The Shifting Ground of the Great Golf Debate

Golf ecology may seem like a contradiction in terms to some. The sport’s historical use of pesticides, fertilisers, artificial irrigation and carefully controlled plant and grass selections are all at odds with a wholly ecological land management programme – or at least, that’s how it used to be.

But rather than simply railing against what is an unproductive form of land use, perhaps we should give some credit to the golf industry for the steps it has been taking to green up its act. The days when golf was played on open heathland that was copped by grazing sheep and rabbits are long gone. Twenty-first century golf is a multi-billion dollar industry and it is not one that is about to disappear any time soon. Moreover, the extensive acreage that golf entails is often a vital buffer against creeping urbanisation.


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A shifting culture

Rory McIlroy and his peers on the international circuit may not appreciate it as they limber up for the Open at St Andrews in July, but beneath their well-heeled feet the golfing world is changing. Green keepers are increasingly being encouraged to use environmentally sympathetic means to promote biodiversity and environmental responsibility on and around their courses.

Since 2010, the English Golf Environmental Advisory Service has been helping the game’s leading authorities in the UK to highlight the positive contribution that golf courses can make to the preservation of rural biodiversity. For example, they point out that a hundred of the UK’s designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest are located on land managed as golf courses.

A concerted programme to safeguard the wildlife environments that golf courses are an established part of forms a key plank of an action plan that has been rolled out across England with recognised accreditations awarded for the quality of each course’s level of responsible ecological management. The Golf Environment Awards have become a notable date in the calendar.

McIlroy and company – and the many millions who enjoy watching them compete – may for a while overlook the wider questions of the game’s footprint. The excitement of the competitive spectacle, the drama and the ever-shifting odds reflecting the chances of those who might lift the claret jug are hard to ignore. But that short-term excitement is, more and more, based on a responsible, sustainable and mature approach to the management of the land on which the game is played.

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An under-reported movement

The greening of golf is one of the under-reported stories of modern ecology. Whether it is the use of organic fertilisers, the careful preservation of particular habitats or even the use of recycled materials as part of the fabric of the course, green keepers up and down the land are radically changing the way they go about their business.

And that green agenda is also being pushed on an international basis. The Golf Environment is a notable international advocate of the benefits that can be generated by a combination of contemporary sport, social responsibility and ecological awareness. The balance between jobs, leisure, the environment and the so-called clean economy is not a question that applies only to golf. Rather, what is happening in the world of golf is merely a sign of the times.

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Maybe the reason that the story of the greening of golf is so under reported is that it is a story without a natural audience – activists will be prejudiced to reject any question of golf as a force for good, just as golfers will be equally unwilling to engage on the basis of their own narrow vision. The good news for both constituencies, however, is that the ground is moving beneath them both.