Can a golf course be good for the environment? It depends.

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Golf courses aren’t great for the environment, but they might be the best we can do

For those who don’t play, golf courses can feel like a symbol of everything wrong with society — the necessity of watering all those acres of green grass even in drought-stricken climates; the expense of a round of golf; the expanses of beautifully manicured land set aside in crowded cities, available for only a select group to access. It can cost anywhere from $10 to a few hundred dollars to play 18 holes, and that’s before cart fees or the price of equipment. And that’s not to mention the sport’s long history of exclusion — for decades, private clubs had policies to keep out women, as well as Black and Jewish people; the PGA tour struck down a “Caucasians only” clause only in 1961. Even today, golf is played primarily by white men; Malcolm Gladwell once called it “crack for rich white guys.”

During the early days of pandemic shutdowns, golf courses were in high demand. The vast outdoor courses made golf perfect for social distancing, and states like Arizona, Florida and South Carolina exempted it from their covid-related closures. In states where golfing wasn’t permitted, people looking for safe outdoor places that weren’t overcrowded flocked to closed courses, repurposing them as parks. It was enough to make people wonder what it would be like if golf courses were open to the public all the time; what if they stopped being golf courses altogether?

Many believe there are better and more equitable uses of land. Even with declining participation in the sport, there are still more golf courses than McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. Why have one golf course when you could have 2,000 tennis courts, a park or badly needed housing?

If golf courses are just water-hungry grass farms doused in chemicals and mowed tighter than a buzz-cut, maybe they should be replaced by something better. But while golf is an easy and obvious target, it’s also not the worst use of land, environmentally speaking. Courses used to be manicured to death — at least where pests, fungus and native animals were concerned — but that’s not the case for the majority of them today. Environmental and economic concerns have moved courses away from “Augusta National Syndrome,” named for the famed course where the Masters Tournament is played every year.

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Golf courses aren’t beneficial for the environment, but they can save something that looks a bit like nature in a valuable urban area while bringing in cash rather than costing it.

Golf’s changing relationship to the environment

It’s hard to measure the exact impact of a golf course on the land. Some were built by filling in valuable wetlands, cutting down established forests or clearing meadows. Taking an intact ecosystem and turning it into irrigated turf grass is a disruptive process. It can destroy habitat and release sequestered carbon into the environment if wetlands are covered or forests cut down in the process. Constructing and running a golf course is often detrimental to nearby waterways; courses built near coral reefs can cause harmful algae blooms. In the last few decades, there’s been a push for golf courses to be built on former landfills. This requires moving huge amounts of dirt to cover debris and installing vents to deal with methane gas from material that continues decomposing underground. The result, while artificial, feels a lot more natural than a potentially toxic dump.

More recently, however, the cost of pesticides and fertilizers, as well as environmental concerns, have forced many golf courses to become more sparing in the application of these chemicals. (A few golf courses have even gone pesticide-free, but it’s rare.)

“When I grew up as a little kid and watched golf on TV in the ’60s and early ’70s, [golf courses] did look like these pristine, almost artificial places where not a single blade of grass was out of shape,” said Frank LaVardera, director of environmental programs for golf for Audubon International, a third-party environmental certification for golf courses. When golf was televised for the first time in the U.S. in the 1950s, people saw the perfectly manicured jewel-green grass at courses like Augusta and assumed that’s what all golf courses should look like. But making that happen is wildly expensive and impractical for most courses: Augusta closes from May to October to preserve the turf and has pipes and blowers installed under the grass so the moisture levels can be adjusted perfectly for play.

And while the golf industry used to see environmentalists as enemies, it now commonly touts its sustainable practices. “The industry is way more environmentally responsible now than it’s ever been,” said Frank Rossi, an associate professor at Cornell University who specializes in turf grass science. But he added that it took the financial crash in 2009 for golf courses to come around.

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“All the sudden the word ‘sustainability’ got bantered around in our industry, but it was because nobody had money,” he said.

Cutting back on inputs like fertilizer, pesticides and water cost less money. Letting the roughs get a little wilder or reducing mowed areas did too. Rossi doesn’t think it’s something the average golfer cares about. “Golfers are out there recreating. Golfers don’t pressure superintendents; the public does,” Rossi said.

Some changes are easy to see: grass left longer around the edges of water features to provide habitat for amphibians, native trees or nest boxes to attract birds that otherwise nest in tree cavities, and unmown areas filled with wildflowers to attract pollinators. There are no numbers on how many golf courses are taking these steps, though Audubon International (which has no association with the Audubon Society) champions many similar ideas in its certification programs. Out of the 15,500 golf courses in the United States, Audubon International has 1,900 golf courses in its program — half of which have signed up but not earned a certification from the organization yet. Then there are behind-the-scenes changes like switching from gas-powered mowers and carts to electric. Partially due to the expense of installation, only 13 percent of golf courses use reclaimed water systems for irrigation.

In fairness, golf courses only represent 2 million of the roughly 40 million square acres of turf grass that cover the United States. “Golf courses are managed by people with professional education and certification as land managers,” said Rossi. “Lawns are managed by homeowners who are generally scientifically illiterate.” That means potential overwatering, overfertilizing and the liberal use of pesticides, fungicides, weed control and other chemicals to keep lawns green — all sold with little oversight at local garden or hardware stores. While homeowners might heavily dose their lawns a few times a year, Rossi said, superintendents — essentially a golf course land manager — apply fertilizers and pesticides more frequently in smaller quantities. This helps reduce harmful runoff.

Yet golf courses have a large and noticeable footprint relative to how many people actually use them. 2020 had the first increase in golf participation in 17 years, bringing the number of golfers to 24.8 million — still only 12.4 people per acre of land. The suburban lawn might cumulatively take up a lot of space, but 81 percent of Americans have a lawn. The resource-to-people ratio is also staggering. In Utah, for example, golf courses are used by only 8 percent of the population but use 38 million gallons of water every day in a state experiencing a megadrought.

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Can natural life thrive on a golf course?

A little over a decade ago, urban ecologist Amy Hahs joined a group of scientists in Melbourne, Australia, to look at what role, if any, golf courses played in the urban environment. Courses in the city were closing, often to be replaced by housing developments or parks. The researchers wanted to know whether these alternate land uses were better — at least from a biodiversity standpoint.

They started studying plants, bugs, bats, beetles, birds and bees on golf courses, parks and housing developments in southeast Melbourne. Of these three urban habitats, golf courses had the highest diversity, Hahs said. Residential areas had a greater number of plants, but golf courses weren’t as homogeneous as the researchers might have guessed. “There’s an impression that they’re really highly managed,” Hahs said, and they are, but so is everything in an urban environment. Golf courses use resources and put chemicals into the environment, but they also provide rare wildlife habitat in cities and suburbs. In other words, at least they’re not impermeable like roads, parking lots or rooftops.

The Melbourne researchers found more bats and breeding birds on golf courses than in residential areas or parks. “It’s not so much that it’s important to have a golf course,” Hahs laughed. “It’s about having that large consolidated green space that has a lot of structural complexity because it’s got the trees and taller grass and water bodies.” The average 18-hole golf course is 150 acres, with only 30 acres of fairways (the shortest and most manicured grass) and 50 acres of land that can provide habitat and is semi-wild, often made up of forests, ponds or grasslands.

In the United States, some municipalities and even the federal government have been giving golf courses tax breaks under programs meant to promote conservation or preserve green spaces. Dan Cristol, a biology professor at the College of William and Mary, is skeptical. “If you just count any wildlife, well, there’s lots of Canada geese on a golf course, but is that the wildlife value you’re looking for? Do you want to credit them for this, and does it make up for the tremendous amount of pollution that they add to the aquatic system?” Cristol co-authored a 2010 study looking at golf courses in Virginia that found that while golf courses did have birds on them, they do not generally provide habitat for birds of conservation concern.

Aerial photos of golf courses show mostly grass with thin strips of trees throughout. They’re designed, Cristol said, to make it look like golfers are constantly surrounded by forest. But there are just enough trees and water features to create the illusion of nature.


Golf courses could provide better habitat for animals like birds, amphibians and insects if they added forest or wetlands and let short, shrubby plants grow at the edges. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when golf was still at its peak in popularity, there were a number of scientific studies — often with funding from the United States Golf Association — on whether golf courses could support wildlife and habitat conservation. It’s a rare ecological benefit for a sport with a high environmental footprint, but it’s not the fairways and tees that are helping animals. What makes golf courses valuable habitat are the trees, rough filled with flowers and tall grasses, and ponds in out-of-bounds areas. It’s everything but the golf.

Golf courses began proliferating in the 1950s when real estate developers realized they could build and sell more expensive houses if they threw in a course. A home on the golf course was the peak of suburban living. By the early 2000s, they’d reached a saturation point. There were too many courses and not enough golfers. For nearly two decades, 100 courses a year in the United States have been shutting down — though a small number of new ones are still being built.

What else can a golf course be?

When a golf course closes, development is often the first thing on people’s minds. In April, one of Florida’s oldest golf courses was sold with plans for it to be turned into a 1,400-home development. But many communities — some which were built with expensive golf-course views — don’t want their views ruined or green space taken away. People in many neighborhoods have lobbied against former golf courses being developed into housing, hoping to turn them into something more like parks instead. (When developers compromise by building on a portion of the golf course and allowing some acreage to remain green space, it leaves less privacy and habitat for animals who might have been able to survive in the out-of-bounds areas on a golf course.)

It can be difficult, at times, to separate the desire to protect valuable green space and habitat from NIMBYism and homeowners who are afraid of increasing housing density or lowered property values.

There had been unsuccessful attempts to develop the 166-acre Mitchell Creek Golf Course in northern Michigan multiple times before the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, a local organization devoted to preserving and restoring natural habitat, stepped in. The property had been on the group’s wishlist for a while, said Chris Garrock, director of stewardship for the organization. It contains over 6,000 feet of tributary streams that feed into a major source of drinking water for the area. Especially near an urban area, it’s unusual to have the chance to restore such a large piece of wetland.

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In 2019, the conservancy purchased the property and began to turn it back into the wetlands, forest and shrub land it had been before. The course closed in the mid-2000s and had become overgrown in the years it took for people to decide what to do with it. Turf grass grew wild, and invasive species like autumn olive spread throughout the property.

“Because we are dealing with such a disturbed site where we have to do a considerable amount of work, it’s almost like a blank canvas,” Garrock said. “We’re looking to the surrounding vegetation and the landscape to tell us what was there and what it wants to be.” There are already nesting bald eagles on the property, and there have been sightings of larger animals like black bears and bobcats. Restoring the wetland means an opportunity for brook trout and other native aquatic species to come back, too.

There are at least two other land conservancies in Michigan alone finding ways to turn former golf courses into native habitat, a move that’s become a trend in the United States and abroad. Just outside of Tucson, Arizona, Vistoso was a former residential golf course that had been designed as a desert course with about 70 percent of the 208 acres left as intact ecosystem, explained Gayle Mateer, president of Preserve Vistoso, the group that championed the change. The golf course closed, and the 17 neighborhoods located on the course banded together to save it from development. “It wasn’t just a NIMBY thing,” Mateer said. “People here really have a passion for the desert.”

Regardless of community members’ intentions, the intact desert was deemed worth saving. The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit that purchases and protects land, stepped in to help buy the land. The preserve will eventually be turned over to the city under a conservation easement that will leave it as a desert park, accessible to people and wildlife alike, in perpetuity.

At Vistoso, a golf cart path will be repurposed as a walking path, making it accessible to people in wheelchairs or strollers. Preserve Vistoso will help with park maintenance and work on introducing more plants like creosote bush, brittle brush and of course a local ecosystem indicator, the famous Saguaro cactus. Tucson isn’t an asphalt jungle like Phoenix, Mateer said, but by preserving this land, they’re saving and adding to a swath of desert habitat that would have been obliterated by a housing development.

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Rewilding land, even from a green space like a golf course, is a lot of work. In Santa Barbara, California, a project to restore the Ocean Meadows Golf Course, which was only nine holes and 64 acres, is finally complete nearly a decade after talks to buy the property first began. Before 1965, the space had been a natural wetland; developers filled it in with 1 million cubic yards of soil to create a golf course. The University of California, Santa Barbara, along with other conservation groups and government agencies banded together to rewind what had been done to the land — a rare piece of wetland in Southern California — as well as neighboring acres of nature. “A lot of golf course projects, they stop golfing and open trails to people, and that was not our vision at all,” said Lisa Stratton, director of ecosystem management at the university.

To make the golf course operate as a healthy wetland again, workers moved 350,000 cubic yards of dirt, hand-planted 400,000 plants and drill seeded perennial bunchgrass and other natives. “Altogether it was the equivalent of about a million plants going over the 100 acres,” Stratton said of the area, which is now known as the North Campus Open Space. “We focused on salvaging species from the region that are threatened and endangered and finding a home for them.” Most important, while there are trails through the renewed wetland, they were placed with animal habitat in mind.

In the scheme of things, Stratton said, it’s just 100 acres of wetland, not a 10,000-acre refuge, but it’s still been a meaningful change for the community. “A bunch of students have said how much the project gave them hope. They’re environmental studies students surrounded by climate disaster news every day,” Stratton said. There isn’t anything individuals can do to immediately save the planet, but a group of people can transform a single plot of land.

“I don’t think all golf courses are evil,” Stratton said. “There’s a place for people to get out in nature in a slightly more manicured way.” What’s important is people having ways to connect with nature — and nature having someplace left to go, too.

In 2018, the U.N. reported that 55 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. For North America, that figure was 82 percent — and both are increasing. This doesn’t just mean that cities are becoming home to more people; we’re also converting more formerly wild land for human use.

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“When we plan and build cities, we do that with humans first and foremost in mind,” said David Drake, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who studies urban canids, like foxes and coyotes, in the Midwest. “The city would look much different than our cities do now if we planned with biodiversity and humans in mind. What tends to happen is we retroactively fit green space where land is available and affordable.” This is how we get projects like wildlife crossings built over or under busy freeways, fish ladders and cannons, or even bee hotels to give pollinators somewhere to nest.

Habitats are (also) for humanity

If golf courses disappeared from the world tomorrow, I wouldn’t be bothered by it. The closest I’ve ever come to the sport was collecting stray golf balls with a friend who lived alongside a course. I’d hoped, in writing this article, to come away with an idea of whether golf courses were — at least generally speaking — good or bad, but the reality turned out more like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The problem, of course, is that when it comes to anything humans do to the environment, we have to ask good or bad for whom. Redheaded woodpeckers and sandhill cranes have successfully nested on golf courses, which can mimic their natural habitat. Bluebirds and Canada geese do well, too.

That the human-built environment can provide benefits to some species is, for the most part, accidental and a testament to animals’ ability to adapt. Plenty of species throughout the animal kingdom — including non-golfing humans — don’t get any direct benefits from a golf course over other kinds of green space. Spotted owls who need old growth forest can’t live there. Nor can Florida panthers who are threatened primarily by habitat loss in a state with more golf courses than any other.

Replacing a course with 150 acres of single-family homes or apartment buildings makes sense in the context of housing shortages. It also represents even more resources used up, even less room for animals to safely roam and breed and nest, and more impermeable surfaces that can’t ease the tide of storm water or provide a cooling breeze on a hot day. Golf courses aren’t an objectively good way to save a little bit of habitat, just a way that is feasible within the constraints of capitalism.

Wildlife certainly needs green space, but humans do too. We need options for urban green space besides manicured parcels of land filled with mowed grass. (Especially when people have to pay for the pleasure of enjoying them.) Different wildlife species require different types of habitats. The same might be said of humans. When we leave nature as an afterthought in designing our cities, we’re forgetting that it’s habitat for all of us.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Tove Danovich
    Tove Danovich

    Freelance Reporter

    Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon.