With the amount of water needed to keep a golf course in good condition and the effects on surrounding land, climate change can have the sport on borrowed time.

As the climate crisis challenges the future of the entire planet, when it comes to sport, there is perhaps none more affected by climate change than golf. After all, what other game requires acre after acre of perfectly manicured grass? As the climate becomes more unstable, droughts and extreme storms threaten to ruin golf courses, but perhaps the aspect of the game most affected is its reputation.

Golf has fallen out of favor with the eco-conscious due to its reputation for sucking up water and harming natural ecosystems. In August, French climate activists even filled golf holes with cement to protest the course’s water ban exemptions. Although golf course superintendents are making great strides in adapting the game to environmental barriers and making golf more environmentally friendly, it often seems that external factors exceed. Will golf survive or become the first victim of the climate crisis in the sports world?

Water use is a big factor in the uncertainty of the future of golf. California has experienced widespread drought conditions for decades, but the average 18-hole golf course in the state uses 90 million gallons of water for irrigation each year, enough to fill just over 136 Olympic swimming pools.

Then there’s coastal erosion threatening the link courses – the style of golf that began with the origins of the sport itself in 15th century Scotland. Links courses are characterized by open, rolling fairways and holes that skirt the sea, but rising sea levels encroach on some of the most famous links in the world, such as St. Andrews in Scotland. There, dune restoration work continued for more than a decade in an effort to extend the life of the course. Meanwhile, the Montrose golf course, the fifth oldest in the world, has experienced a sea level rise of 130 feet between 1990 and 2018 only, with double that expected over the next four decades. The golf courses of the British Isle were once the hallmark of the sport, but they may have been the first courses to literally sink.

Another historic course in the British Isles is the Cullen Links Club of Scotland, which was established in 1870 and has a rich heritage of excellent golf for generations. In 2017, Storm Aileen triggered massive flooding along the Moray Firth coast which caused landslides from the hills and ravaged the golf course. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Cullen Links was able to make some repairs, but the damage seemed to be a harbinger of worse things to come.

A view from the scoreboard on the flooded 18th hole fairway as rain falls ahead of the second round of the 144th Open Championship at The Old Course on July 17, 2015 in St Andrews, Scotland. Play is suspended due to adverse weather conditions. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

“I think climate change has massively affected the environment around the golf course and the immediate area,” says James Swanson, golf course superintendent at Cullen Links, “In a short time we had to be more aware how our drainage works and increase the maintenance of these areas [that are prone to flooding].”

In 2019, the course experienced another round of landslides, which resulted in a lot of standing water on the links and prompted more aggressive action. Later this month Cullen Links will work alongside charity SUSTRANS, Moray Council and Seafield Estates to install a pipe over the embankment which flooded in 2017 and open a ditch near the golf course to allow to the drainage pipe to flow into the sea. . Swanson takes responsibility for these actions seriously.

“Every new project we undertake now must consider the effect we will have on water levels and the drainage we can use without affecting the incredible ecology of the Cullen area. It’s a very difficult but also exciting time, and I’ve certainly learned a lot.

Fortunately, golf course superintendents are not alone in their mission to make golf courses more sustainable – they are supported by organizations like the UK’s GEO Foundation for Sustainable Golf and the US Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary (ACSP) program to Golf. Both provide opportunities for golf courses to achieve certification by meeting various environmental standards, and both strive to find climate solutions for the golf industry. ACSP for Golf Membership is available to all golf courses worldwide and includes a site assessment, environmental planning form and educational materials covering everything from wildlife habitat management to water conservation, to reducing chemical use and safety, and more.

“The program is designed to do two things,” says Frank LaVardera, director of environmental programs for golf at Audubon International, “One, to help implement sustainable practices, but also a key component is raising awareness and We help courses share what they are doing on the golf course in terms of environmental sustainability so that the perception of golf and golf courses will hopefully change.

Although the original Audubon group was established in the 19th century, it was not until 1987 that the New York State Audubon Society was founded. The organization’s golf program was born out of a desire to create guidelines and principles that could contribute to the sustainable management of golf courses.

“Because at that time – the late 80s early 90s – golf courses, in general, had a negative perception among the general population in that when you logged on on a Sunday afternoon to watch golf on TV, you saw these meticulously manicured golf courses where every blade of grass was the same…” says LaVardera, who has been with Audubon International for four years after more than three decades as an environmental consultant.

“The program is very strong, we continue to have a lot of new members.” LaVerdara adds, “Courses join the program for all the right reasons – to help with the environment – ​​but a number of our members also use their certification as a marketing tool and advertise that their course is ACSP certified as a way to be a differentiator between two potential clubs that [someone] seeks to join.

After providing the materials listed above, ACSP for Golf helps courses identify their strengths and weaknesses and develop improvement plans until they can meet certification requirements. Once the documents have been reviewed, ACSP for Golf performs a site visit for authentication.

“The backbone of our program is what we call managed turf reduction.” LaVerdara explains. “Managed turf” includes parts of the golf course that require maintenance, such as greens, fairways, tee boxes and roughs. A typical 18-hole course may span 150-200 acres of land, but the grass areas managed are only about 67% of this area. When courses join ACSP for Golf, they are encouraged to identify areas they can deduct from managed turf and return to a more natural state. This could include dirt surrounding the cart path between holes, for example, or the deep rough a few yards from the tee box where few balls end up. In this way, the course’s water consumption decreases and the naturalized land can support a thriving ecosystem.

An aerial view of the Dubai Creek Golf and Marina Yacht Club golf course on February 1, 1992 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Howard Boylan/Getty Images)

Along with certification, the organization is also working on new climate initiatives, such as Monarchs in the Rough, a partnership between Audubon International and the Environmental Defense Fund. Through Monarchs in the Rough, which currently has approximately 1,000 participants, ACSP for Golf provides golf course superintendents with milkweed seeds and other native plants that attract monarchs, helping to develop a habitat for endangered butterflies. In general, LaVerdara says, ACSP for Golf is “not a one-size-fits-all program, we really work with the course and depend on where they’re coming from and what potential options they may have.”

A popular change that courses make, both in certification programs and not, is to change the types of grass they use. Some opt for types like buffalo grass which are considered low maintenance species, or paspalum grass, a versatile breed that can be watered with salt or brackish water. Many golf courses in California and the Southwest have switched to grass designed to withstand drought, and the availability of moisture monitoring technology allows superintendents to find the minimum amount of water needed to keep the turf in optimum shape for golf. Many of these innovations came from superintendents leaving college with degrees in course management, which LaVerdara calls “another big step in the evolution of the golf industry.”

Compared to the bigger picture of destruction by climate change, the effects of the climate crisis on golf may seem insignificant, but for millions of avid golfers, they are something to cry over. Despite golf’s bleak outlook, player numbers have skyrocketed in recent years. In 2021, a record number of people played golf for the first timeto 3.2 million (the previous record was set in 2000, during Tiger Woods’ reign as world No. 1).

The hope is that the continued efforts of golf courses and organizations like GEO for Sustainable Golf or Audubon International will help the game adapt enough to stay alive, although the loss of some courses, especially links, may be inevitable. Cullen Superintendent Swanson muses, “The planet is going through a big change and we need to do everything we can to accept this and work with Mother Nature.

Although this kind of attitude is reassuring, as with all measures taken against climate change, one can wonder: will this be enough?

Saving Sports is an initiative of Minute Media, exploring the intersection of sport and climate change, promoting education and seeking solutions. Learn more here.