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Golf Courses

The problems

Concern about the environmental impact of golf courses is not new. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, environmentalists and developers were at loggerheads, the former highlighting a raft of problems caused by traditional course development and operation.

These included:

The opportunities

In 1994, Audubon International began working with Pebble Beach Resort in California as a result of previous meetings between environmentalists, developers, and operators. Through the Golf & Environment Initiative, the international environmental education organisation, Audubon International assisted Pebble Beach Resort to become a valuable part of the conservation landscape through the proper management of land, water, wildlife, and other natural resources.
Audubon International has joined forces with the United States Golf Association, The PGA of America, as well as many other golf organisations throughout the world.

The vision of Audubon International is to foster sustainability through good stewardship of the natural environment where people live, work, and recreate. Golf has a unique role to play in caring for our environment. By their very nature, golf courses provide significant natural areas that benefit people and wildlife in increasingly urbanised communities. At the same time, golf’s use of chemicals, water, and other resources to maintain playing conditions is often criticised for threatening the quality of our environment.

The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses provides assistance to take stock of environmental resources and potential liabilities, and then develop an environmental plan that fits their unique setting, goals, staff, budget and time.

The Audubon Green Leaf Eco-Rating Program™ programme provides the assurance that audited lodging facilities have met environmental best practice standards that are required for a rating of one to five Green Leafs.

The programme began in 1998 to meet the lodging industry's desire to provide quality guest services, while minimising their impact on the environment. Through a comprehensive and credible method for assessing the extent of the environmental measures undertaken, participating facilities can reduce environmentally-related costs and gain a marketing advantage. By earning a rating in the Audubon Green Leaf™ Program, lodging facilities are confirming their commitment to water quality, water conservation, waste minimization, resource conservation, and energy efficiency.

Credit: photogolfer/Shutterstock

The business argument

Also central to the Audubon philosophy is the simple axiom that good environmental stewardship was good business. The organisation initiated research that showed there is clear business value—in the form of cost savings, new revenue and image and reputation enhancement—for those golf courses that take voluntary environmental action.

These include:

The commercial rewards

A better golfing experience


Wetlands, both tidal and non-tidal, are extremely important aquatic habitats for fish and wildlife. The vegetation and animal life supported by them serves as a vital source of food for aquatic ecosystems.

If wetlands are sited on the proposed or existing site of a golf course, then a range of safeguards should be taken. Please refer to the best management practice checklist.

Site and habitat evaluation

For an ecological evaluation to be reliable, it is essential that it is undertaken by a qualified ecologist. It is only after a professional survey and report has been compiled that the information can be incorporated into design and management proposals.

The survey should cover:

With regard to site planning and development, size is of fundamental importance in achieving environmental quality. The minimum area required for an 18-hole course is around 40 hectares. However, a more appropriate yardstick to apply for a course seeking to achieve the highest environmental standards would be 60-75 hectares and upwards.

The first consideration is the status of the site in a statutory context—does it carry any of the environmental designations ascribed to it by any local or national authority?

Habitat complement
For an effective assessment of the ecology of a site, the survey must extend beyond the boundary to assess the interaction with neighbouring ecosystems.

Diversity of species tends to increase with the size of habitat. Diversity cannot be assessed merely in terms of species numbers. Woodland, for instance, would normally contain more species than a wetland or moorland of the same size but would not necessarily be of greater ecological value.

How natural the habitat is
An ecologist will assess the degree to which it has been modified in structure and species composition. A predominance of introduced species will invariably reduce the value.

Rarity is important in the assessment of a resource whether it be at species or habitat level. Many ecologists believe that it is only by considering the habitat resource that the species-level rarity can be addressed.

Fragility reflects the sensitivity of habitats, communities and species to environmental change. By far the most significant factor is human activity. Virtually all natural and semi-natural systems are sensitive to human activity.

It is important to remember that typicalness—a habitat being an excellent example of its type—is important. More often than not ecologists will encounter the typical example of a habitat rather than the ideal. The ideal is something exceptional but the value of the typicalness should not be overlooked.

The history of a site will influence the value of the habitats. If it is possible to determine the changes that have taken place in a particular location, the ecological evidence of existing flora and fauna can be put into the historic context.

Ease of recreating habitat
The complex interactions of species found in natural systems can only develop over time. The significance of resemblance to a natural system will depend on whether the habitat is being developed as a replica system or in order to provide a resource for a particular species.

The potential of a habitat could vary greatly with the intervention by man. An ecologist must assess a site in terms of the degree of management intervention necessary to achieve set objectives.

Management is not an add-on to the design process. The development process should be regarded as one of refinement of a sound basic concept, with management an integral factor, given equal weighting with planning and design.

Edges, patches and corridors
Recent years have seen the emergence of the discipline of landscape ecology, which aims to understand the pattern of interaction between biological and cultural communities within a landscape. One of the most important considerations in these relationships are patches, edges and corridors.

Patches are island-like vegetation—for example woodland, heathland or unimproved grassland (permanent grassland that has not been cultivated for some years)—which show a degree of isolation analogous to islands. Larger patches are likely to exhibit greater habitat diversity and can be of great ecological value because of the landscape continuity they offer. Smaller patches can be of value as they can resist transfer of disease or unwanted elements. Small patches can also act as stepping-stones permitting movement of species within the landscape.

Edges are areas of interaction between adjacent habitats and vegetation types. The nature of the interactions can depend on the form of the edge in terms of structure and layout. The more diverse an edge, the greater its species’ diversity. Edges also serve as “buffer zones”, protecting patches or habitats.

Corridors are areas of habitat that link larger areas of wildlife habitat and are crucial in maintaining connections between animal and plant populations. They are extremely valuable because of the increasing fragmentation of the landscape, providing essential links between fragmented resources. Please refer to the best management practice checklist.

Golf is seen by many as an elitist sport and non-golfers rarely react with enthusiasm to the news of a new course in their area. The challenge for developers and operators is to demonstrate to local communities that golf takes seriously its social and environmental responsibilities.

Engaging with and listening to the local community is a key factor to establishing a golf facility that is a social and environmental asset.

There are a wide range of local benefits a golf course can bring to its host community, from extending investment in major infrastructure projects to tie in with local community upgrades—in particular, energy and water—to establishing mutually valuable relationships with local environmental bodies and schools. Golf developments have huge potential to be valued as flagships of integrated economic development, environmental protection and social equity.

Access is perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of golf's impact on a local community. As large tracts of land, often strategically located around towns and cities and along coastlines, golf courses are often closed to the public. Yet, they are commonly areas that locals want to pass through.

Access should be on the agenda from the very earliest point of project planning.

Local people, government and civic groups should be involved to establish existing rights and their desire to retain access. All efforts should be made to factor public access and through-routes into initial planning.

The construction stage of a golf facility provides the most obvious opportunity to provide employment to locals. But to truly make a long-term economic contribution to the local economy, a facility must offer on-going operational employment. As part of the business plan, consideration should be given to setting a target for the proportion of staff that will come from local communities with opportunities extending across unskilled, semi-skilled and fully skilled jobs, establishing training programmes where appropriate.

Organising for energy efficiency
The basic principles of organising for energy efficiency are simple. First, establish how much energy you are using and its cost and then establish where and how savings can be made. The key to energy efficiency is management—it doesn’t matter how much you spend on technology, if you don’t manage your energy resources efficiently, you will waste money. Good management is a question of organisation not of financial investment.

Decide who will be responsible
The first step is to appoint an overall Energy Efficiency Officer assisted by individual efficiency officers for clubhouse and course. Together they should form an Energy Action Team.

Establish the facts
First collate invoices for electricity, gas, heating oils, water and sewerage as well as fuel for vehicles and golf course maintenance equipment. Check the cost and usage.

Compare your performance
Both internal comparisons and comparisons with similar golf facilities can be valuable. Internal comparisons may be year-on-year, seasonal or between clubhouse and golf course.

Plan and organise
The first step in planning is the development of an energy policy statement. This commits the facility’s decision-makers to the initiative, and is a valuable tool for raising awareness among staff and players. Having defined the policy, the next step should be to draw up an action plan. This should cover the component areas of the golf club, identify tasks to be undertaken, their frequency, how they should be recorded and reported, and by whom.

Pay less
Establish whether you are paying the best price for the energy used.

Use less energy
A good start would be to conduct an energy walk-round, involving key members of staff and club officials, both to help identify problems and opportunities, and to ensure they feel part of the process. Place the findings of the walk-rounds into these categories:

Involve staff
Any successful energy efficiency policy depends on people. It is vital to make sure the staff are committed to the programme and understand the objectives.

Publicise your successes
Shout about your successes both internally and externally. Internal publicity maintains the profile of the initiative among staff while external publicity is good PR and can help the facility’s relations with the local community.

Calculate the savings achieved per year and agree a percentage of this to be allocated towards further energy efficiency measures.

Control and monitor
Energy consumption is a continuous process. Likewise, energy conservation has to be treated as an on-going policy and the goal should be continual improvement.

Designing basics
New golf courses have the opportunity to exploit the latest developments in energy conservation and generation and the environmental and business arguments for exploiting this to the full are self-evident. Indeed, there are developments where the entire energy consumption of the golf course is generated with alternative energy, collector-technology and photovoltaic systems.

The location of the clubhouse can also be a factor in energy-efficient design. By reducing the exposure of the building to the elements, one can save significant long-term energy consumption costs. Consideration should also be given to the size of the building. Buildings that are larger than necessary are both costly to build and maintain.

Golf course

Alternative energy sources

There is no such thing as free energy. All energy comes at a cost. Some energy comes at both an environmental and financial cost. Other forms, while retaining the financial element, at least eliminate the environmental cost. For any facility looking to lessen its environmental impact, the latter, alternative energy sources should be explored and evaluated.

The average golf course can use from 250,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) to 5,000,000kWh annually with the irrigation system accounting for up to 50 per cent of total usage.

There are three principal alternative energy technologies available to courses looking to source some— or all—of their energy requirements from sustainable sources.

Wind power
Small-scale wind power facilities are being used by a considerable number of hotels throughout the world to contribute to their energy requirements and they also used at some smaller golfing facilities. Once determined that wind power is a viable resource, an environmental assessment should be completed. If improperly located, wind turbines can fragment or disrupt wildlife habitat. For example, birds and bats can be injured or re-routed. A single 80-foot (24-metre) high, 10kW wind turbine will produce an 18,000kWh annually at an average wind speed of 12mph. However, the drawback of wind power systems for many resort golf courses are obvious. In addition to their impact on the natural environment, they are highly visible and have an adverse aesthetic impact.

Geothermal power
Geothermal heat pump systems consist of three parts—the ground heat exchanger, the heat pump unit, and the air delivery system. The heat exchanger is a system of pipes called a loop, which is buried in the shallow ground near the building. A fluid (usually water or a mixture of water and antifreeze) circulates through the pipes to absorb or relinquish heat within the ground. In winter, the heat pump removes heat from the heat exchanger and pumps it into the indoor air delivery system. In summer, the process is reversed. Because at 10 feet (three metres) below the surface the Earth’s temperature is relatively constant throughout the world, they are suitable for almost any location. Their relative invisibility ensures they have little or no adverse aesthetic impact while the contribution can be substantial.

Photovoltaic power
With the continuing increase in efficiency of photovoltaic (PV) technology, solar power is, for any location with reasonable levels of sunlight, a major contender as an alternative energy source. Individual solar cells are combined into modules, which are connected together into an array (a mechanically integrated assembly of modules that form a direct current power producing unit). Both custom-built PV-power cars are widely available and traditional electric carts can be simply modified. Today, PV power is widely in use by the hotel industry with perhaps the largest installation being at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel in Hawaii where 1,150,250kWh is generated annually by the three-acre installation. The attraction of PV power application on resort golf courses, many of which are situated in locations where sunlight is abundant, is obvious. Installations may be placed on the roofs of clubhouses and maintenance facilities or, because of their low profile, concealed behind high ground.

Water conservation

The hilly terrain of golf courses makes applying water and water retention challenging. In addition, irrigation must occur during limited evening hours; watering schedules are determined more by available watering times than the water absorption rate of soils. The irregular shape of courses also makes irrigation uniformity challenging.

All these issues contribute to excessive water use, especially if the golf course is located in an arid climate. A typical golf course requires 100,000 to 1 million (378.5 m3 to 3,785 m3) gallons of water per week in summer. The success of a golf course is therefore dependent on efficient water management.

Efficient irrigation
Water audits suggest many golf courses use 20% to 50% more irrigation water than necessary. A professional irrigation audit is required to estimate water savings potential at any golf course. It will often uncover inefficiencies that can be corrected with simple maintenance. A sprinkler nozzle, for example, is a simple and low cost remedy to distribution inefficiencies. The savings do not stop at water alone. Pumping less water means a longer pump life and lower electricity consumption.

Loss of water though leaks can be another costly deficiency. Leak detection should be made an integral part of irrigation system management. Leaks may occur between the source of supply and the storage ponds, or between the storage ponds and the sprinkler heads.

Computerising the irrigation management system is an option. Not only does this save labour, but it is also more efficient and flexible.

Retrofitted recycled water systems
Treatment processes Recycled water used for golf course irrigation must be at least secondary, and preferably tertiary, treated waste water.

Secondary treatment is a biological process in which complex organic matter is broken and later removed from the waste water. Tertiary waste water treatment consists of processes such as chemical coagulation and flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, or absorption of compounds by a bed of activated charcoal. Due to reduced levels of suspended solids, which can plug irrigation heads, tertiary waters are much more desirable for golf course irrigation.

Key issues

Cross connection
In general, all physical connections between the recycled water irrigation system and the potable water system must be disconnected.

Lakes, wells and creek protection
On-site lakes, wells, and streams whose water is used for potable purposes should be protected from over-spray or run off from recycled water irrigation.

Quick couplers
It may be necessary to tag or replace all quick couplers on the course with specialised couplers that prevent inadvertent drinking of recycled water.

Labelling, tagging and painting
All visible irrigation system components associated with a recycled water system must be clearly labelled or colour-coded. Additional warnings may also be placed in the clubhouse and on scorecards.

Water storage facilities
If recycled water cannot be stored in existing lakes on the course, additional storage facilities may be required (covered storage tanks or lined ponds are options).

Irrigation water filtration
Given the suspended matter content of recycled water, a dependable irrigation filtration system may be essential. If recycled water is stored in ponds, where algal bloom is a constant problem, a high quality filtration system is required.

Nutrient content
Most recycled water contains enough nutrients to eliminate the need to fertilize roughs and even fairways and substantially reduce the fertilizer required by greens and tees.

Water storage ponds
Ponds or impoundments can provide water storage facilities, helping to reduce demand during peak irrigation times on other water sources. It is often feasible to incorporate excavated or berm ponds, which can also double up as attractive course features. In addition to providing a water supply, storage ponds can be designed to create havens for wildlife. Buffers of native herbaceous and shrub vegetation can also be planted around the perimeter of the ponds to enhance wildlife habitat. Ponds may be located adjacent to a watercourse to allow for the skimming of flood flows (the opening of a channel from, say, a stream, to divert excess water elsewhere, in this case to the storage facilities). Dependent on pond leakage, it may be necessary to line a pond with clay or a geotextile.

With careful planning and design, the course drainage plan can include grass swales or diversions that direct storm water runoff from the landscape to a series of collection and storage ponds.

However, since runoff from impervious areas can include pollutants, the basins and/or swales in the collection system should be designed to remove pollutants before they reach irrigation water storage ponds.

Storm water management
Storm water is a valuable source of water on a golf course but runoff from impervious surfaces such as car parks and roofs can contain damaging pollutants. There are three different approaches to storm water management—detention, filtration and infiltration. Often a combination of all three is required. On a golf course, detention is achieved by detention basins, ponds and pond wetland systems. Infiltration relies on infiltration trenches, infiltration wetland basins and bio-filtration areas. Filtration uses constructed wetlands, bio-filtration areas, sand filters, riparian forest buffers and vegetative filter strips.

Wetlands that have been designed into the golf course to remove pollutants can provide one of the most environmentally-friendly solutions, offering not only a storm water management option but valuable wildlife habitat.

Principles of waste management

Everyone has a responsibility to find better ways of managing our waste, but particularly in the golf industry, which has, in the past, been viewed with scepticism for its poor environmental credentials. The good news is that adopting waste management best practice means that the golf course not only plays a part in the global picture, but also provides tangible and significant benefits at a local level while reaping the financial benefits in terms of reduced energy costs, purchases and staff hours spent on waste disposal.

The hierarchical approach
Adopting these principles of the waste management hierarchy will ensure that waste is minimised and appropriately managed at every stage.

Avoiding products that are overpackaged could eliminate the need for waste handling. The utilisation of re-usable packaging fits into this model at almost every stage.

Adopting sound ecological management of the golf course can significantly reduce grass waste. Efficient care and servicing of machinery will prolong the life of perishable parts and careful use of consumables also reduces waste.

End of life machinery parts, tyres or oils can be re-used.

Composting grass cuttings and other waste produced by the golf course is an effective form of recycling. Recycling can also take the more basic form of separating glass bottles and tin cans prior to collection by an external agent.

Finally, appropriately dispose of the waste in question. Golf clubs can also produce numerous hazardous wastes, which can incur disposal charges, Therefore elimination, reduction, re-use or recycling will often be the most cost-effective option.

The waste audit
One of the most important steps in initiating a waste minimisation and management programme is to conduct an audit to measure the usage of consumables and types and amounts of waste produced. It will immediately flag up opportunities for waste minimisation and cost reduction, and these will form the basis of the club’s long-term waste minimisation strategy.

Management strategy

The next step is to formulate your strategy. Each of the club’s different waste streams should be thought of in terms of the waste management hierarchy, with a few underlying principles:

Durability and obsolescence
Effective maintenance of golf course machinery and electronic equipment is invaluable. Simple procedures, such as upgrading old office computers and regularly servicing machines, will not only reduce waste in the long-run, but also save the club money.

Using your purchasing power
As a society, we have demanded increasingly flamboyant packaging and manufacturers have responded. However, the real power lies with the consumer to change things. Reducing packaging reduces waste and saves money.

Communication and involvement
Introducing simple initiatives, such as the installation of glass and aluminium recycling facilities, can be the first step in engaging staff in a large-scale waste minimisation programme.

Buying green
Buying recycled products ensures waste minimisation is effective on a local, national and even international level. Recycling involves four stages—collection, sorting, manufacturing and purchasing—and it is only if all four stages take place that recycling is successful.

Course waste management
Formulating an effective waste management programme for the golf course’s clubhouse should pose no difficulty for organisations whose primary business is hospitality. A clubhouse is, in many ways, a mirror of a hotel facility minus the accommodation element and experience gained in the operation of the latter can be very simply applied to the former.
Similarly, the basic principles of course water management will be familiar to many resort hotel operators accustomed to managing extensive gardens. Course waste management, however, does provide an additional range of opportunities for both cost savings and exercising environmental best practice.

The course
The main waste from the course will be grass clippings from greens and fairway, mown grass from the rough and leaf litter and dead wood from the trees.

Recycle grass clippings


Bale the rough

Dead wood

Leaf litter





Water quality protection

Intergrated pest management(IPM)

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a sustainable approach to managing pests, which combines biological (manipulation of one organism to control another), cultural (good nutrient management, proper mowing techniques etc), physical (mechanical removal of pests) and chemical (heribices, insecticides and fungicides) tools in a way that minimises economic, health and environmental risks. IPM programmes use information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment. This information, in combination with available pest control methods, is used to manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible risk to people, property and the environment.

There are three key benefits of an effective IPM programme.

  1. More judicious use of pesticides, so reducing their negative impact on the immediate environment.
  2. Economic savings resulting from lower expenditure on pesticides.
  3. Positive public relations over environmental concerns.

Basic IPM components
Monitoring potential pest populations and their environment.

Determining pest injury levels
Developing and integrating all biological, cultural, and chemical control strategies.
Educating personnel on all biological and chemical control strategies.
Treatment using either chemical, biological or cultural methods.
Evaluating the results on an ongoing basis.

Pesticide use
Many courses will continue to require pesticides—weedkillers or insecticides—as part of their IPM. However, pesticide use can often be restricted to curative rather then preventive applications, reducing environmental exposure. Pesticide selection can be based on an ecological risk assessment approach that strives to use only pesticides that are based on effectiveness, are not toxic to non-target species, are not soluble and act and degrade quickly.

Resources and Further Reading

The Golf Environmental Initiative
golfandenvironment.com/ [1]

Audubon International
auduboninternational.org [2]

Golf Environment Organisation
golfenvironment.org [3]

The Environmental Institute for Golf
eifg.org [4]

Scottish Golf Environment Group
sgeg.org.uk [5]

Australian Golf Environmental Initiative
environment.agcsa.com.au [6]

US Golf Association
usga.org [7]

European Golf Association
ega-golf.ch [8]

The R&A
randa.org/en/thegolfcourse/social-responsibility/water-management.aspx [9]

ENERGY (Design)
Practical Ways To Improve Energy Efficiency In Golf Facilities: Scottish Golf Environment Group (sgeg.org.uk [10])
Golf Environment Europe (golfenvironment.org [3])

ENERGY (Organising)
Practical Ways To Improve Energy Efficiency In Golf Facilities: Scottish Golf Environment Group (sgeg.org.uk [5])
Golf Environment Europe (golfenvironment.org [3])

NATURE (Edges & Patches, Habitat, The Rewards)
Nature Conservation And Golf Course Development: Scottish Golf Environment Group (sgeg.org.uk [10])

NATURE (Wetlands)
Protecting The Aquatic Environment From The Effects Of Golf Courses: Community & Environmental Defense Services (ceds.org [11]).

Acknowledgements: Golf Environment Europe (golfenvironment.org [3])

PM, Monitoring, and Management Plans by Dr. Charles H. Peacock, North Carolina State University & Dr. Miles M. Smart Of Turf Science Group, Inc: US Golf Association (usga.org [7]).

TURF (Nutrients)
Golf Environment Organisation (golfenvironment.org [3])

WASTE (Course, Principles)
Waste Management Toolkit: Scottish Golf Environment Group (sgeg.org.uk [10])

WATER (Aquatic)
Protecting The Aquatic Environment From The Effects Of Golf Courses: Community & Environmental Defense Services (ceds.org [11]).

WATER (Conservation)
Best Management Practices For Golf Course Water Use: Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (ct.gov/dep).
Golf Environment Europe (golfenvironment.org [3])

WATER (Retrofitting)
Considerations in Retrofitting a Golf Course for Recycled Water Irrigation: US Golf Association (usga.org [7])

WATER (Storage Ponds, Stormwater)
Best Management Practices For Golf Course Water Use: Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (ct.gov/dep [12]).