Towards sustainable golf

Golf clubs are in danger of missing the key challenges facing them in the years ahead, amid onset of climate change and pressure to introduce greener practices.

That was the conclusion of the Sustainable Golf conference, staged by Lancashire Golf at Hurlston Hall Golf Club, near Ormskirk recently, which addressed agronomy, energy, water conservation on and off the course and tree management topics.

Targeted at course managers, head greenkeepers and club decision-makers, the event has drawn excellent feedback from the 130-strong audience, reports Mark Bardsley, Lancashire Golf secretary.

“Our aim was to support England Golf in its drive for sustainability initiatives and to raise awareness among clubs in our region, and nationally, of the challenges coming down the line that are set to impact them,” Mark says.

“Clubs are certainly keen to learn and understand more about how they can move towards sustainable practices, based on delegate responses.”

With its total of 140 affiliated clubs, second only to Yorkshire, Lancashire Golf numbers both elite and ‘rank and file’ sites under its wing, from Silverdale in the north of its catchment, and Royal Birkdale in the west to Manchester’s Davyhulme in the south and Ashton under Lyne at its eastern fringe.

The conference also marked Lancashire Golf’s launch of its grant scheme, aimed at funding clubs with a £500 sum to help pay for sustainability initiatives. “A number of clubs have already approached us with proposals including solar panel installations and wildflower meadows,” Mark reports. “At the end of the year, we’ll present an award to recognise the best one.”

Mark Bardsley, Lancashire Golf Secretary

Continuing the theme, he says: “Most clubs are not fully aware of the challenges confronting them – water management for example. Reliance on mains water could become prohibitively expensive, which is why more sites are investigating access to water via boreholes,” he adds.

Carbon capture factor

Trees have a major function in the sustainability equation for golf. They often line parkland courses, creating sweeping vistas for golfers to enjoy; but should they be left to edge fairways and holes, when greens teams may prefer to thin them out or remove them to improve airflow and reduce risk of turf disease?

“Trees can be important to the playability of a course,” states James Hutchinson, the then BIGGA Membership Services Manager for sustainability and ecology, and soon to become Ribby Hall Village’s Greenspace Advisor, who spoke about woodland management for the benefit of golf and how courses are excellent for the environment they are laid out on.

“However, they do need managing,” he maintains. “If you don’t, and many golfers don’t realise that the trees are slowly but surely growing around them, they can cause major issues such as drainage and airflow problems. Also, and as all greenkeepers know, grass is a full-sun loving plant and one that will not tolerate much shade.”

Once shade is added to a golf course, he continues, the fine grasses do not perform as well as they should, and, as a result, pathogens and their subsequent diseases make appearances.

The 8th hole at Royal Birkdale Golf Club

“We do need to be aware that native trees are generally excellent for wildlife, therefore we need to take that into account. Trees capture carbon too, but so do grasses,” James adds.

R&A gold scholar James has visited well over 470 golf courses across the UK and further afield and created more than 100 ecology reports. From his experience with courses, how well does he believe wildlife is fairing in the golf environment?

“In terms of golf courses, wildlife is abundant. You only need look around your own course to see that wildlife is often more numerous than the surrounding areas, including housing, parks and farmland. Put it this way, if people want to see wildlife, they should head to their local golf course – asking permission first, though.”

Golf courses will play an increasingly important role as green spaces for the community as a whole. Should they be awarded heritage status to protect them from course redevelopment such as housing, to which more clubs are resorting to keep afloat?

“Unquestionably yes,” says James. “You would have to ask why places where golf has been played for 500 years do not have some kind of listing or protection on them.

The health benefits from golf are many (mental health and exercise for example), but unfortunately not everyone knows this. I often think I am preaching to the already converted,” he says.

Does James think clubs should be given financial incentives to preserve and enhance sustainability, in the way the government allots money to farmers for pursuing certain agricultural practices?

“Very much so. We do have access to some funds including Woodland Trust tree planting, Fairways Foundation and so on,” he notes, “but where access to government funds are concerned, I feel we are lacking and near the back of the queue.”

Owen James, Sustainability Officer, England Golf ©Vicki Head
Ormskirk Golf Club

Taking the lead

Each golf club in the country should appoint a sustainability lead, believes Owen James, Sustainability Officer at England Golf, one of five presenters on the day.

“Some clubs, such as Royal Mid Surrey, North Hants and Woburn, have already acted on this,” he says, but the major barrier to wholesale adoption across golf is cost, Owen maintains.

“Sustainability leads have a major role in sharing best practice with colleagues, so that the benefits can spread throughout the game.”

“I started out as a greenkeeper, so fully appreciate the pressures clubs are under to satisfy members’ needs, but it’s vital that both sides – on and off the course – hear the same message about driving through sustainability. If greens chairs are not hearing it, the necessary conversations may not occur.”

England Golf launched its sustainability strategy in June 2022 and currently works with more than 1,700 clubs on ways to best forge change.

“Sustainability has so many sides to it and every golf club is different, but England Golf’s message that adopting it is ‘Good for Nature’, as stated by the R&A, presents a sound benchmark.”

Greens teams may usually focus on biodiversity and agronomy in their quest for sustainable golf, Owen says, but the clubhouse can also benefit in terms of energy management and green technology, reduction of single-use plastic, fitting low-flow taps and improving materials recycling.

“Considering the carbon cycle is important,” he stresses. “Coffee grounds can be sent off for recycling, for example, rather than them just going to landfill. There are a plethora of ways to improve practices.”

Tools can be used to measure and monitor the carbon cycle in the mission to ‘decarbonise the clubhouse’. “Some were built fifty years ago and more, and are carbon intensive. Golf courses sequester some carbon naturally, but we have to change the way we have always done it, on and off the course.”

The right mix

“Golf is in a precarious position,” states Dr John Fry, Research Lead at the Centre for Research in Sports Performance, University Centre, Myerscough, who commands more than 15 years’ experience researching and teaching sports-related topics.

“Year on year, player numbers are down, according to the Sport England participation survey, despite the upturn during the Covid pandemic,” he reports. “The challenges the game faces are not going away – they could worsen in fact due to the impact on resources such as sand, aggregates, banning of chemicals and regulatory increases.

“Collaboration between management and greens teams will produce a co-ordinated approach to developing a sustainable strategy for golf that accounts for changing climate, scarcity of material resources and shifting patterns of consumer demand.”

Article by Greg Rhodes

Leave a Reply