Golf green or water hazard?

I like golf. I enjoy an occasional round and follow the Majors with interest. However until recently I had no idea of the volume of water used to keep the world’s golf courses green… it’s significant. Consider these facts:

  • The amount of water it takes per day to support 4.7 billion people (using the minimum daily amount recommended by the United Nations) is 9.5 billion litres.
  • The amount of water used, per day, to irrigate the world’s golf courses? 9.5 billion litres!
  • The average amount of pesticide used globally in agriculture per acre, per year is 1.2 kilograms.
  • The average amount of pesticide used per acre, per year on golf courses around the world? 8.2 kilograms!
  • The amount of water used by 60,000 villagers in Thailand on average, per day is 6.5 Megalitres.
  • The amount of water used by one golf course in Thailand on average, per day? 6.5 Megalitres!

The number of golf courses throughout the world continues to grow rapidly. There are now an estimated 31,000 courses worldwide. The Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR) imposed a ban on golf course construction in 2004 in order to protect China’s dwindling farmlands and to conserve water. Despite this ban the number of golf courses in China has tripled from 170 in 2004 to more than 500 at this time.

When Jim Hyler was inaugurated as President of the U.S. Golf Association in February last year, he surprised many by speaking out more forcibly than USGA presidents are wont to do on the controversial subject of water usage and the misguided perception that golf courses need to be lush, green and perfect to be good. It is the issue, he said, “… that is perhaps of greatest concern to golf’s future.”

Chambers Bay Golf Course brown and proud

“In my opinion, many of the standards by which we construct and maintain our courses have become, quite simply, unsustainable,” Mr. Hyler said. He called for a ‘reset’ in the way golfers look at and think about courses, with ‘playability’ replacing aesthetics as the primary consideration. “We need to understand how brown can become the new green,” he said.

Accordingly, a new, links-style course in Washington called Chambers Bay has been selected by the USGA to host the 2015 U.S. Open. Chambers Bay, a county-owned course on the shore of Puget Sound near Tacoma, is in many ways a poster child for sustainable golf. Routed through dunes on the site of a former sand and gravel mine, it encompasses 250 acres… but thanks to large buffer areas and forced carries, only 85 of those acres are maintained as turfgrass, compared to 110 acres to 150 acres at typical courses.

Moreover, all the grass on both greens and fairways is fine Fescue – a tough, drought-tolerant strain widely found on links courses in the British Isles. Its roots reach and sip water from 20 cm to 30.5 cm below ground. Traditional cool-weather golf course grasses dip between only 5 to 12.5 cm deep and thus have to receive water almost daily.

“We’ve gone as long as 15 days without watering the fairways,” said David Wienecke, the course superintendent. He estimates that the water bill at Chambers Bay is one-third to one-half what the bill at a nearby course planted in traditional grasses would be. “Absolutely we chose Chambers Bay in part to set an example,” Mr. Hyler said.

Heavy water usage in the desert - a golf course in Las Vegas Valley, Nevada.

Without attacking this great sport or advocating the closure of courses or a ban on development, surely we should look at making our golf courses really ‘green’. For starters all courses, especially those in urban areas, should use treated water for irrigation, straight from the local sewage treatment plant. This would not only lessen the drain on fresh water supplies but also decrease the need for extra fertiliser. Most secondary water from an average STP will contain lots of nutrients.

Wetlands and reed beds could be used as hazards instead of lakes. These features could then actually clean the run-off water before it entered the local environment.

Perhaps Golf Associations and Tournaments could make meaningful contributions to water projects where severe shortages exist. There’s no doubt that all those Charity Golf Days do a lot of great work… but perhaps Golf Clubs around the world should contribute even a small percentage of their total annual green fees to a Global Water Fund.

If you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them… and I’d be happy to pass them on to the PGA.

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