The R&A - Working for Golf

It’s time for golf to go on the offensive!

Golf is of great benefit to economies, communities and environments.

Fed up of the negative perceptions that seem to plague golf? Is it really the elitist, socially exclusive, land hungry polluter that we hear about in the press? Golf is of great benefit to economies, communities and environments, but it can do a lot more. We can’t hide from the fact that some elements of the sport deserve to be categorised in a negative way, yet there is so much about golf that is positive but which is seldom talked about. Everyone involved in golf should go on the offensive to get these messages across to those who knock the sport.

There are a wide variety of areas in which golf plays a positive role in society. 

Golf is of great benefit to economies, communities and environments, but it can do a lot more.

Golf and the community

Golf can contribute to social cohesion, providing a hub in which the local community can gather, which is of particular value in rural areas.

Playing golf can boost children’s physical and social development.

Golf offers a gentle form of exercise, making it a suitable sport for all ages.

The health benefits of playing golf include:

  • people feel healthier living in or close to green space
  • Swedish research found that the death rate amongst golfers is 40% lower than for non-golfers of the same sex, age and socio-economic status.  This equates to a 5-year increase in life expectancy for golfers who play regularly 
  • early indications from research shows that older golfers are less likely to be disabled than non-golfers of similar age and risk factors
  • walking for only 40 minutes several times a week improves memory. Studies have shown that within a year of starting to exercise in this manner the volume of the part of the brain involved in the formation of new memories and associated with learning and emotions will grow by 2%
  • burning 2,500 calories a week can greatly reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Playing only 9-holes of golf can burn up to 721 calories
  • playing two rounds of golf per week will give a 30-40% reduction in health risk compared with  inactive people. This is the equivalent to the exercise component of a diabetes prevention project which resulted in 70% fewer high risk individuals developing the disease
  • ‘green exercise’ – outdoor recreation –  has been shown to significantly benefit our mental wellbeing, and where better to relax and enjoy such activity than on  a golf course?

Golf and the economy

Golf can bring wealth to an area through employment, use of local businesses and increasing house prices for those overlooking its green space.

Economic impact assessments are often undertaken for major sports events, with The Open reported to contribute up to £100 million to local economies.

A 2013 publication reported that golf is contributing €15,120 billion to the economy of Europe.

Golf and the environment

When academics at Royal Holloway, University of London, surveyed people about whether golf was good or bad for the environment 80% of golfers said it was beneficial.  Among non-golfers the figure was 36%.  This research was done in the UK, which has an extremely well-established golf community, so imagine what the percentage might have been in a country where golf plays a less prominent role in society. 

The fact is the number of non-golfers who consider golf to be beneficial for the environment is likely to be much lower in countries where golf is not so well ingrained within society.  So, what can golf do to change this perception?  It’s obvious. We need to address the facts, implement best practice and shout about our story!

The importance of golf’s role in combatting increasing urbanisation

Golf courses provide linkage between urbanisation and countryside and green space within cities.  Golf began on the links of Scotland; land of little value to other industries.  The future for golf course development should follow this principle.  Golf can improve degraded land, bring new life to old industrial landscapes such as mining, and bring sport and green space to brownfield sites in cities.

Golf can provide ecosystem services which:

  • regulate the local climate – one healthy tree provides the same cooling effect as 10 air conditioning units
  • counteract air pollution – a single urban tree can filter the nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter emitted by a car driving 10,000 kilometres, and a turf area measuring 15 metres by 15 metres produces enough oxygen to meet the everyday needs of a family of four.  Less than half a hectare of grass produces enough oxygen for 64 people a day
  • contribute to the fight against climate change – just one hectare of forest with 200 trees is estimated to capture and store two tons of carbon dioxide each year
  • reduce the impact of local flooding, which is often the result of residential or commercial building and the resultant increase in non-porous surfaces
  • provide a natural filter - the turf and soil on a golf course can clean water of pollutants as it passes through the site.

Golf’s efforts to save water

A 2006 Greenpeace report on tourism in Spain called for golf courses in Andalusia to be irrigated with treated wastewater to save fresh water supplies for agriculture and human consumption.  The report claimed that, on average, a golf course's annual water consumption in the region was 700,000 cubic metres, which was referenced as being the equivalent to the water consumption of 15,000 people.  The reality in 2015 is that there are 85 golf courses in Andalusia, with each 18-hole course consuming an average of 400,000-500,000 cubic metres of water and up to 70% of them now using recycled water as a result of the adoption of new legislation on the mandatary use of reused water on golf courses.

The European Union is looking at an initiative to maximise water reuse across its Member States.  If recycled water was available to golf courses at an affordable price, who wouldn’t use it?

Golf is addressing its water use and can do more by:

  • following a policy of producing firm playing surfaces
  • reducing the amount of grass on courses and replacing it with drought-tolerant indigenous vegetation
  • applying course design with less grassed area
  • utilising state of the art irrigation technology that accurately directs water provision
  • using alternative sources of water, such as recycled or closed-loop harvesting.

The amount of water being used on golf courses has been used to defend fracking (hydraulic fracturing for gas), a very contentious form of gas extraction for environmental groups and communities.  The Global Warming Policy Foundation claim that to produce shale gas in the UK, each well uses in total about the same amount of water as a golf course uses in three weeks, quoting figures of between 4,000 to 19,000 cubic metres of water.  If you extrapolate that for a potential UK golf course irrigation window of, say, 16 weeks, we would expect an 18-hole course to apply anything between 21,333 and 101,333 cubic metres of water a year.  The reality is somewhat different!

Information published on the GEO website for Royal Troon Golf Club, venue for the 2016 Open Championship, reports that it used an average of 11,850 cubic metres of water each year for irrigation.  This is for 45 holes of golf, the Old and Portland 18-hole courses and the 9-hole Craigend.  If we assume that 50% of this water is used on the Old, where The Open will be played in 2016, the annual irrigation use is only 5,925 cubic metres.

Water use for irrigation on golf courses varies each year depending on how much rain we get – something that probably doesn’t impact on fracking’s use of water.  At best, the figures from the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which have been quoted by prominent politicians, are misleading and, at worst, a gross exaggeration of the truth.  This state of affairs is, unfortunately, not uncommon when it comes to many of the negative perceptions about golf.

Golf’s use of chemicals

Golf does use chemicals to feed and protect its playing surfaces.  However, the game uses fewer chemicals per area of land than many other forms of land management, with the majority of chemical use focused on the single hectare of greens, and infrequent applications to the 16 or so hectares of fairway. 

With an 18-hole golf course being incorporated into 60 or more hectares, routine fertiliser and pesticide applications are made to approximately one third of that land.  Compare that to most agricultural land management uses which apply chemicals to 100% of the area of their crop. 

The current strategy for golf is to minimise the use of chemicals, turning to them only as a last resort.  This is achieved through the implementation of integrated pest management (IPM), which focuses on cultural control measures alongside biological and chemical measures.  However, golf can do more to limit the need for synthetic chemicals.  Golf course management should use more organic-based products and support research to identify alternatives to synthetic chemicals that pose no threat to the environment.

Golf’s role in nurturing wildlife

Golf is a global sport and it can contribute towards the fight to reduce the tragic loss in biodiversity being reported by the likes of the UN and the EU.  Golf is played on mown grassland, but more than 50% of the land occupied by a golf facility can be available for wildlife.  Greenkeepers consider themselves to be custodians of the land and many take great pride in the wildlife found on the course they manage.  Habitat management is high on the golf agenda, improving the diversity of land form to provide a home for more wildlife.  Water and wetlands feature on many golf courses.  Sensitive landscapes, such as links, are protected by golf courses.  Wildlife is safeguarded by reduced use and better targeting of pesticides.  Many endangered species find a safe haven on golf courses.

Make your contribution known

 The R&A is working to promote golf’s benefits, leading in its advocacy of sustainable course development and management, and through GreenLinks, The Open’s sustainability programme.

If you and your club are making a positive contribution to your economy, community and environment, and many of you will be, then let the world know!  In a world where bad news seems to dominate media coverage, highlighting the excellent work that golf is doing on a local, national and global basis is the responsibility of us all.

The R&A supports the GEO and existing golf facilities, new golf developments and golf tournaments can showcase their value to society through GEO’s online recording, reporting and certification services.


The Economic Impact of Golf on the Economy of Europe, Sports Marketing Surveys Inc, 2013

Chief Medical Officer, European Tour

Golf: a game of life and death - reduced mortality in Swedish golf players. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 2008

Biodiversity; what its worth to you?  Government of the Netherlands, 

Destrucción a toda costa 2006 – Andalucía, Greenpeace España, 2006

Royal Spanish Golf Federation and Spanish Greenkeepers Association

GEO Foundation