Why you should care
Because golf needs a healthy planet to be played on as well.
Mark Twain famously said that “golf is a good walk spoiled,” and, given the impact that the sport can have on the natural world, millions of environmentalists would tend to agree. Which is why, for some, public enemy No. 1 for the past 18 years or so has been a man by the rather apt name of Tiger Woods.
Woods’ absence from this year’s U.S. Open, starting in Pinehurst today, after back surgery has set off another chorus of lamentations about the “No-Tiger Effect” and the future of the sport without its biggest draw. But should those of us who are concerned about golf’s effects on the environment be privately rejoicing at Tiger’s fading star?
Could the famous golfer’s popularization of the sport rank as a type of natural calamity?
Perhaps no sport embodies the noble symbiosis of sportsman/sportswoman and nature better than golf. At least in theory — because the realities of the development and management of the lush green golf courses that cover over 2.7 million acres of U.S. soil alone are not quite so pristine.
First: Golf course construction, along with the associated deforestation and clearing of natural vegetation, not only has devastating consequences for local habitats and wildlife, but changes in the local topography can also lead to issues with erosion and water runoff.
Then there is the maintenance: The amount of water deployed in an effort to keep golf courses green is close to astronomical. According to one estimate, the average U.S. course swallows 312,000 gallons of water per day, and nearly one million gallons for desert courses (like Palm Springs) — roughly the same volume of water that the average American family uses over a decade. With as many as 2.8 billion people in the world facing water scarcity by 2025, golf’s big gulp is all the more difficult to swallow.
And finally, the chemicals: Fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides applied to courses in large doses pose enormous risks to humans and wildlife. It is estimated that the average U.S. golf course is sprayed with about 750 kg of pesticides each year, perhaps one reason that a director of the U.S. Golf Association (USGA) advised golfers back in the mid-1990s not to put tees in their mouths.
But back to Tiger Woods, the man who may be responsible for more golf course development than any other. Since he turned pro in 1996, the game’s popularity among casual fans has grown considerably, and with it the television rankings, fleet of sponsors and size of tournament purses (up 200 percent). Only nine players on the PGA tour earned more than $1 million in 1996; 89 players did in 2011.
Woods’ ascendance belies a long-term decline in the number of golf courses and regular golfers.
Tiger may have four Green Jackets, but could the star golfer’s popularization of the sport be ranked as a type of natural calamity?
Actually, like most things related to golf, it’s not that simple. Woods’ ascendance belies a long-term decline in the number of golf courses and regular golfers. In expectation of baby boomers retiring and spurred by Woods’ appearance on the scene, golf course developers did build more than 3,000 new courses in the U.S. between 1990 and 2003, raising the total to a high watermark of 16,000 (half the world’s golf courses). But the number of courses has been shrinking ever since, down to about 14,500 today. In 2013, only 14 new courses were built in the U.S., while 157 were closed.
Similarly, the number of “core” golfers in the U.S. — those who play eight or more rounds per year — has plummeted by about 27 percent from 19.7 million in 1998 to 14.4 million today. (A similar decline in golf participation has occurred in other countries, including much of Europe, although there are some, like Germany and Netherlands, that have bucked the trend.)
In short, most of golf’s overzealous expansion predated Tiger, and much of Woods’ career has coincided with a steady drop in the number of courses and regular players, a trend likely accelerated by an economic recession. Some of this decline is arguably the product of the sport shedding an oversupply of courses, and perhaps it would have been steeper if not for Woods.
But contrary to widely held views, golf has not been on an epic upswing since the advent of Tiger Woods, and his role in either saving the sport or damning the planet is not as stark as it might first appear.
The good news is that Tiger’s tenure has coincided with a growing awareness in the sport of its oversized impact on the environment, and golf has made “green” strides since the issue was first raised in the mid-1990s. Improvements include everything from building courses on lands reclaimed from old industrial sites and using organic fertilizer, compost and recycled water, to developing grass seeds that require less watering, and to returning portions of courses to their natural state. Some ecologists even argue that golf might play a role in bolstering conservation efforts.
So Tiger may not be around as a punching bag much longer, but with golf slated to become an Olympic sport again in 2016 and the sport gaining adherents in China, the environment is not out of the woods yet.