How to Paint a Golf Course Green

Golf Course in Columbus, Ohio
Photographer: Alex Maclean

By Eric Roston

Did you know that 2,500 square feet of golf course turf "releases enough oxygen for a family of four to breathe?”

I didn’t either, until I received a press release last week about “golf’s positive environmental impact here in the U.S,” from Buffalo Communications, a unit of Billy Casper Golf LLC. And it made me wonder: Is that enough oxygen for four family members to each inhale once, or enough to sustain themselves indefinitely? I grew up playing golf in a family of four. It’s no wonder we never had shortness of breath.

Business investors seeking reliable information about environmental performance face relentless interference by companies and industries that try to paint themselves over in shades of green. Greenwashing is committed every day, even by companies known for their successful sustainability strategies. Golf courses, which are supposed to be thoroughly green ventures, are not immune.

Consider these tidbits from the press release:

* 77 percent of 18-hole golf facilities in the U.S. have taken steps to conserve energy.
* 91 percent of acreage on an 18-hole golf course is considered "green space" that provides benefits to the eco-system.
* Fewer than 15 percent of golf facilities tap municipal water supplies.

Now, if you squint, turn your head a bit, and look really hard, you might see this instead:

* 23 percent of 18-hole golf facilities have taken no steps to conserve energy.
* 9 percent of acreage on an 18-hole golf course is not considered "green space."
* Almost 15 percent of golf courses tap municipal water facilities.

The most telling part of the announcement is what’s missing: the lack of brag-worthy efforts to control fertilizer run-off at U.S. golf courses. It's not like nobody's aware of the problem.

Nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from fertilizer are a large-scale environmental problem in many parts of the U.S., and the world. Rivers carry these compounds to the ocean, or bays. Algae feast on the nutrients. Their populations bloom and crash, depleting oxygen and leaving “dead zones.” The annual Gulf of Mexico dead zone, an oxygen-depleted, lifeless area that forms in spring and disappears in the fall, reached 6,765 square miles in area last year, fed mostly by Midwestern agriculture.

Estuaries smaller than the Mississippi Delta’s suffer, too. The Peconic Estuary, at the eastern end of Long Island, is one of them. Suffolk County has more than 70 golf courses, about half public and half private. Thirty-five of the courses volunteered in a study of how fertilizer run-off impacted the estuary. The final report, in January 2011, identified the best ways for course supervisors to make a difference: a 25 percent reduction in nitrogen use; elimination of fertilizer within 20 feet of bodies of water; narrower fairways and naturally grown rough, and other tactics.

In the absence of gob-smacking accomplishments, maybe golf officialdom can encourage course superintendents to raise awareness about systemic national environmental problems, and popularize best practices without interfering with the game. That way, golfers can even become more mindful about fertilizer use for their residential lawns, which dwarf golf courses in total acreage. Green, for lack of a better word is good, but not when it’s helping algal blooms create toxic assets.

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-0- Jul/17/2012 16:18 GMT
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