During the last decades, the sport of golf has had a growing reception, both in the number of fans and in the number of courses where you can practice it. This increase in fans and players has turned golf into a multi- million dollar industry in which transnational companies of all kinds participate. Today it is the first sport in the world in terms of economic expenditure.
In Spain there are more than 450 golf courses in operation . Andalusia, with 103 courses, is the autonomous community with the largest number of them, followed by Castilla y León with 46 and Catalonia with 40. Of all of them, less than 7% are public, the remaining 93% are private courses. And everything seems to indicate that these figures will continue to increase.
On the surface, golf appears to be a harmless and even environmentally friendly game. The courses are exceptionally well maintained and managed, giving the appearance of green surroundings embedded in nature. However, the reality is far from this bucolic vision.
In the late 1990s there was some concern about some of the detrimental effects associated with golf courses; the impact of these installations and their maintenance on the environment , and whether, in fact, the economic and recreational benefit compensates said impact or not.
Of the damage caused by golf courses to the environment, we can highlight several types: damage caused by construction, those derived from its maintenance and those caused by fans.
Construction of a golf course typically involves some practices that are extremely detrimental to the surrounding environment: clearing of natural vegetation, deforestation , destruction of landscapes and natural habitats, and changes in local topography and hydrology.
In turn, these impacts feed off each other and generate side effects that are just as undesirable or even more so. Deforestation and clearing of vegetation, for example, it causes the formation of gullies and erosion, and all of this, in turn, increases the load of sediments in the runoff towards the nearby water masses.
The channels become saturated with sediment; as there is less water available and a higher level of sediments, turbidity increases, bottom vegetation is lost, algae bloom downstream and eutrophication is favored . In addition, the erosive force increases the changes in the topography and the chemical composition of the streams, rivers and lakes is altered .
On the other hand, the construction of a golf course also means turning large tracts of natural land into a practically sterile environment – a golf course is characterized by one or a few species of grass dominating the scene, and occasionally, trees and bushes, generally from cultivation. This displaces or eliminates a large number of native plant and animal species, and alters the soil microbiota . The mere construction of a golf course is already an environmental disaster in itself.
Maintaining a golf course is very costly from an economic and environmental point of view. One of the most potentially dangerous environmental practices for nearby ecosystems is the large-scale application of fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides . All of them harmful products, -lethal, sometimes- for the organisms that are exposed to them. Surface runoff carries many of these products that end up contaminating nearby environments.
On the other hand, a golf course requires amounts of water for its maintenance that many describe as obscene. Estimates indicate that an 18-hole golf course consumes between 3,000 and 5,000 cubic meters per day ; which is equivalent to the water consumption of an average Spanish household in 25 years.
In fact, it is estimated that the daily amount of water to supply all the golf courses in the world is equivalent to the amount of water required to maintain 60 % of the world population with the minimum daily needs established by the United Nations.
In a world with a changing climate like the current one, where water will be an increasingly scarce and precious resource , wasting it solely for the enjoyment and entertainment of a few is, to say the least, a questionable practice.
If a golf course is characterized by something, it is by the influx of people and because the practice of sport is usually accompanied by other related activities . It is not uncommon, therefore, to find around golf courses, hotels, residential areas with high purchasing power, shopping centers, leisure facilities, power plants, access roads, large parking areas…
All these new infrastructures occupy a large area of land, in which the environmental impact is more evident: more sequestered and urbanized natural environment, more influx of vehicles with their consequent pollutants, etc.
It is common to hear that golf courses and associated facilities will have an impact on the economic development of the rural towns where they are installed. However, the data does not seem to support this discourse either : the reality is that the benefits derived from golf as a sports, leisure, commercial, hotel and tourist activity are only enjoyed by a minority.
Peña, C. et al. 2014. Environmental impacts by golf courses and strategies to minimize them: state of the art. International Journal of Arts & Sciences.
Salgot, M. et al. 2006. Golf Courses: Environmental Impacts. Tourism and Hospitality Research, 6(3), 218-226. DOI: 10.1057/palgrave.thr.6050016
Wheeler, K. et al. 2006. A Global Perspective on the Environmental Impact of Golf. Sport in Society, 9(3), 427-443. DOI: 10.1080/17430430600673449