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Key Takeaways

  • The total land area devoted to golf in the U.S. is relatively small, but courses can offer substantial environmental benefits – especially in developed areas where green space is increasingly limited.
  • Turfgrass and other vegetation on a golf course help cool highly developed areas during hot weather.
  • Golf courses provide important habitats for native wildlife and vegetation and can help support threatened species.
  • Golf courses can help manage stormwater runoff, aiding in flood prevention. They also recharge groundwater supplies and filter surface runoff.
  • The vegetation on golf courses sequesters atmospheric carbon and helps improve air quality, especially in urban areas.


One of my favorite morning routines when I was the assistant superintendent at the Omni Grove Park Inn golf course in Asheville, North Carolina, was watching the tom turkeys strut around. Witnessing bear cubs learn to climb trees was another highlight. Seeing squirrels chase each other, watching hawks soar across the misty morning sky, and giggling at the fat little groundhogs coming out for a morning stretch are other great memories. For me, golf and nature have always been connected.

Golf courses are ecologically valuable, well-cared-for green spaces that offer clear environmental benefits to our communities. Those benefits often equal or exceed what is offered by other types of green spaces, and golf courses offer vast environmental value when compared to roads and buildings. However, you could get a very different impression from some popular news sources.

Golf courses are often portrayed as an environmental detriment used only by a select group of wealthy people, but the facts tell a different story. Extensive research has identified numerous environmental benefits of golf courses, along with the recreational and economic value they bring to our communities. In the end, the environmental value of each individual golf course depends on its location and how it is designed and managed, so this article will focus on the benefits that apply broadly to most courses. We will also identify opportunities for golf courses to increase their environmental value and decrease consumption of critical resources. There is always room for improvement!

Golf in Context

The United States comprises 2.3 billion acres of land, of which 70% to 74% (around 1.68 billion acres) are classified as various types of agricultural land and forest. The remaining 26% to 30% is made up of parks, wildlife areas, wetlands, tundra, unproductive woodlands and urban land (Bigelow & Borchers, 2017). Golf courses are highly visible, seemingly large swaths of land, but they represent less than 0.1% of all U.S. land area (GCSAA, 2023). There are 15,945 golf courses in the U.S. Of these, 74% are open to the public with an average green fee of $41-$51 per round depending on the season (NGF, 2023).

Another item that may be interesting for readers to note is that daily water withdrawals in the U.S. total around 322 billion gallons (USGS, 2018). Average daily water use for all U.S. golf courses combined accounts for around 1.5 billion gallons daily – or about 0.5% of total daily U.S. water use (GCSAA, 2022). To put this into another context, a year of golf course irrigation across the entire U.S. accounts for only 1.5 days of total U.S. water withdrawals. The USGA is also working with golf courses to help reduce water use even further. The 15-30-45 Initiative is a 15-year, $30 million investment to help decrease golf course water use. We have already seen a roughly 19% water use decline on golf courses from 2005 to 2020 due to water conservation strategies like the use of wetting agents, hand watering and generally keeping turf drier (GCSAA, 2022).

"Golf courses are highly visible, seemingly large swaths of land, but they represent less than 0.1% of all U.S. land area."

Golf course superintendents must also comply with state and federal regulations for fertilizer and pesticide use. Many of these products can only be applied by certified members of the maintenance staff who must pass a state test to earn their license and undergo continuing education to maintain their qualifications. Maintenance departments must also keep detailed pesticide records that include information like application date, rate, and available inventory for inspection by regulatory bodies. These requirements far exceed what homeowners are subject to when maintaining their lawns.

Aside from legal compliance, turfgrass managers know that optimizing pesticide use is in their best interest. Pesticide resistance due to repeated use has been scientifically documented for multiple species of plant, insect and fungal pests, and fewer novel pesticides are coming to market. These products also tend to be expensive, so there is a very strong financial incentive to only use what is necessary to maintain healthy turf.

What may also surprise people when it comes to chemical use on golf courses is the limited movement through the soil profile and beyond the target location. This is in part because turfgrass systems have lots of surface area, produce abundant organic matter, and have extensive root systems that limit leaching and runoff and allow for increased chemical uptake. Research has shown that these inherent characteristics coupled with appropriate use by superintendents results in very little movement of products away from a target location (Kenna & Snow, 2002).

"To put this into another context, a year of golf course irrigation across the entire U.S. accounts for only 1.5 days of total U.S. water withdrawals."

When it comes to fertilizers, golf course superintendents know that most of the time less is more. It may come as a surprise to some, but as USGA agronomist Elliott Dowling wrote, lush green grass isn’t always the goal of turfgrass managers. In fact, this type of growth is generally undesirable as it requires more inputs to maintain – e.g., more mowing, fertilization, topdressing and aerification – and excessive growth and overly moist soils create favorable environments for pests and diseases. Excessive growth can also detract from playability in a variety of ways (Dowling, 2023).

Environmental Benefits of Golf Courses

Now that we have a better understanding of golf’s environmental footprint, we can focus on the potential environmental benefits of golf courses. The following sections highlight some of the most significant and broadly realized benefits that golf courses have to offer, especially within a developed context. It is important to recognize that any environmental benefits of a golf course must be evaluated in terms of what the alternative land use would be. A golf course would not offer more environmental benefit than a tract of pristine wilderness, but it offers considerable benefits when compared to a parking lot. Compared to a city park the benefits are similar but depend on size, location, management program and a variety of other factors (Horgan et al., 2020).

"It is important to recognize that any environmental benefits of a golf course must be evaluated in terms of what the alternative land use would be."

Urban Cooling

Land used for urban development has increased by 4.7% since 1949, more than two times the rate of population growth in that same time frame (Bigelow & Borchers, 2017). Increased urbanization can degrade local environments, decreasing quality of life for residents and contributing to the formation of urban heat islands. Urban heat islands (UHIs) are well-documented phenomena where the temperature is higher in an urban area than in surrounding suburban or rural areas (Nguyen et al., 2022). Numerous studies have shown that turfgrass areas like golf courses can significantly reduce temperatures in urban areas (Stier et al., 2013). Not only is the golf course itself cooler, but it also makes the surrounding area cooler – an effect that can potentially extend up to 600 meters (0.37 miles) beyond the boundaries of the course (Lonsdorf et al., 2020). These adjacent cooling effects are linked to decreased energy use by air conditioning, sometimes by up to 50%.

In a recent study, researchers carefully examined a large metropolitan area that was divided into a variety of land-use categories including residential, commercial, industrial, main roads, public green spaces, golf courses and intentional conservation areas. Temperature measurements taken on two consecutively hot summer days with maximum temperatures of 95.2 degrees F revealed that conservation areas had the lowest average land surface temperature (LST) of 86.0 F and golf courses had the second lowest LST, averaging 87.8 F. According to the researchers, residential, industrial and other use areas, along with main roads, had high LSTs, ranging from 95.0 to 98.6 F, and even average green space LST was higher than that of the golf courses at 91.0 F. The authors concluded that golf course vegetation “can play a beneficial role in helping to reduce urban heating during hot summer days” (Nguyen et al., 2022).

Supporting Wildlife and Biodiversity

Anyone who has spent much time on golf courses has probably noticed that they can be home to a wide range of plant and animal species. The average 18-hole golf course has 23.3 acres of natural areas (18% of total facility acreage) that typically include forest and native grassland, and 5.7 acres of water features. Additionally, more than 30% of golf courses report adding or expanding wildlife habitat and native plantings since 2000 (GCSAA, 2023). A 2008 literature review showed that golf courses had higher ecological value than other types of land use in 64% of cases. The ecological value measures were varied and included things like species abundance and diversity of vegetation and animals, such as reptiles, birds, amphibians, insects and mammals (Colding & Folke, 2008). Other research analyses conclude that the variety of landscape features on a golf course – e.g., turfgrass, trees, shrubs and water features – support diverse wildlife populations and help create habitats and sanctuaries for birds and aquatic life (Beard & Green, 1994).

Numerous studies show the conservation value of golf courses as a means of supporting populations of threatened species, especially in urban or intensively managed agricultural settings (Drake et al., 2023; Hodgkison et al., 2007; Tanner & Gange, 2005). For example, a recent study on the ecosystem services provided by golf courses found that they are “more supportive of pollinators than residential and industrial areas” (Lonsdorf et al., 2020; Horgan, et al., 2020). Golf course environmental programs like Monarchs in the Rough aim to capitalize on this potential. All this information taken together repeatedly shows that, when managed with environmental conservation in mind, golf courses can truly be havens for diverse flora and fauna in spaces where they might otherwise be unable to thrive.

Groundwater Recharge and Stormwater Management

Golf courses decrease stormwater runoff when compared to other types of land use such as densely populated urban areas and industrial spaces (Lonsdorf et al., 2020). Many golf courses are designed to capture stormwater for part or all of their irrigation needs and many also retain stormwater from surrounding communities to reduce the risk of flooding. Research has also shown the ability of turfgrass to increase soil water infiltration in part due to the macropore spaces created by the various underground layers associated with turfgrasses, aiding in stormwater management and groundwater recharge (Beard & Green, 1994). The dense vegetation of golf course turfgrass systems and wetland areas can also filter stormwater from adjacent land uses before it travels downstream. Research has shown that when best design and management practices are followed, golf courses can improve the quality of water passing through the course (Kohler et al., 2004).

"Research has shown that when best design and management practices are followed, golf courses can improve the quality of water passing through the course."

For new course construction and existing course renovations, some states like Nevada include stormwater treatment guidelines in their best management practices (BMP) document, and organizations such as the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) encourage course design to include features that can be used to help control stormwater and erosion (GCSAA, 2019; Love, 2008). As golf course landscapes often include some form of water feature – e.g., streams, rivers, ponds or lakes – it is logical that they can aid in stormwater retention, and well-designed courses can provide better stormwater management than other non-biological structures.

Carbon Sequestration and Atmospheric Improvement

Plants have the incredible ability to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into energy. Turfgrass and the other vegetation found on golf courses are no exception. Recent research shows that for the first 25-35 years of a golf course’s life, carbon sequestration by turfgrass is quite high before leveling off and eventually decreasing (Bekken & Soldat, 2021; Qian & Follett, 2002). However, one aspect of carbon sequestration on golf courses that has yet to be intensely studied are the capabilities of other vegetation on the course.

Carbon sequestration by trees, for example, would presumably continue for the life of the tree, rather than leveling off like we see in turfgrass. Native plantings would have fewer management emissions, presumably enhancing the net sequestration potential. A greater understanding of these scenarios will allow courses to optimize their carbon balance. Overall, the ability and importance of plants to sequester carbon, produce oxygen and generally improve air quality, especially in urban areas where there are high incidences of asthma and other breathing disorders, has been well-documented (Molla, 2015; Stier et al., 2013). Taken together, the turfgrasses and other vegetation on golf courses can be significant air purifiers for developed areas.

"Taken together, the turfgrasses and other vegetation on golf courses can be significant air purifiers for developed areas."

Golf Can Still Do More

There is no question that golf courses can provide significant environmental benefits, but it will take plenty of work to fully understand what’s possible and help individual courses maximize their positive impact. Many groups are actively working toward improving the environmental value of golf courses and have offered models for how the golf course maintenance industry can move forward to create more environmentally sustainable playing conditions. Listed below are some ideas that are gaining popularity:

  • Converting unnecessary managed turf to native vegetation. Native plant material has more value for insects, birds and other wildlife (Tallamy & Shropshire, 2009).
  • Making space for threatened plant and animal species by cultivating areas of the course for habitats.
  • Working with local organizations to enhance stormwater management benefits that golf courses can offer communities (Hauschel, 2018).
  • Increasing the use of electric-powered equipment to decrease emissions.
  • Providing more recreational access to non-golfers, especially in urban areas, to develop community relationships and improve quality of life (Strandberg & Hedlund, 2019; Waters, 2022).
  • Continuing to improve golf course water use by optimizing irrigation system efficiency, understanding water needs of turfgrass, searching for alternative irrigation sources like recycled water, and following BMPs set forth by organizations like the USGA Green Section and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

The recent boom in urban and suburban development has made the environmental benefits of golf courses more valuable than ever. Having ready-made green spaces that offer cooling effects, protected habitats for native wildlife and vegetation, stormwater management, and air purification benefits in recently developed areas can truly improve urban environments. Fully realizing those benefits will take a commitment to ongoing scientific research and implementing best practices that may change how golf courses are currently presented. It’s important for the golf industry to explain and promote the environmental benefits golf courses currently provide their communities, while also recognizing that there is always the opportunity and responsibility to do more.


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