Some say greens beat parking lots, while others say they use too many precious resources. Two outdoor enthusiasts drive home their points.
Mark Twain was kinder to golf than most critics, who blame the game for ruining much more than a good walk. Golf makes an easy target, and those who take swings at it bash it for being anything from an elitist pastime to an environmental scourge.
I’m a golfer, and I’m not deluded; I wouldn’t argue that there aren’t some snotty country clubs. But when you tell me golf is bad for the planet, I feel obliged to ask, “Compared to what?”
Alarmist cries against golf ignore courses like Metropolitan Golf Links in Oakland, Calif., which began its life as a landfill and is now certified by the relatively new nonprofit Audubon International (not the National Audubon Society, which has advocated on behalf of bird and wildlife habitats for more than a century) as a wildlife sanctuary. And how about Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in southern Oregon, where invasive species such as gorse and beach grass are being cleared to make way for endangered native plants? Proceeds from a new par-three course, which is slated to open on the property next year, will go toward conservation of the Oregon coast.
One of my favorite courses is Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash., a pretty patch of green that until five years ago was a yawning pit left over from a gravel mine. The course, which is part of a 930-acre plot of public land given over to trails, parks, and open space, has also been certified by Audubon International as a sanctuary.
Vehicles aren’t allowed on the property. The fairways and greens are planted in drought-resistant grasses. And storm-water runoff is funneled into a wetland collection area, where sedges, grasses, and native algae filter pollutants. Nearly 1,000 courses around the world have earned Audubon International’s sanction for taking similarly green steps, many of them in such not-so-verdant locations as airport landing strips and garbage dumps.
Let’s be clear: Golf courses aren’t a replacement for nature preserves. It’s also true that too many have been carved through pristine forests, deserts, and other regions where water is scarce, the ecology is fragile, and golf has no business being played. But unlike some industries, golf has tried to right its errors. When NASCAR turns to hybrids and the NFL bans tailgating to trim its carbon footprint, we can talk.
In urban areas, in particular, a golf course can serve as both a resource and a refuge, an oasis in a concrete jungle, an outlet for low-emission recreation, and a habitat for plants and birds.
A good walk spoiled? At the very least, a good game beats promenading through a parking lot. —Josh Sens 
Granted, golf has cleaned up its environmental act. And it’s great that gravel pits are being repurposed as putting greens. But what’s with this argument for building more courses than we already have? The one that says, “Either approve this new course or get ready for the tract houses, superstores, and parking lots”?
Although I’m not a golfer, I don’t begrudge anyone a day on the links. But when golfers offer that trade-off and hoist the green flag, I don’t buy it. It’s true that nearly 1,000 courses are certified environmental sanctuaries. What he doesn’t mention is that there are roughly 16,000 golf facilities, some with multiple courses, in the United States—which means that fewer than 6 percent are certified as ecofriendly. Do we really need another dozen or two when 3 million golfers are quitting the game each year, and fewer than that pick it up?
It’s laudable that industry heavies and environmental leaders are cooperating to reduce the impacts of golf courses. Still, as Golf Digest has lamented, “Despite much self-congratulatory hyperbole . . . about environmental sensitivity, sustainability and stewardship, and the obligatory eco-claims of every new golf resort—there are still plenty of serious problems today.”
Among them is water consumption, which ranks right up there with pesticide use. In Southern California’s golf-centric Coachella Valley, for example, La Quinta Country Club in Southern California reportedly guzzles between 200 and 220 million gallons of groundwater annually to keep its 113 acres green. The aquifer beneath the rapidly growing desert valley has been so depleted that between 1996 and 2005 the ground sunk more than a foot in places, according to the United States Geological Survey.
In my hometown of Ashland, Ore., where summers can be parching, we debated for years whether the old Billings Farm should become a “championship 18-hole course.” The 140-acre property was bought by W.C. Myer in 1858, and it has been in the Billings family ever since.
There are 9 golf courses in the area, and for the moment, the Billings Farm isn’t one of them. Facing public outcry and too many headaches, the latest developers went bust and pulled out about five years ago. “A golf course might have been the prettiest open space,” says Mary James, the second-oldest of the four Billings children and current farm manager. “But only a few people would get to play on it.”
Until she wears out and can’t keep delivering calves, mending fences, and bringing in the hay, she says, the farm will remain a working family farm. For the foreseeable future, her beef cattle, goats, donkeys, and llamas will not be sharing the pastures with golfers. —Michael McRae 
Photography by karamysh/Shutterstock
This article was first published in November 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information