Does America really need over 16,000 golf courses? Or is Rodney Dangerfield’s character character Al Czervik from Caddy Shack (1980) right that “golf courses and cemeteries are the biggest wastes of prime real estate?” Supporting Dangerfield’s declaration are many environmentalists, real estate tycoons and members of general non-golfing public. Criticisms from these groups largely relate to the amount of land required (average 100-200 acres of land). However, land is not the only exploited resource, copious amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and water are also used to maintain pristine courses. One of the largest gripes with golf courses is that not enough of the general public even uses them, there are simply too few golfers and too many courses. Stereotypes of those out there playing often depict rich, white, fat old men. An easy demographic for the general public to attack and identify as the bad guy. Despite all of these complaints and issues, courses still take up more US land than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
How can this amount of land be designated to such a small population? Less than 10% of Americans can be defined even in loosest terms as “golfers.” The sport has been personified as a game for the rich man with high green fees and equipment costs with some courses not even open to the general public. Certain courses require high levels of prestige to even participate. This imbalance of courses to golfers is a growing trend and drew the attention of ULI senior resident fellow Ed McMahon, prompting the statement, “we are way overbuilt on the number of courses, while those playing golf are declining.”
The biggest problem associated with this massive conglomerate of land use is the resources needed to maintain them. Lush green fairways require an extremely large amount of water. An average golf course annually uses enough water to satisfy the water needs of a small town (8,000 residents). Take that figure and apply it to the 16,000 plus courses around the nation, is there any surprise that the U.S. is the most wasteful water user in the world? This is particularly troubling when looking at the distribution of courses in western states, and in areas classified as under “severe water stress.” The water crisis facing the nation and the west in particular is going to cause drastic changes for golfs water consumption.
To their credit, not all courses are carelessly wasting these resources away, some are taking the initiate to cut back on water, land and chemical use. Legendary golfer Arnold Palmer has “been advocating low-impact golf for over three decades.” The Arnold Palmer Design Company specializes in building environmentally friendly courses that according to Palmer, “enhance the game of but golf but not at the expense of the natural features. A golf course should blend into its environment.” Instead of trying to force a standard lush green course into an arid desert setting, these courses are now adapting to the environment. Particularly for desert courses, this involves cutting down the amount of grass needed and filling in the surrounding areas with natural dessert vegetation and sand as oppose to large water hazards. Recycling water drainage and “drought tolerant grass” are also utilized to cut down the environmental impact. Additionally, new design techniques are shrinking some courses, using more efficient land-use designs to reduce their overall footprint.
In several communities, cutting down the environmental impact is not enough. These areas simply want the land to be re-used for entirely different purposes. Portland, Oregon is on the brink of transforming a historic course into an industrial area with portions preserved for public space, a change that would satisfy both environmental groups and business entities in the area. The driving factor of this change is the imbalanced mentioned above between the supply and demand of courses. Declining revenues associated with the “downturn of golf” is mentioned by the course’s owner in his decision to divide up the course.
As the sport continues to decline, we will see more and more changes to its courses. This provides a great opportunity for communities to expand and grow. However, it is important that proper planning is used to preserve open space in these areas, additionally communities should also take into account which courses to preserve and which to redevelop. Courses like those designed by Arnold Palmer should be left alone. There are plenty of other courses exploiting lands and resources that are not making efforts to preserve the environment. These courses coincide with Rodney Dangerfield’s claim as a true waste.