According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, the average golf course in Palm Springs, California, uses 800,000 gallons of water per week to keep its grass healthy. In other words, the city’s 120 courses are using enough water to fill over 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools every day.
Though that number is insubstantial compared to the amount of water used in California’s agricultural or energy sectors, it hardly sounds sustainable considering Palm Springs averages just 5.5 inches of rain per year. That’s why golf courses, not just in drought-stricken Southern California, but around the world, are recognizing the value in upping their eco-factor.
As new technologies have become increasingly accessible and the global green movement has continued to grow, becoming sustainable has become a more attractive proposition for many courses. From installing resilient grasses to implementing smart sprinklers, some of the changes we’ve already seen could soon become ubiquitous.
Since 2005, over 400 courses around the world have been planted with Paspalum, a type of grass that thrives in extremely dry or wet conditions. It can also be irrigated with desalinated ocean water or even minimally-treated wastewater.
Some famed courses, particularly in the Southeast United States, have moved to reduce the amount of potable water they’re using on irrigation by planting Paspalum. Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, for example, became the first Paspalum course to host a Major, the 2012 PGA Championship, shortly after it changed to the eco-grass. Some pros have even come out as fans of it.
“It’s actually quite nice,” Rory Mcllroy told reporters at that tournament. “It just really grabs the ball, so you can be aggressive with your chip shots and definitely aggressive with your wedge shots, too.”
Paspalum isn’t the only water-saving grass option that golf courses have at their disposal. Remember the controversial brown sward that stole the spotlight at last year’s U.S. Open at Chamber’s Bay? Turns out it’s a type of grass called fescue that actually renders the course quite green. Not only is Chambers Bay’s fescue irrigated with reclaimed wastewater, but it’s also fertilized with a chemical-free product made from bio-solids. (That’s basically a euphemism for sewage sludge.)
Though Chambers Bay drew mixed reviews when the golf world descended on it in 2015, it’s definitely doing some things right. In addition to limiting its municipal water intake to almost zero, the course has also refurbished wildlife habitats. It’s now home to birds of prey, deer, beavers and other fauna.
It’s not just American courses that are preparing for the future by becoming more environmentally-friendly, but rather it’s a global trend. Qatar International Golf Club, for example, is one of the latest major courses to take steps toward sustainability.
Through a partnership with the Golf Environment Organization, Qatar International is aiming to cut down on its use of resources and enhance Doha’s natural environment through efficient design. When its remodel is completed, it will feature a limited amount of grass (paspalum of course), plenty of native Qatari plant species and a smart sprinkler system that ensures efficient irrigation practices. Qatar International will also install solar panels and energy efficient lighting in its buildings, as well as bird boxes on its grounds so that migratory species will be able to find refuge.
Interestingly, the value that golf courses can provide for birds and other animals is often underestimated. In 2014, a professor of biology at the University of Missouri, Ray Semlitsch, published a study after he and his team looked at salamander populations on 10 different North Carolina courses. The results, he admitted, surprised him.
“It’s always been thought that course managers not only clear the land, but they add a lot of chemicals to the environment,” Semlitsch said. “What we found was quite the opposite — golf courses can actually provide a wonderful habitat for salamanders and other organisms where they can survive and thrive.”