What is golf course sustainability?

What is it, why is it important and what are the potential benefits?

Here we explain golf course sustainability, why it's important, its potential environmental and economic benefits and why it could increase the enjoyment of players.

What is golf course sustainability? The R&A defines golf course sustainability as: “Optimising the playing quality of the golf course in harmony with the conservation of its natural environment under economically sound and socially responsible management.” The idea is; within club/facility budgets, to create and manage dry, firm and airy turf on a golf course populated by grasses that require the least chemicals, fertiliser and water for maintenance. This will mean less waste and reduced risk of polluting the environment.

Why is it important? It’s becoming increasingly clear that manicured, unnaturally green golf courses maintained by excessive watering and chemical treatments are not sustainable. This is because there are ever more stringent environmental regulations on the amount of water and pesticides that can be used. In addition, the cost of maintaining a golf course in this way is becoming too great in a competitive market. A sustainable approach takes into account both environmental and economic factors while continuing to aim for high quality playing surfaces. The R&A sees sustainability as central to its goal of having more people playing golf on more facilities in more countries.

OK we’re sold on the idea of sustainability, where do we start? Preparation is key. It’s important to assess the existing condition of the course to provide a benchmark and set realistic targets. If you’re starting with a course that is unsustainable with a heavy environmental footprint it will take time and resource, both financial and human, to move forward to where the turf is dry, firm and airy and less chemicals are required. It’s also vital to take local conditions like soil type and weather patterns into consideration.

Fine, what next? First you must rid the turf of excess thatch and increase the ability of the sun and wind to dry the surface. There should also be a gradual replacement of unhealthy and stressed grass. The grass used should be the best suited for local conditions. In northern Europe cool season grasses like browntop bents and fine fescues are the ideal choice to establish the most sustainable turf, requiring the least input of water and fertilisers.

What about maintenance? Effective maintenance requires a number of factors be considered.

Water Management – Effective irrigation and drainage are central to the maintenance of quality playing surfaces.

Mowing – Should be frequent without causing stress to the grasses. Verticutting and rolling should also be carried out.

Fertiliser – A course manager must establish the least amount of fertiliser that can be used to achieve the desired results.

Aeration – Hollow coring and solid tining at the correct times.

Top dressing – Sandy materials need to be applied at rates and frequencies that counter thatch accumulation.

Check out this great interview with Padraig Harrington:

So what are the key benefits of a sustainable golf course? Playing Enjoyment – The overriding aim in maintaining quality, sustainable playing surfaces is to maximise the golfer’s enjoyment throughout the year.

Financial – In the long term a sustainable golf course will be less expensive to maintain. It will require less input of chemicals and water so golf club funds can be used elsewhere.

Environmental - Sustainable management of a golf course can increase habitat variety, enhance biodiversity, and protect delicate and rare habitats such as dune and heathland.

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly. 

Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?