I make my travel around the world neutral? How can I neutralise what I do?


"And they came up with a few different ways that I can do that. So on top of what I pay to fly private, I pay quite a bit more on top of that to make sure I'm carbon neutral by the end of the year."


Solheim Cup legend Suzann Pettersen became the first professional golfer in 2020 to sign on as a GEO Sustainable Golf Champion.


In a statement released at the time, Pettersen remarked, “when I saw that my home course, Oslo Golf Club, was also certified by GEO for its great work, I thought this is something I’d really like to get behind. As a mother of a young child, it is incredible how concerned you become over the future of the planet, its biodiversity, air quality and climate. These things are absolutely vital to the health and wellbeing of future generations, so we all need to do our best to make things better.”


For more information on golf sustainability visit the GEO Foundation.