With the effects of climate change becoming more pronounced, golf courses around the world are working to become more sustainable.

Because golf courses are integrated into their natural surroundings, the industry is particularly motivated to find a sustainable way forward.

“Golf’s unique position in the environment offers us a real opportunity to show leadership in sustainability across all areas of the industry,” said Roddy Williams, director of professional golf engagement and communications at the GEO Foundation, which helps courses and tournaments become more environmentally friendly.

“No golf course in this world would do anything that’s bad to the environment that’s known to them. And if it’s not known to them, someone will make it known to them,” said Matt Daley, head pro at Schenectady Municipal Golf Course.

Capital Region courses are starting to see the changing climate affect their businesses.

High heat keeps people away, said Noel Gebauer, general manager and head pro at Town of Colonie Golf Course. And while courses in the western United States struggle with drought, courses in the Northeast are experiencing the opposite problem.


“When it comes to turf health, we’ve had many more issues with an excess of water over the last five or six years than we’ve had with the turf being too dry,” Gebauer said.

“They’re burning up in the west and we’re drowning,” remarked Dan Abbruzzese, co-owner of Orchard Creek Golf Course in Altamont.

State Department of Environmental Conservation and federal Environmental Protection Agency rules mandate what courses can and can’t do to treat their courses, but pesticide use isn’t the only environmental issue surrounding golf courses.

Golf courses, critics argue, are inherently unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly. In addition to applying harmful pesticides, they use precious water resources and are inhospitable to wildlife and native plant species.

But courses around the world are challenging that perception. 

Schenectady Municipal, for example, participates in a sanctuary program run by Audubon International (not to be confused with the National Audubon Society). 

“You’d be amazed at the amount of hawks we have out here,” Daley said.

“We have members who are being very creative with everything from beekeeping … to putting in biodigesters, setting up composting activities, creating actual field trip activities for local school groups” to learn about turf management, said Audubon International CEO Christine Kane.

Audubon International also runs a program encouraging courses to grow milkweed to help the struggling monarch butterfly population and one relocating raptors from airports — where they present a danger to planes — to golf courses.

Abbruzzese has installed electric car charging stations at Orchard Creek and uses integrated pest management principles when possible, allowing some insect populations to flourish because they help kill undesirable species of grass rather than spraying for both the insects and grass.

Rand Jerris, head of public services at the U.S. Golf Association, acknowledged that golf doesn’t have the best reputation, but said that advances in technology have dramatically improved the situation. 

“We weren’t doing a great job environmentally 50 years ago, but the science has advanced considerably, the technology that’s available to us has advanced considerably,” he said. “We’re taking advantage and we have data that shows we’ve reduced our consumption of water by 22 percent.”

Reducing water consumption has been the focus of the USGA in recent years.

That includes funding research into varieties of turfgrass that don’t need as much water or can tolerate reclaimed sewage water, which has a higher salinity than groundwater, and installing irrigation systems that can pinpoint which areas of a course need water and turn on only in those areas.

“Starting from the selection of plants to the sensors we put into the ground to the way we control an irrigation system to the way we use satellites … all of those are key strategies that can work together to help a golf course reduce its consumption of water,” Jerris said.

Williams has seen tournaments work to reduce their carbon footprint by replacing diesel generators with ones that run on renewable energy and recycling plastic from one tournament to make clothing for another. 

The Pebble Beach Pro-Am used mesh from the grandstands to make backpacks for local schools, he said.

And designers are focusing more on designing sustainable courses that are integrated into the environment, said Gil Hanse, a course architect who runs his own firm.

Much of that comes down to turfgrass selection, moving as little earth as possible, and using as much native vegetation as they can, he said.

Whatever the future of climate change brings, golf courses and industry leaders are conscious that they have a role to play.

“We know the game obviously has a large footprint on the American landscape and on the global landscape. The very nature of our business means that we are consumers of resources that are critical for communities and society,” Jerris said. “There’s a really important responsibility that we all have to be proper stewards of these resources and of the environment.”



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