Green wars

Sustainable design in golf is not new. Far from it. The first golf courses were the very models of sustainable design. After all, in the 1500s, there were no irrigation systems, no pesticides, no fertilizers, no mowers …

The original golf courses in Scotland were part of the natural landscape. They became playable after sheep grazed the land. If there was room for 10 holes, there were 10 holes. If there was room for 22 holes, there were 22 holes.

“It was frequently played in winter,” said architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., who noted that farmers took to the rugged, browning links after harvest.

But many golf courses evolved into lush, emerald green showcases, even where lush, emerald green showcases don’t naturally exist, such as in a desert. And with the recent concern with water shortages and other issues, that is posing a problem for golf.

A recent Mother Jones magazine article noted that the average Palm Springs golf course uses the same amount of water in a single day as a family of four uses in five years. 

A new film documentary, “A Dangerous Game,” blasts golf course developers for building opulent courses in exotic locales to attract well-heeled golfers. The director, Anthony Baxter, in an interview, calls the courses “environmental catastrophes.”

“There are parts of the world where golf is not part of the natural landscape,” Baxter told Ecorazzi, an environmental website. “People are going to fly in and out again just to play a few rounds of golf with their exclusive buddies.”

Golf is fighting back. Architects such as Jones are creating courses that are more environmentally friendly and sustainable. He designed Chambers Bay Golf Course, home of this year’s U.S. Open, which was the first course in the Northwestern United States to be certified as a Silver Signature Sanctuary by Audubon International.

One of the reasons for its sustainability is that the course features fescue grass, which, because of its deep roots, is drought resistant. The grass can also look more brown than green at times because of its growing pattern. It’s a look that some golfers find unsettling.

As Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post wrote: “As you approach, the sound and the huge oval of Chambers Bay spreads below you. Everywhere, you see water and emerald trees. Except the course: It has no water at all, one lone tree behind the 14th green and everything looks brown.”

Jones didn’t mind the controversy: “I like drama,” he said. 

Read the rest of the story in the free Nov/Dec digital issue of Golf Inc. Magazine.


Photo by Miller Brown Photography

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