The Grass Isn’t Always Greener: Golf Courses and Biodiversity

Joe Holmes-Milner

The 2021 Masters was capped off in fine style, as Hideki Matsuyama won a deserved Green Jacket at Augusta National. The only Major to be played at the same venue each year, Augusta is a golfing Mecca, and is revered for its difficulty and beauty in equal measure. The verdant greens are lightning-quick; dense second-cuts of rough are shrouded by pine tree canopies; blooms of pink dogwood, azalea and yellow jasmine frame the course’s steep slopes. But has this idealised vision of what a golf course should look like negatively affected the environment?

At the start of the 20th century, golf shifted from a pre-modern folk game played in parkland ‘links’, to a modern sport with formal, managed terrain (Augusta National was built in 1932). These new golf courses were hewn from vast swathes of natural landscape and embodied the Enlightenment era’s view of Man dominating Nature. The construction of golf courses is inherently damaging to biodiversity, as vegetation is cleared, trees are deforested, local topographies and hydrologies are irreversibly altered, and irrigation is installed.

Construction can cause severe soil erosion, too. As soil, rock and dissolved minerals are transported, sediment loads can run off and pollute surrounding bodies of water. Construction of the paradisiacal Baker’s Bay golf course in the Bahamas led to sediment being deposited on a nearby coral reef. This damaged vital fish nurseries, native mangrove forests and the island’s fishing trade.

A cocktail of fungicides, herbicides and insecticides presents a worst case scenario for biodiversity

The maintenance of golf courses can also adversely affect the environment. To emulate Augusta’s vibrantly emerald lawns, greenkeepers often manicure their grass with a thick cloud of agrochemicals. Such a cocktail of fungicides, herbicides and insecticides presents a worst case scenario for biodiversity. Pesticides can seep into soil, where they damage microorganisms and degrade soil quality. Carried by the wind, excess pesticides may hurt more than just their intended targets – 700 Atlantic brant geese, a quarter of the New York State population, were killed in 1984 after exposure to fertilisers from a golf course.

These fertilisers sometimes bleed into water sources, consequently triggering algal bloom, eutrophication and the creation of underwater ‘dead-zones’. Leakage from golf courses wreaked havoc on South Carolina’s ponds, streams and lakes in 2003. Agrochemicals are not the only problem posed by golf to aquatic biospheres. At California’s famous Pebble Beach course, errant shots have dumped between one and five million golf balls into the surrounding Pacific Ocean. Over time, these balls are degrading and releasing microplastics into the local environment, which is a haven for seals and otters.

Overapplied pesticides were an even more pressing concern before the turn of the millennium. A 1993 article in Golfing Magazine warned players not to put tees in their mouths, and advised them to clean their shoes and shower immediately after playing a round, owing to fertilisers’ carcinogenic properties.

However, a new generation of greenkeepers are recognising golf’s responsibility to the environment. Following Dr. Mark Stanback’s report, 10,000 bird boxes were built on five courses in North Carolina to accommodate brown-headed nuthatches and Carolina chickadees. There are plans to extend this initiative to Georgia, where Augusta is situated. The planting of milkweed on golf courses has also helped to revive the waning populations of butterflies in the American Midwest.

In urban environments, golf’s scope for promoting biodiversity is even greater. A study of twelve courses in Japanese cities found that endangered native flora flourished in out-of-bounds zones. Another suggested that golf course wetlands in New York were hospitable to rare snapping and painted turtles, providing one of their only ‘natural’ habitats in urban areas.

Hilversumsche, the host of the KLM Open in the Netherlands,…nurtures over eighty bird species and several mammals

Some European links are leading from the front in the climate crisis. Sweden’s Kristianstads Golf Club was designated by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve in 2004 thanks to revolutionary sandy soils and rotational fallow. Hilversumsche, the host of the KLM Open in the Netherlands, is situated on heathland and nurtures over eighty bird species and several mammals, including martens and polecats.

Ecological values have to take precedence over ‘Augusta National’ aesthetics. Building golf courses precipitates large scale disruption to the natural environment. Although courses will never help biodiversity as much as leaving the habitat alone would, today’s greenkeepers are doing more than ever by reducing managed turf, increasing buffers around bodies of water, and carefully managing and recording pesticide usage. In golf, greener grass does not always mean that the grass is always greener on the other side.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Joe Holmes-Milner

Featured image used courtesy of Dan Perry via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image use license here.

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