Turf Wars – Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greenest of us all?

Mike Wilson

How green is golf?

Here Mike Wilson explores both the contribution made to the greening of golf and the turf wars that have happened – and continue to take place as the game of golf pushes against the open door that is a more sustainable world and – some say – an impending climate emergency. 


It’s a funny old thing; for much of the first 250-years that golf was around in the form we know it today, the received wisdom was, given that the game took place over swathes of verdant land, burbling brooks and perfect ponds, lush tree-lined fairways leading to greens manicured to perfection, the finest flora and fauna calling courses ‘Home,’ that the game was institutionally ‘Green,’ right down to its roots, as environmentally-friendly as can be. 


But then, as the world woke-up to pollution, environmental activism, gaping holes in the ozone layer – whatever that was many golfers might ask – and climate change, the game came to be viewed through a new and critical prism, questions asked, ‘Is golf as green as it claims?’ 

And the answer was clearly, ‘No,’ as evidence of environmental degradation came to light, pesticides, chemical fertilisers, disproportionate land and water use, energy and fuel emissions, and all that before a single shot had been taken on the first tee. 

Cue, a relatively-recent reset by the game of golf, first in the USA by the Audubon Society, established in New York in 1987, which gradually raised the profile of sustainability in golf, mainly in the USA, but the key contribution came 11-years-ago with the formation of the Scotland-based Golf Environment Organisation (GEO) which slowly-but-surely has set about placing sustainability front and centre of most aspects of the royal and ancient game. 

But, such has been the impact and success of GEO, a resurgence of Audubon was triggered, along with many and varied organisations and individuals, from the R&A to industry interests has spawned an industry all on its own, multiple players asking the world, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greenest of us all?’ 


From the time that golf got underway in its most rudimentary form, most informed observers consider that to have been in the 15th century on the unusable and uneconomic ‘Links’ land between the more fertile inland agricultural grounds of the east coast of Scotland and the impenetrable sand dunes and coastal waters of the, ‘Home of Golf,’ there was a received wisdom that golf was ‘Good,’ from a number of standpoints, integrity, health and wellbeing and environmental sustainability. 

That perception was to prevail for several hundred more years, even gathering momentum as the game took-off as a popular pastime, indeed even into the early days of the 21st century, through the high-water-mark of the 1970s,’80s and ‘90s by which time an estimated 75 million regular golfers were playing at least once a week on over 40,000 golf courses in 210 countries around the world. 

But in the late 20th century and gaining momentum after the Millennium, climate change and global warming joined forces to become a fully-fledged, ‘Climate emergency,’ with the notion that because golf was played over vast swathes of green and pleasant lands, encouraging flora and fauna to share the golf courses of the world was being called seriously into question. 

Scrutiny of the most gentle kind had already begun, mainly in the USA through the obscure but well-meaning Audubon Society, a not-for-profit environmental protection organisation set up in the name of widely-respected Franco-American ornithologist, naturalist, and artist John James Audubon (1785-1851). 

The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf was the leader in the field, established in 1991, it, for the first time, began examining and measuring just how ‘Green’ or otherwise golf courses were, firstly in the USA, accrediting over 2,000 golf facilities in a notoriously environmentally ambivalent USA before expanding its reach to 30-plus countries worldwide. 

Amongst those world-renowned courses to submit to Audubon studies and allow themselves to be accredited by the US-based organisation included the number-one course on mainland Europe, Valderrama home of the 1997 Ryder Cup and the Volvo Masters, plus iconic US courses such as Pebble Beach, Bethpage and Cypress Point. 

Environmental Planning, Wildlife and Habitat Management, Chemical Use, Reduction and Safety Water Conservation, Water Quality Management, Outreach and Education; these are the cornerstones of the Audubon agenda for what they view as a long overdue reduction in the size and scale of golf’s environmental footprint. 

And these are broadly similar to the key policy areas driving the next cab off the sustainability rank; the Golf Environment Organisation (GEO) was established just over a decade ago, headquartered in North Berwick on Scotland’s ‘Golf Coast,’ and, starting from scratch, has developed a science-based environmental accreditation programme covering almost 1,200 clubs / courses, the majority, ‘On course,’ namely, in progress, the rest, around a third, ‘GEO Certified.’ 

But, like all self-interest groups, GEO likes to justify itself and its mission, its ‘Vision’ claiming, “In many ways, from ecosystem services and conservation of wildlife, to health and well-being for all ages, to jobs and economic value through local supply chains, golf is good for nature and communities, seemingly offering an ecological panacea for all time. 

But at least – in theory so it appears – GEO does not mark its own homework, rather its sets out a range of criteria to be met, then sends in ‘Independent assessors to validate whether or not clubs have measured-up, only then awarding the GEO Certified Eco-label. 

But, before proceeding to develop my primary point, that since ‘Green golf’ became the flavour of the month, many others organisations have piled into what appears to be the only area of golf showing growth at this time, so are they feeding on an already deceased and decomposing carcass? 

But, stop, check, as the key question, just how truly unfriendly was golf, or simply a readymade chance – a convenient point in time – for academics, green campaigners and commercial opportunists to gain some self-notoriety, feed their egos, develop career paths, travel the world either speaking at conferences or measuring progress (and at what cost to the environment?) and conveniently make some money. 

I do not profess to know the answer, if in fact a clear, demonstrable answer even exists, but lurking around the game in varying guises with my trusted scepticism and cynicism for company for 40-plus years, here’s what I think. 

Firstly, golf has, like almost every industry – and sport – in the world, questions to answer, over rapacious ‘slash-and-burn’ land grabs, more often than not by omnivorous and unscrupulous developers – often with a big name golfer hitched to their wagon for authenticity – and frequently, in the developing world at least, with corrupt officials and / or politicians on hand to smooth the way, the victims often small-time subsistence farmers eking-out an existence for themselves and their extended families. 

Does the ‘Green golf’ lobby conduct an ethicality test alongside the other advice they offer on developments? Of course not, no green light, no consultancy income. 

Secondly, do golf sustainability groups consider one of the most pernicious and environmentally-unfriendly aspects of the royal and ancient game, global golf tourism which, before COVID-19 raised its ugly head was growing at between 10% – 15% per annum (according to IAGTO) and was worth over a billion dollars a year in the USA alone? 

Emissions from hundreds of thousands of short, medium and long haul flights to and from golf holiday destinations such as Florida, Thailand, Dubai and even Scotland, always applied to the environmental charge sheet of the airlines and never to the location; nothing to see here, move along now, and, by the way, golf tourism helps put food on the table for indigenous caddies, green-keepers, hotel bell-hops and labourers. 

But, no, golf tourism appears to be routinely and conveniently excluded from the calculations of those custodians of golf’s green conscience. 

Same too for another of golf’s environmental Achilles Heels, equipment and apparel manufacturing and supply, every bit as much part of golf’s economic mosaic as pesticides and excessive water use, just a bit better hidden. 

Worth an estimated (pre-COVID-19) US$13.5bn in 2018 according to the 2019 World Golf Report, from raw materials to manufacture and distribution through global supply chains, golf retail is another major polluter conveniently avoided by those policing the game’s sustainability record, yet many of the same arguments (manufacturing and distribution emissions) and counter-arguments (putting food on the tables of low-pay – often female – factory workers in third-world, minimal-regulation countries) apply to cheap golf goods as they do to golf tourism. 

But, of course, golf course operations have been – and many continue to be – serial violators – to a greater or lesser extent – of their immediate, local environments, chemical pesticides leeching into water courses – killing off indigenous wildlife – massive over-use of often scare water supplies alternatively required to sustain human and animal life  aggressive land and energy use, and, don’t forget, between Audubon and GEO, a tiny fraction of clubs and courses worldwide are currently engaged in rehab programmes. 

Meanwhile, egged on by a sanctimonious and hypocritical International Olympic Committee (IOC) which has as its commercial partners a number of the world’s worst direct and indirect environmental offenders, golf in general, and the European Tour (through GEO) has tried its best to make major events – traditionally highly unsustainable – greener than ever, witness recent Ryder Cups on home soil, if not exactly object lessons, then at least pointers to a future already approaching at break-neck speed with a consignment of maximum risk. 

So, in environmental terms, golf’s report card would certainly – at the very least – read, ‘Could do better,’ but, with so many organisations piling into the sector, why are they doing little more than scratching the surface of an industry that is hardly in the same league as arch-polluters like transportation, energy – and especially fossil fuels – automotive, construction, agriculture / forestry and fashion. 

Sustainability ticks all the public image boxes, which is why, rather than take a back seat and enable the likes of Audubon and GEO to undertake vital work, and at scale, the R&A, the USGA, the USPGA, the PGAs of Europe, national governing bodies, the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the European Golf Association (EGA) and the International Golf Federation (IGF) to name but a few, all demand a piece of the action, to strut their sustainability stuff on the great green golf stage. 

But, as the saying goes, ‘Never confuse activity with achievement,’ and, when they ask, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greenest of us all?’ the answer is, ‘None of you,’ and until those well-meaning and altruistic organisations start to look at the entire golf environment issue, rather that the convenient part of it, golf will continue to play its well meaning if small-scale part in achieving greens in regulation. 



Ireland Starts Buying into Golf’s Green Revolution 

Between them, the Republic of Ireland and – to a lesser extent – Northern Ireland have demonstrated more and more golf clubs and courses joining in the GEO Certification Programme, the majority of the Republic’s 26 clubs and courses involved, including Portmarnock GC, which became, ‘GEO Certificated in July last year. 

Meanwhile, by adding in the six Northern Ireland courses on the GEO Programme – only one, Royal Portrush Is ’CEO Certified,’ the rest, ‘On Course,’ the total number of courses on the Emerald Isle either ‘GEO Certified’ or, ‘On Course,’ to 36, and counting. 

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One response to “Turf Wars – Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greenest of us all?”

  1. Christy mcguirk avatar
    Christy mcguirk

    OMG what a long winded article that takes a very long way around to telling us how many Irish courses get the certificate,,please if you want to right a book just do it but try not to be as boring as this exercise in banality,

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