And it’s not just about saving the planet, it’s about saving the sport itself, as the climate crisis threatens to turn many courses into muddy swamps.
American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) President Jason Straka told CNN Sport how the climate crisis has impacted golf in flood-prone Florida, as well as Ohio and Utah, which have been plagued by warmer-than-usual weather and even drought .
“In the past, clubs never had to close after two inches of heavy rain, now they do. They also experience sunny floods,” said Straka.
In Miami, authorities are raising public drains to a minimum of 3.4 feet, but more than 50% of courses in the city are below that minimum, which is ringing the alarm bells for Straka.
“If you don’t go out and literally put your footprint in the air, you’ll be in a deeper and deeper bathtub,” he said.
“If you think you have problems now, 10 years from now they will be a swamp.”
But change is equated with costs, and this is where golf critics find their voice again: courses are simply no longer sustainable.
While courses in the eastern United States are threatened by changing rainfall patterns, deadly forest fires that have ravaged the west, including California, have resulted in poor air quality and course lockouts in recent years.
Less severe, but by no means less worrying, are the rising temperatures in Ohio, which is infested with Bermuda grass, a warmer season of grass that can be difficult to control.
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Rain, fire, floods and ice
The situation is similar in Australia: The Lynwood Country Club, northwest of Sydney, was flooded again in 2020 and earlier this year. At one point, portions of the course were over 8 meters underwater while Nambucca Heads along the New South Wales coast received 42.5 inches of rainfall in just eight days.
On the same east coast, about 350 miles south of Sydney, Victoria state, Mallacoota Golf Club nearly perished during the 2019 and 2020 bushfires. The fairways were a haven for the city dwellers. Club Catalina, farther up the NSW coast, broke the firewall that threatened to wipe out the city.
But in a country used to regular forest fires, courses adjust by trying to catch water in heavy rain to use for course irrigation or even to put out fires.
“Golf courses in Australia by and large all have some sort of irrigation reservoir that is very useful for fire fighting,” Harley Kruse, president of the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects (SAGCA), told CNN Sport, echoing Straka’s comments on future predictions .
“Last year there was a flood event of 1 in 100 years in Sydney. We will see an increase in various storm events such as wind, rain, hurricanes or a greater increase in drought events. Golf courses need to be flexible and more insightful.”
Australian Tim Lobb, President of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA), is promoting naturalization and grass reduction in Turkey to reduce water use – 15-20% of the area that consisted of fine turf will become one Species that are easier to care for use grass.
In cooler regions, the coastal courses around the British Isles face a very uncertain future – none more than the fifth oldest facility in the world in Montrose, a few miles up the coast from the major championship venue of Carnoustie, where the Laut one published in 2016 for the past 30 years Study, the sea has advanced by almost 70 meters in places.
With sea levels expected to rise three feet over the next 50 years, the home of golf in St. Andrews, Scotland, could be a swamp like Miami by 2050.
Over in Iceland, Edwin Roald, renowned Icelandic architect and founder of Eureka Golf – a company “committed to climate change mitigation through golf” – told CNN how water freezes and thaws are more common in colder climates in the northern hemisphere will endanger the courses.
“We have a lot of problems with frozen water […] and many flash floods repeated throughout winter. It allows that to happen without the water eroding the land.
“Winter kills from asphyxiating the grass under the ice sheet is a greater and increasing threat. This causes financial damage to courses that open in the spring with dead grass.”
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Solar panels and robotic mowers
At the COP26 Summit in the Scottish city of Glasgow, North Berwick-based environmentalist GEO Foundation for Sustainable Golf showed a virtual audience how golf is learning to become a champion among sports organizations for a greener planet.
Woburn, the site of the 2019 Women’s British Open, built its own reservoir in 2013 to collect rainwater to irrigate the lawn, and recently drilled a borehole to draw water from underground. The company that manages the course says the new infrastructure is designed to make Woburn completely self-sufficient, avoiding the use of water that could otherwise be used for drinking and households.
At Remuera Golf Club in Auckland, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions were cut by nearly 25 tons from 2018-19 by reducing all electricity consumption in the club.
By 2022, Hirsala Golf in Finland wants to run 40 robotic mowers with electricity that can be obtained from renewable sources, which will reduce the consumption of 1,000 liters of diesel fuel, while solar cells in the Golf de Payerne in Switzerland have saved 1,080 tons of CO2.
Back in Iceland, the country measures the carbon status of all of its 65 golf courses as part of the Carbon Par project – the first golf nation to have created such an account.
“The method used to make this estimate is hopefully others can use in the future. To improve you need to know where you are first,” said Roald.
“Golf courses capture a significant amount of carbon, which I think few people associate with golf. On the other hand, golf is a big land user and will take advantage of wetlands in some places. The emissions from draining wetlands are so great. “
Forests, moors, deserts and tundra can absorb and store CO2. Around 34% of all carbon stored in land-based ecosystems is in grasslands, data from the World Resources Institute shows. That’s not much less than the 39% in forests. So whether a golf course can actually soak up a decent amount of carbon dioxide depends on how it is managed and whether it destroys more valuable land first.
Roald added, “It is only a matter of time before the golf industry is asked questions about what we can do with these wetlands – that is where we can have the greatest impact.”
Rory McIlroy, just one of many high-profile athletes who travel enormous distances by plane, brought climate change to the attention of one of the most famous voices in golf.
“I wouldn’t pretend to be an eco-warrior, but I’m someone who doesn’t want to harm the environment,” the Florida-based Northern Irishman told the media at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
“I live in a part of the world where hurricanes are very common and become more common over the years. I think we can all do our part in one way or another.
“We play on big lots that use a lot of water and lots of other things that maybe could be better used.”
“This is how golf should be played”
Before traveling to the world-famous Royal Melbourne in Australia, Kruse referred to comments from Tiger Woods and Ernie Els at the Presidents Cup in 2019.
In a nutshell, both players praised the natural setup of the course – essentially, similar to many previous Open Championships, the course was dry and large areas of the rough and even fairways had run out of water – the elements to the game to play, “said Kruse.
Well-watered and well-manicured golf courses often offer softer conditions that lead to better results and nicer televised images, but Els and Woods took the opportunity to praise a different approach that will become the norm as the courses encourage sustainable practices.
Els and Woods both talked about the benefits of playing on a parched course like Australia.
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Kruse said he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw a team of maintenance staff on television earlier this year using gasoline-powered leaf blowers to dry the rough on courses in Australia and the British Isles, for example.
“If you accept the drought in California a few years ago, I would hope that they have not returned to their old habits and rethinking,” said Kruse.
“You don’t need 2,000 watering heads from fence line to fence line to keep the course alive. You can let things dry out.”