Golf Course Sustainability: Balancing Business with Protecting the Environment

If you own, operate or manage a golf course, it’s time to get serious about sustainability and become a more eco-friendly business. It’s important to your employees, customers, partners and the future of our planet.

The younger generation of today cares about climate change, the planet and who they do business with. They seek out products and services that are environmentally and socially responsible. If you want to do your part to protect the planet and at the same time stand out as a quality employer and business, you need to adjust and improve your current practices to be more environmentally friendly. The good news is that a more sustainable business is good for business. It will attract more customers and employees, gain their trust and loyalty, cut your energy costs, preserve resources and reduce waste.

Photo by Rich Villanueva via Twenty20

How Do Golf Courses Impact the Environment?

Golf courses today can have a major negative impact on the local environment and the planet in several ways including:

  • Using hazardous chemicals and pesticides that pollute waterways and harm wildlife
  • Exhausting water supplies in dry regions and in times of shortage
  • Generating greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change
  • Wasting energy and resources that lead to scarcity and hurt the bottom line
  • Negatively shifting the natural ecosystems of the land

These issues can be addressed in a pragmatic and economical way. The following sections discuss how to solve many of these challenges. They present a sustainability guide and a great primer for those just getting started with becoming more environmentally responsible.

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It contains practical sustainability guides, tips, green initiatives and inspirational member stories covering topics such as mission, strategy, tactics, scorecards and reporting.

Golf Course Sustainability Initiatives

Golf course owners and operators need to have a strategy and plan to become more sustainable and eco-friendly. They need to understand that things they do that negatively impact the environment and then prioritize sustainability initiatives that can make a real difference. There are dozens of green initiatives related to land, water, energy, equipment and chemicals. Here are some basic initiatives to consider.

Avoid Toxic Fertilizers, Pesticides and Chemicals 

Golf courses use harmful lawn care chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides to maintain landscaping, prevent weeds and keep insects and rodents out. These methods are harmful not only to the organisms they target but to the ecosystems and communities that live nearby. After these chemicals are applied, they get carried away by runoff and enter local bodies of water, posing a threat to public health and wildlife. Chemicals used to maintain golf courses can also go airborne and become a respiratory irritant to wildlife and golfers on the field.

Instead of using conventional fertilizers, pesticides and other lawn care chemicals, golf courses should seek out eco-friendly alternatives to do the same job. Salt spray and orange citrus spray are both natural pesticides that can deter insects while preserving the integrity of ecosystems and waterways.

Sustainable Course Example: Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Massachusetts

One of America’s most eco-friendly golf courses, the Vineyard Golf Club is located in the town of Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard of Massachusetts. It is an organic course that uses composted fertilizers rather than pesticides to eliminate the chances of poisoning the island’s aquifer. This course remains one of the most well known clubs in America in large part because of its environmental stewardship.

“The course has replaced traditional pesticides with bio-stimulants and composted fertilizers that help protect the island’s single-source aquifer. More importantly, the club has succeeded in convincing members that the course doesn’t need to look perfect to provide great playability.” –  Links Magazine

Minimize Water Usage and Reuse Water

Golf courses in the United States use 2.08 billion gallons of water per day just to keep the course up to required maintenance levels. A great solution to limit the amount of water used each day is to use recycled water. Roughly 13% of U.S. golf courses use recycled water through a piping system that runs along the course. This allows for excess water to be gathered and then used again at a later time.

Another great solution is to use a different type of grass seed such as bermuda or zoysia grass which are heat, drought and salinity resistant in the summer months and still maintain their green color in the winter season. These low-maintenance grasses do not require to be watered as frequently, thus conserving water in the process.

Sustainable Course Example: Chambers Bay in Tacoma, Washington

“The fescue turf is the driving force behind the ecosystem at Chambers Bay,” says Eric Johnson, director of agronomy. “It has a lower requirement for water, fertilizers and pesticides,” he says of the deep-rooted grass that’s native to the British Isles.

Additionally, the water treatment plant on the property converts biosolid wastes — nutrient-rich organic matter from sewage treatment — into fertilizer that’s used around the course. And because the 950-acre Chambers Bay is a walking-only facility, the energy and maintenance needs of golf carts are eliminated.

Switch to Energy Efficient Equipment

Each golf course has to make the switch from gasoline to electric starting with their carts and maintenance equipment. When you add electric tools such as electric mowers and weed whackers and electric golf carts, your course will contribute little to no harmful emissions into the atmosphere. On top of that, a course should implement caddies because traveling on foot is the surest way to reduce emissions. For more information, check out Green Business Bureau’s article on eco-friendly landscaping and equipment.

Many companies such as EGO provide battery powered lawn care products. For every product you can think of, EGO makes a battery powered alternative to the gas powered product. Using these tools can help reduce emissions and make your golf course more eco-friendly.

Operations and Energy Usage

There are many changes golf courses can make to be more energy efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels. This includes sustainable approaches to the clubhouse, parking lots, maintenance buildings and other operational structures that use energy.

Owners and operators can start with some obvious questions. Does the clubhouse already use eco-friendly LED bulbs? LED bulbs are better for the environment as they are 25-80% more efficient than incandescent bulbs. Is your clubhouse already using solar energy? If not, then it is a great and ambitious place to start. Solar technology continues to drop in price and it’s an investment that will ultimately save you money and dramatically cut your emissions and fossil fuel use. Another option is to use green energy from your local utility company. If your local utility company offers green power, the entire clubhouse, restaurant and buildings will then run 100% on renewable energy while not having to make the big investment which solar panels can be.

Sustainable Course Example: Northport Creek Golf Course in Michigan

Michigan’s Northport Creek Golf Course is the first course to be 100% powered by solar energy. The course saves a lot of money every year and they attract new customers from all over the country. Moving to solar energy will not only benefit the environment but it will also positively impact the business aspect of golf.

“When bottom lines are tightening and every dollar counts, solar-panel technology can be a ray of light for a club manager,” one industry observer notes.

Green Clubhouses Should Eliminate Plastic

Within the clubhouse, refrain from using plastic water bottles, containers and avoid styrofoam. Make the switch to reusable water bottles and food packaging that is 100% recyclable or made from post-consumer content. Some clubhouses in hotter regions have used energy-efficient windows to significantly block heat from the sun. This allows the clubhouse to use less energy and less money to cool down the building. Also, clubhouses should adopt green practices such as turning off all lights and electronics such as computers when not in use. Investing in low-flow faucets and toilets is another great way to transform the clubhouse into a sustainable hangout spot.

Smarter Land Use

Before building or owning a golf course, you need to consider the location of the golf course. Building a golf course over a landfill or a previous mining site will help to restore the land over time by reintroducing vegetation and attracting wildlife. An average golf course spans roughly 150 acres, so if the golf course is built on practically recycled land, then the golf course would in fact benefit the environment overtime. By developing on previously used land, a golf course would not need to worry about clearing and disrupting untouched land but rather focus on rebuilding and reviving depleted land.

Sustainable Course Example:  Streamsong Resort in Streamsong, Florida

A minimalist philosophy permeates the entire resort. “We challenge conventional thinking of resort and golf development,” says Tom Sunnarborg, Vice President of land development and management. “We emphasize walking. We don’t have rough. The fairways end in natural areas. We don’t irrigate outside areas of play, other than a tiny bit around the clubhouse. We don’t plant flowers. We don’t use street lights. We don’t have a fountain at our entrance. Our entrance isn’t even lit. We don’t do anything that’s not necessary. No houses or condos. The clubhouse is intentionally underneath the vista of the dunes. It’s a beautiful building, but it is secondary to the land form.”

Golf Course Sustainability Benefits

It’s time for all golf courses to adopt greener practices and transform into sustainable havens of life and abundance rather than resource exhaustion. As we’ve discussed, there are many examples of innovative sustainability approaches to golf courses. The time is now for all owners and operators to start their sustainability journeys if they have not already.

It may be difficult to start, but here are the long term benefits to both the environment and for business. Sustainable golf courses will:

  • Help maintain a healthy and safe environment for both wildlife and the public
  • Reduce emissions that contribute to climate change
  • Help preserve water resources and keep them clean by eliminating the use of harmful fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals
  • Conserve energy through energy efficiency practices and clean energy investments
  • Reveal cost savings and possibly bring in other sources of revenue such as selling solar energy
  • Elevate the course brand and reputation
  • Attracts new customers and loyal members who prefer to do business with environmentally and socially responsible organizations
  • Attract new employees that care about a cleaner and greener environment

Co-written by Nick Beaulac and CJ Zujewski of the Bancroft School

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