Why you should care
Because a good walk spoiled may also be spoiling a good planet.
With its immaculate fairways and majestic views of the ocean and outlying islands, the Reef Palms Resort’s 18-hole golf course along the coastline of Queensland, Australia, is tough to beat. The 100 sprawling acres of lush greenery amid towering palm trees contain another rare feature: They are 100 percent synthetic — or artificial — turf.
In a region with frequent droughts and salty soil, it seems like a no-brainer to think outside the bunker and try something new. But it’s not just in places like Queensland that golf course owners and developers are facing pressure to reduce their environmental impact and rein in the increasingly onerous costs of maintaining 100-plus acres of natural lawn. Why don’t they do themselves, and the planet, a favor and move toward a more sustainable solution? Why shouldn’t golf go faux?
Today’s synthetic turf … is not your grandfather’s rock-hard AstroTurf.
Consider this: According to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, there are over 2.2 million acres of golf courses in the United States alone — roughly the size of the state of Delaware — of which about 1.5 million acres are natural, high-maintenance turf. Audubon International estimates the average U.S. course uses more than 300,000 gallons of water per day, and closer to 1 million per day for desert courses — about the same volume of water the average U.S. family uses over a decade. “Golf courses are intensively managed landscapes, which, in addition to the large amount of water,” says Cristina Milesi, a former environmental scientist at NASA and director of the Evalstat Research Institute, “use a lot of pesticides and fertilizer, which are often washed out in the streams, threatening to adversely impact the local ecosystem.”
Add to this environmental impact the fact that the areas where golf is expanding most rapidly are generally hot and dry, like the American Southwest, making it expensive and energy intensive to grow fine turf grasses — and the incentives to move beyond natural turf accumulate further. And today’s synthetic turf (usually made of some combination of polypropylene, polyethylene and nylon) is not your grandfather’s rock-hard AstroTurf. Many practice facilities already use synthetic surfaces, and some professional golfers use synthetic greens to practice at home. Synthetic turf also allows for more consistent performance in locales with less friendly year-round climates — courses in places like Luxembourg and Alaska have already used synthetic surfaces for tee boxes and greens.
To be sure, synthetic golf courses are not without their own problems. Although maintenance costs can be a fraction of natural turf courses, building a new course, or converting an existing one, ain’t cheap. Nor are temperatures on the turf particularly cool on a midsummer afternoon. Synthetic turf does not hold rain or surface water like natural grass, or help prevent soil erosion. In recent years, as Milesi points out, many golf courses have also taken steps to become more sustainable, from using recycled water to drought-resistant turf to improved fertilizers.
The biggest obstacle to a turf takeover may well be convincing golfers that synthetic surfaces can provide a playing (and aesthetic) experience akin to what they’re accustomed to. But the advent of turf in other sports, like football, baseball and soccer, was greeted with a similar reluctance, and was eventually overcome. And, let’s face it, it’s not like the well-manicured, heavily engineered lawns on a golf course are all that “natural” anyway.
Synthetic golf courses like Reef Palms may never fully replace grass ones, but as costs and environmental concerns with existing courses mount, and the industry looks to expand into new locations and climates, more courses should consider the real benefits of going fake.