Golf: Will it ever be green?


The very first golf courses in the U.S. had ½-inch-tall turfgrass that was
allowed to go brown in the summer, so it was relatively sustainable. But
then Augusta National opened in 1932 – with 32,000 feet of underground sprinkler
pipes – and brown grass was henceforth deemed unacceptable. In the 1950s Ike’s
passion for golf brought millions to the sport, even among the working classes,
with golf ranking third in popularity with factory workers after baseball and
bowling. And with the broadcast of the Masters tournament in living color on
television in the ‘60s, standards for the greenness of golf courses were pumped
up a notch or two and course managers across the country were pressured to
duplicate the Augusta look. (Actually, Augusta wasn’t just artificially green
but artificially everything. Blue dye was poured into its lakes and until
recently, pre-recorded bird sounds were added to the television broadcasts –
until savvy birders noticed songs of birds that don’t really exist there. Oops.)

But the turf at Augusta was destined to become even more tortured after Jack
Nicklaus and Gary Player complained that the fairway grass wasn’t fast enough,
and again it was made shorter. By the ‘60s most courses had lowered their turf
height to 1/4 inch and today some have even moved to 1/8th inch.

Still, Augusta’s the extreme case, with its underground pipes pumping hot or
cold air to moderate soil temperatures, and its closed-for-renovations status
for half of every year, pre-tournament. No matter that other American golf
courses can’t afford to go to those extremes, their members demand the look.
Dubbed the "Augusta Syndrome," the quest for the artificial yet perfect
greensward has likewise captured the culture of suburbia, spawning millions of
competitive Torojockeys.

The Cost of Shorter Mowing

But here’s what the scalping of turfgrass does: interfere with
photosynthesis, encourage shallow roots, and make the grass more vulnerable to
disease, temperature extremes and wear and tear from golfers. Short-short grass
needs much more water to stay alive, which in turn encourages more fungi, which
means that more fungicides are used, in addition to the thousands of pounds of
fertilizer and herbicides already dumped on the course. In other words,
groundskeepers are forced to create the absolute worst conditions for turfgrass,
yet still make it look perfect. No easy feat, with one Chicago course reporting
that it uses 5,000 pounds of fungicide and 31 million gallons of water each
summer in the war against brown grass. A biologist with N.Y.’s Department of
Environmental Conservation gives this sober assessment: "If you scraped a golf
green and tested it, you’d have to cart it away to a hazardous waste facility."
Yet greens superintendents are told to keep it green or they’ll lose their job,
and some actually have.

And in one of those unintended consequences that Nature is famous for, the
acres of super-green and super-short grass, on top of millions of new acres of
residential lawns in the U.S., have brought about an explosion in the population
of Canadian geese. While only 100 years ago they were near extinction, now
they’re the number one animal menace in the golf world. There was even a
notorious incident in the ‘70s at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club when a
golfer beat one to death because it honked and ruined his shot. He was actually
charged under Migratory Bird Treaty Act with killing a bird out of season,
ordered to pay a $500 fine, and was suspended by the club – briefly. Nowadays
the Congressional employs the services of a border collie (trained at the
Goose-Away Academy in North Carolina!) to chase the copiously defecating birds
off the course. A real solution would be to let grass grow taller or switch to
another groundcover, but until there’s a cure for the Augusta Syndrome, that
ain’t gonna happen.

Signs of Change?

At the end of 2004 there were over 15,000 courses in the U.S., even in such
inhospitable places as Alaska. The states with the most golf courses are
Florida, where wetlands are drying up because of dwindling groundwater supplies,
and the semi-desert of California, where 40 percent of the water is pumped in
from elsewhere. According to a recent report in the Washington Post, it’s
only recently, with the downturn in the real estate market, that buyers are less
willing to spend the extra $30,000 to have a golf course in their new
development, and the building of new golf courses has taken a downturn.

Another sign of change, an actual hint of environmental awareness in the golf
world, was the awarding of Golf Digest’s 2003 "Environmental Leader in Golf
Award" to Jeff Carlson, the man who takes care of the Vineyard Golf Course and
does it organically. But there’s an interesting story there. The local
authorities on Martha’s Vineyard only approved the creation of this new course
over vocal opposition – including folk songs written in protest, which songs
were sung by kids in the local schools – after concluding that it was preferable
to seeing the acreage turned into a 148-lot subdivision. And approval of the
course was loaded with conditions – that it be maintained 100 percent
organically, and that 125 local residents be allowed to join for only $400 a
year, in contrast to the usual initiation fee of $350,000 and yearly fee of
$12,000. At those prices, it’s no surprise that the members are rich and
powerful (including the Clintons and many other famous names). According to
press accounts, it was the wives (and, one would hope, female members) who
supported the all-organic requirement, figuring they were paying more for
organic at Whole Foods, so why settle for a toxic golf course?

So yes, the Vineyard club has been all-organic since it opened in 2002 and
they, too, use border collies to chase off geese, but still, huge amounts of
fertilizer are dumped on it – and organic overfertilization is just as harmful to our waters as
the synthetic kind. And far too much water is used to keep the course green. So
if "all-organic" is the golf industry’s answer to environmental pressures, I
hope they soon realize that’s just a starting point.

My primary source for this article was Ted Steinberg, professor at Case
Western University, in his book American Green and in a telephone
interview; also Golf Digest, and Internet searches.

Photo credit.


  1. I recently came across a couple of websites which described the impact of lawn maintenance on the environment and, quite frankly, was horrified by the magnitude of the resource consumption, wastage, and pollution which result. Perhaps the question should not be whether golf will ever be green, but whether golf courses as we know them today should even be legal.

  2. Great post! Gophers, not golfers! Just kidding. You’ve made some excellent points. Everything about modern greens keeping is appalling. I know Brit golfers make fun of the over-manicured American courses. If Americans would just realize and change their ways, if only to prevent the teasing, it would be an improvement. I don’t have a problem with brown grass, but it pisses me off when I see sprinklers watering the sidewalk and the road!

  3. This is a great and well-researched article. On TV they show golfers jumping gleefully into ponds after a big win – BAD IDEA. Those ponds have concentrations of poison in them that you would not believe. My husband is an avid golfer, and has stories of players being sickened by too much contact with the grass and pond water. Wonder how the geese handle nibbling on that stuff. Thanks for the time put into crafting this good info.

  4. I’m really concerned about all these golf courses going up in arid areas – What business do golf greens with green grass have in NV or AZ with an ever shrinking Colorado River and other water resources. Disturbing

    Sorry Tiger, but maybe miniature golf is the way of the future…

  5. When they moved the U of I “South Farms”, they could have created sustainable agriculture demonstration plots, or a xeriscape landscape area, or a low-impact recreational area with a restored swath of original prairie landscape…

    But…instead… we’re going to get a fancy golf course useful for entertaining visiting big shots…

  6. Hey Bob – how about a xeriscaped golf course set in a restored swath of original prairie landscape – how would that sound?

    It should be possible.

    On a related topic how many of you garden designers out there have ever thought about doing a golf course. I reckon a golf course is the closest most designers might get to capability brown style landscape fun!

  7. We have identified the problems.
    So what are the solutions ?

    Frankly there are many environmentally sound solutions that can be incorporated . With the high cost of membership fees ( some between 30 thousand to 250 thousand ) there is a way to remedy many of these challenges. The biggest hurdle to jump will be the large initial loss of profit margin for the golf course owners, but eventually the design would pay for itself, especially if the EPA started demanding with monetary fines that golf courses behaved themselves environmentally.

    First and foremost is the high nitrogen run-off problem that contaminates the groundwater and surrounding wetlands and other water bodies.
    The solution : catch, filter, process and release systems.
    Golf courses due to their undulating topography are perfect candidates for water collection systems.
    Without going into the complex mechanics of how these systems work , simply think of it as an onsite water treatment plant that partially works in the same way as a sanitary leach field.
    The initial construction costs and the maintenance would be higher than a conventional course but over time it would pay for itself .

    Hopefully more conscience landscape architects and golf course designers will be employed by environmentally conscience golf course developers.
    Unfortunately big business does not usually change their way of doing business unless they are mandated by law and fined substantial amounts of money.

    As with the Martha Vineyard’s case, it will have to take lawful intervention to get the corporations who build and maintain these courses to change.

  8. I saw this golf course when I was in Nebraska City for a workshop:

    Arnold Palmer was part of its creation. It is planted in native prairie grasses and flowers and only the greens are groomed short and kept green. The rest is mowed long or allowed to be quite natural. If you click on the photos, you can see that the roughs are truly rough!

  9. “Hey Bob – how about a xeriscaped golf course set in a restored swath of original prairie landscape – how would that sound?”

    Certainly an improvement, and I know of some.

    But still a useless use of a LARGE chunk of land if one doesn’t golf…it’s not like they’ll let you hike or bike through their golf course and interrupt someone tee shot (ouch).

    It IS better than another swath of “big box” houses…

  10. I might add that one of my main objections to the local project was that it was using public (university) land that was being removed from the “reach” of most of us.

    Private golf course development that endeavours to maintain a native landscape (and conserve resources, etc.) IS a good trend, and I’d like to see more courses adopt the attitudes displayed by the courses mentioned by others above.

    I’m not “against golf” as such… I DO think that there’s a limit to how much of the landscape we want to cover with fairways for this one specific use:)

  11. “But still a useless use of a LARGE chunk of land if one doesn’t golf…it’s not like they’ll let you hike or bike through their golf course and interrupt someone tee shot (ouch).”

    Oh really? I hadn’t appreciated that was an issue (in the UK many courses have public footpaths running through the “not-quite so golfy bits” (ie rough, woods) and out here in the caribbean most courses I’ve seen are linked to hotels and have running tracks etc wound through them (I should stress I’ve only seen 2 though and only play golf once every 2 years or so).

  12. BOOO!!!! Come on! The majority of golf courses are public municipal courses and don’t dump the level of chemicals that you mention- All the Montgomery County courses use integrated pest management and limit the chemicals because checmicals costs big bucks and most of these courses are part of the park system (which provides revenue to maintain the rest of the parks). Believe me, I PLAY these courses regularly and they are not in the same condition as the high-end courses that do, but they don’t need to be to have a great round. Granted, golf courses can do better and the water use is a big deal in Florida and the Southwest. But to drag out the guy who went crazy and killed the goose? Please. Is gardening evil because I’m sure people kill animals all the time gardening.

    You should have provided links to the U.S. Golf Association’s environmental and turf management sites ( and as the U.S. Golf Association SETS the Rules Of Golf they are a pretty big player in this.

    So how many of you actually -play- golf and walk these courses? Would you rather a golf course that provides habitat (, recreation (we are a fatass nation and this is the only exercise some people get), and income vs. another shopping mall or a suburban neighborhood where joe homeowner dumps 10 bags of random chemicals on the lawn per year? Or how about a non-organic cotton farm?

    Golf could use an eco push, but in order for it to work you’ll have to recruit golfers- they are the ones that plunk down the $$ to play and the movement for more eco-friendly courses is already underway.

  13. Golf courses killed more than one goose. They killed so many that Diazinon has been banned because of them. What are they using to kill turf bugs now?

Comments are closed.