Eco-friendly golf means not worrying if the grass is greener on the other course

St Andrews is green – but is it environmentally friendly? David Davies/PA

The Open Championship has returned to St Andrews, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious golf courses and one that has been recognised for its commitment to sustainability. Last month’s men’s US Open was held at Chambers Bay in Washington state, a course built on reclaimed land in what was once a sand and gravel pit. This transition from “pit to prince” has also earned Chambers Bay recognition from the environmental organisation Audubon International.

McIlroy putting on broccoli, or was it cauliflower? Stephen Brashear / EPA

You might think this all reflects a shift in the golf industry and a growing ease among fans and players towards more “natural” – and environmentally-friendly – courses. From the US Open’s first day onwards, however, the playing conditions at Chambers Bay elicited harsh reviews from players and commentators alike. Top pro Henrik Stenson said the greens were “borderline laughable”, tantamount to broccoli and the surface of the moon. Rory McIlroy injected some humour into the conversation: “I don’t think [the greens are] as green as broccoli … I think they’re more like cauliflower.”

Having studied the relationship between golf and the environment, we find these two sides to golf’s environmental “story” to be telling. They reflect, respectively, the reasons why some are optimistic about the golf industry’s professed environmental stewardship and why others continue to express concern.

The greening of golf

Our research on golf and the environment has focused largely on the Canadian and American contexts. To borrow a phrase from University of Michigan professor Andrew Hoffman, what we have found is that, in the postwar years, environmentalism in the golf industry has effectively gone from heresy to dogma.

For much of its history, golf was played on quite rugged terrain. The original coastal links-style courses were subject to the natural shape of the land and, as late as the last decades of the 1800s, inland Scottish courses were characterised by their extreme muddiness.

‘Natural’ golf in the 18th century. Jeremiah Davison (1741)

With golf’s “migration” across the Atlantic, however, key figures in the industry aimed to professionalise course design and maintenance by making these tasks into matters of science and precision. For example, in the eyes of Alister MacKenzie – the British-born designer of the Augusta National golf course, where the annual Masters tournament is played – the “modern” golf architect was one versed in disciplines such as chemistry, botany and geology, and one capable of carefully sculpting the land.

Judging from industry trade publications, this “modern” inclination lived on into the postwar years. By this point, however, golf architects had the capacity to radically manipulate development sites. At the same time, those responsible for golf course maintenance had potent synthetic chemicals, most famously the pesticide DDT, at their disposal in the task of keeping the golf course (literally) green.

The postwar years, and especially the 1960s, were also a time when the environmental movement was afoot. Thus, what we find in these same publications from this time is both passionate advocacy for chemicals such as DDT and rather stern condemnations of environmentalists like Rachel Carson, famed author of the 1962 treatise Silent Spring. In this context, environmentalism was effectively heretical.

Fast-forward 20 years though, and things were far less antagonistic. Through investment in research and the implementation of new “best practices” – for example, Integrated Pest Management, which in theory lessens pesticide usage through the adoption of non-chemical means – golf industry representatives could credibly make the claim that they themselves had become true stewards of the Earth.

At present, then, pro-environment rhetoric has seemingly become a matter of dogma for key golf industry representatives.

Perfection comes at a price

Can golf really claim to be environmentally-friendly? Certainly those protesting against the new Olympic golf course in Rio de Janeiro and Donald Trump’s development in Scotland have expressed strong and negative opinions about golf’s “friendliness” in those contexts. Indeed, golf still has environmental costs. In California, golf courses have earned criticism – even “drought-shaming” – for their water consumption in the midst of a severe drought.

Golf’s version of environmentalism is one underpinned by the idea of “sustainability”, which itself puts social, environmental, and economic development alongside one another. Yet it is not evident that the first two “lines” of this triple bottom line can always stand up to the third. Donald Trump’s group wanted a new course on the Scottish coast. Local residents and environmental experts worried that this would “freeze” the dynamic coastal sand dune ecosystem, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. With government support, Trump won out in the end.

At the same time, the highly manicured course evidently still holds a place of high prominence. We can infer from complaints about Chambers Bay that a worthy golf course is one that is predictable, consistent, and literally green.

One might well say in response that the best players deserve the best conditions. Yet it has long been a concern – even within the golf industry – that the game’s most famous courses can set an unrealistic standard for the industry as a whole. Indeed, this phenomenon has even been given a name: Augusta National Syndrome, a condition whereby golfers come to expect the “perfect” conditions they see each year during broadcasts of the Masters.

Augusta is perfect… too perfect? Tannen Maury / EPA

Thus, at the same time researchers and environmental groups have expressed concerns over the chemicals that have come to replace the likes of DDT, Augusta National Syndrome is an issue to the extent that it rationalises the heavy use of water and pesticides in golf course maintenance.

Golf goes organic?

As golf returns “home” to St Andrews, we would do well to remember that broccoli – even cauliflower – is a long way from extreme muddiness. The standards we have made for golf are relatively new.

However there are alternative visions of environmentalism in the industry that go even further beyond the Audubon-certified way of being “green”. In our work on the greening of golf, we looked at the (admittedly sluggish) emergence of “organic golf”, a style of course management that often involves eschewing synthetic chemicals completely.

Martha’s Vineyard has one of the US’s only organic courses – which attracts some famous players. Matthew Healey / EPA

We do not romanticise organic golf. It has many struggles and problems of its own, not least its occupation of land for a leisure activity not accessible to everyone. But the organic golf practitioners we have spoken with have been open to blemishes here and there, even if they still hoped to provide a challenging and rewarding experience for golfers in the end.

Thus, organic golf holds the potential to subtly change the perception of how a “proper” golf course should appear. It is one thing to go from “pit to prince”. It would be another thing entirely to presume the prince’s appearance need not be perfect.