Mon 26 July 2021

Amid all the industry backslapping at the World Golf Awards in October, with its prizes for best golf shoe brand and best golf TV channel, there will be an award for world’s best eco-friendly golf facility in 2021.

The Hong Kong Golf Club has been nominated and hopes to win at a gala ceremony to be held at the Park Hyatt Dubai hotel. In 2020, the club achieved certification from the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Programme for Golf (something achieved by the Jockey Club’s Kau Sai Chau Public Golf Course back in 2005) – which “helps golf courses protect our environment and preserve the natural heritage of the game of golf” – and joins others in a search for public recognition of golf’s ecological credentials.

But what is often promoted as outdoor exercise in nature takes place in highly artificial environments, the maintenance of which exacts a high environmental cost. For golf to present itself as eco-friendly while pouring vast quantities of chemicals on spaces carefully flattened and frequently mown to resemble billiard tables seems the most apt use of the term “greenwashing” yet.

In July 2006, researchers Kit Wheeler and John Nauright published a paper in the journal Sport in Society that took golf’s claims of sound environmental management to task: A Global Perspective on the Environmental Impact of Golf criticised deforestation and the harmful clearing of natural vegetation, the introduction of non-native species, the contamination of streams and lakes with chemicals, high water consumption and much else.

Shinichi Mizuno of Japan on the green during the Hong Kong Open at the Hong Kong Golf Club on January 10, 2020. Photo: Getty Images

Shinichi Mizuno of Japan on the green during the Hong Kong Open at the Hong Kong Golf Club on January 10, 2020. Photo: Getty Images

To read the certification prospectus of the Audubon programme is to suspect that its creators read this paper, too. Key, says Audubon International’s director of environmental programmes for golf, Frank LaVardera, is a reduction in each course’s overall managed area.

“A typical 18-hole golf course,” he explains, “may have 65 or 70 acres (26 or 28 hectares) of managed turf that typically includes its greens, its fairways, its tee boxes and the rough.”

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Courses are expected by Audubon to “naturalise” about 10 per cent of that, using local species that are friendly to birds and other wildlife. The result is also a reduction in costs. With less acreage actively managed, “you’re no longer watering, you’re no longer fertilising, you’re reducing manpower and you’re reducing fuels on your course”, explains LaVardera.

What he refers to as “low-hanging fruit” are the managed roughs and to some degree the fairways.

“Most halfway decent golfers are going to hit the ball 75 or 100 yards (68 or 90 metres), so why does the fairway need to start so close to the tee box?” The first 25 to 50 yards can be largely left alone.

But certification requires much more, including wildlife habitat management, education programmes and testing of water coming onto and off the course. It requires regular reporting, an initial site visit and subsequent check-ups every six years.

Even so, the costs of membership and certification are very modest, so it’s easy to see why a critic may believe members are buying credibility by buying a connection to the distinguished Audubon name at a very low price.

But all is not quite as it seems.

The National Audubon Society, which has existed in one form or other for a century, has gone from being a mostly female-led group campaigning against the slaughter of birds for feathers to put in fashionable hats to a respected and influential environmental organisation.

Clubs freely sprinkle the name Audubon in press releases and on websites, but Audubon International – which runs the Cooperative Sanctuary programme – although a respectable US-registered non-profit, has no connection with the prestigious society other than having also taken the name of ornithologist, naturalist and artist John James Audubon (1785-1851). The programme is US Golf Association-approved.

In terms of water use, pesticide use, and available environment for wildlife, wouldn’t it be better if there were no golf courses at all?

“Golf courses do have to exist,” says LaVardera. “Golf courses do have to use chemicals, golf courses do have to cut down trees, golf courses do have to take up space that animals could use, so our programme works to enhance the way golf courses are operated so that they can be deemed sustainable in terms of the environment.”

Even if we accept that there must be courses, do they have to exist as we know them? As Wheeler and Nauright state, golf originated in Scotland as a game played on uneven land with grass nibbled short by sheep and rabbits and fertilised by sea birds.

“These original courses gave rise to a game that was shaped by the existing landscape, not a game that shaped the land,” they point out.

Audubon International’s six-point list of programme benefits is mostly economic, an appeal to the better natures of golf course managers coming last.

Golf has had trouble attracting younger generations, who find the sport’s expense, its clubbiness, its difficulty to master, and its slow pace unappealing. This is the market that might be more attracted by claims that golf creates a nature-friendly environment that attracts wildlife.

“I think we do have some members who in part use their certification in our programme to help draw new prospective members to their golf club,” admits LaVardera. “But I don’t think I’ve met a golf course superintendent yet who’s thumbed his nose at the environment, and says, ‘I don’t really care. I just want to make sure the grass is green.’”

And there is a younger generation of golf course superintendents who have agronomy degrees with an environmental component, he says.

“I’m certainly not against economic forces helping to reverse climate change

,” says Nauright, now dean of the Richard J Bolte Snr School of Business, at Maryland’s Mount St Mary’s University, in the US. But there’s a problem with what he and other experts call the Augusta National syndrome.

At that course, in the US state of Georgia, patches of recalcitrant grass are painted green, the brilliant white “sand” in the bunkers is granulated quartz brought all the way from feldspar mines in North Carolina, the birdsong comes from hidden speakers and, in the past, the water hazards were dyed blue.

This may be excessive even by golf’s standards of artificiality, but during the globally televised US Masters Tournament it promotes worldwide an idea of what a “real” golf course should look like.

“So there’s this tension between the kind of traditional Scottish links course that is much more natural, and this kind of new plush green, white sand, beautifully manicured landscaped course,” says Nauright.

One of the Hong Kong Golf Club’s competitors for the forthcoming eco-prize is Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Beach Golf Club. Here, Clinton Southorn, cluster director of agronomy in Abu Dhabi for golf management company Troon International, does seem emotionally invested in environmentalism as a good thing in itself.

At the beachside course, the first of its kind in the Arabian Peninsula, he has worked to introduce a hardier and less thirsty species of grass that’s better suited to the more saline recycled effluent water now being used.

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Not all of LaVardera’s “low-hanging fruit” are available to Southorn. “The rainfall in the last 12 months might be 5mm, and at the moment it’s 46 degrees Celsius outside. We’re still trying to encourage golfers to play golf in the middle of summer. It’s proven that having the turf helps the core environment for the golfers.”

A press release claims that “monumental environmental milestones” have been reached. But the rare steppe whimbrel recently spotted on the course, mid-migration, would have passed through anyway. The hawksbill turtle conservation programme is admirable, but wouldn’t the turtles have been better off just being left alone?

Elegant mountain gazelles seen grazing on the fairways help to attract players to what is already a location of considerable beauty. They wouldn’t be there had not this fake environment been created. But the course is part of an Abu Dhabi government programme that created an oasis on a desert island, and Southorn suggests that without it, there’d probably be just another hotel in its place.

However, “it could have been worse” doesn’t seem like much in the way of ecological credentials.

Although the number of golf courses around the world has risen since 2006, many in areas with lax environmental regulations, Nauright still thinks things have been changing for the better since he wrote his paper.

“I think more courses are taking environmental issues more seriously, and for whatever reason that’s happening, be it economic, be it attempts to attract new markets, new clientele, or to promote its connection to the wider habitat, that’s a positive sign.”

In short, the more courses that take a swing at reducing their environmental footprint, the better, and, for whichever course wins it, World Golf’s eco-friendly award will be a feather in the cap – one of which even the original Audubon ladies might have approved.

But perhaps, as clubs reduce water and chemical use, they could also be more sparing with the spraying of claims to ecological virtue.


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