Pesticide use for Plant Protection in golf – what will the future hold?

Paul Woodham, Head of Sustainable Agronomy – Europe at The R&AHead of Sustainable Agronomy – Europe at The R&A
19 Feb 24
3 mins
The R&A’s vision is to ensure that golf is thriving 50 years from now and protecting the golf course environment is important so that future generations can enjoy the sport. Managing golf courses in the most sustainable manner is crucial in this regard so that they are more resilient, more robust and able to adapt to our changing environment. We have a responsibility to show leadership in this area by implementing best practice course management, which will reduce the use of pesticides and  minimise the use of resources such as water and minerals. To achieve this, there must be a continuous focus on water security and plant protection strategies, both of which form an important part of Integrated Turf Management. 
  • Integrated Turf Management (ITM) aims to minimise the stresses, disease, pest and weed issues which can be damaging to playing surfaces. The principles for ITM focus on sustainable and best practice methods of greenkeeping. The aim is to consider and identify the pressures of a changing climate and regulation, as well as resource constraints on golf course management.  
Together with the ecological management of courses, we strive to promote the plant and habitat biodiversity which enriches the experience for golfers, as well as engaging people from outside of the sport. When we demonstrate the positive steps golf bodies are taking, many will see the beneficial and symbiotic role our sport has in protecting and enhancing the natural environment.

Maintaining standards

Golf needs to deliver acceptable and sustainable playing standards which facilitates the sport at all levels across a range of environments. For most, ITM will incorporate the responsible use of pesticides within a hierarchy of control measures aimed at reducing the reliance on herbicides, fungicides and insecticides.  The environment golf operates in continues to face the challenge of maintaining standards in the face of climate change, as well as an evolving political and legislative agenda which is also influencing the way in which golf continues to operate. In light of this, it is encouraging to see the many positive changes currently being made by facilities and greenkeepers, which are allowing the delivery of quality surfaces with greatly reduced inputs of pesticides. ITM strategies continue to develop and play a critical role in plant protection, even in the face of significant environmental pressures. We do, however, see occasions when the abiotic or physical pressure is too great and turf damage is encountered, even with the use of pesticides within a well-executed ITM plan. Furthermore, some regions in Europe are subject to tighter legislation than others. Here, reports of more frequent and extended periods of turfgrass damage and loss of appropriate quality can be concerning, not only to those regions where the most restricting legislation exists, but beyond these boundaries. These impacts serve as a warning of what could happen if the regulation changes and severely restricts, or enforces a total ban on the use of pesticides. 

Sustainable Use Regulation

Golf, sports turf and the wider environment, including agriculture, were recently subject to a legislative debate which could have resulted in seismic change. The proposed legislation which governs the use of pesticides within the EU – The Sustainable Use Regulation (SUR) – progressed somewhat unnoticed by end users, particularly by those outside of mainland Europe, right up until the point of voting by the European Parliament last November. As widely reported, on 6 February, the European Commission withdrew its SUR proposal in the face of widespread farmer demonstrations.  The draft proposal called for a complete ban on the use of pesticides within sensitive areas, which would have included golf courses. Unlike the existing Sustainable Use Directive (2009), which provides objectives to member states but not how to achieve them (which is why different member states currently have different approaches in legislation), the new regulation aimed to unify pesticide practice at member state level, by not only identifying goals for pesticide use, but by directing member states how to enforce them. For the UK, now outside of the EU, the impact of new legislation would be uncertain over time as the cost and availability of products could be significantly affected. The adoption of new regulation across the UK’s closest neighbours and market is likely to influence the future of pesticide use within UK golf and the wider environment.  The R&A and the EGA (European Golf Association) are part of  a working group with other stakeholders which aims to protect golf and present practical amendments to the proposals through demonstrating the importance of committing to sustainability and a future which allows time to transition to further reduction in the use of pesticides. The collective work includes development of Impact Assessments and a proposed Roadmap which would support the tabled amendments and meet the aspirations for change.  As mentioned, several regions in Europe are already subject to tightened legislation to a point where damage caused by disease, environmental stress, pest and weed invasion is affecting turf standards. Greenkeeping and course management strategies have evolved at pace in these regions, but not yet at to a point where the course can be maintained to appropriate standards without significant risk due to the lack of effective control offered from the responsible use of pesticides as part of ITM  practices. Although new regulation didn’t pass this time, the prospect of new European wide legislation has not gone away. There was certainly a lack of awareness within greenkeeping and course management circles, with sections of the industry not realising the huge potential implications should the new legislation be voted through. 
The R&A and the EGA (European Golf Association) are part of a working group with other stakeholders which aims to protect golf and present practical amendments to the proposals through demonstrating the importance of committing to sustainability and a future which allows time to transition to further reduction in the use of pesticides. 

Collaborative working

The first thing to acknowledge is that while the collaborative group working on the proposed amendments continues to have a presence and voice representing golf and natural turf sports at negotiations, the sector we represent is significantly smaller than agriculture, which proposed to reduce pesticide use by at least 50%. The aim of the golf working group is to retain access to an essential toolkit of pesticides but maintain a trajectory for reduction thus avoiding a complete ban. A period of transition towards what was still considered to be a drastic reduction in the use of pesticides, but not a complete ban, would allow time for the continued development of technologies and non-pesticidal management strategies which would start to mitigate the loss of pesticides. Time would also be needed for end users to implement and communicate change. Communication would be essential in both the need to adjust and improve the landscape of the course, to alleviate microclimate pressures which could prohibit the cultural and environmental gains needed to lower turfgrass stress and promote advancements in the grass species.  So, why was the SUR 2024 not voted through? The future of pesticide use and the important role pesticides play in agriculture gives the agriculture industry an influential voice at the decision making table. Alongside this came a number of additional amendments from wider groups (including golf) tabled throughout the consultation periods, right up to the point of voting, leaving the legislation diluted and, in the view of many MEPSs, not fit to deliver unified pesticide use across all member states.  For now, the Commission has announced the withdrawal of the proposal as it did not proceed to statute and implementation, but this doesn’t mean that a future revision of regulation won’t return. Media reports suggest that the vote failed and that’s it, but this is unlikely to be the case as we can expect legislation to be redrafted after further periods of consultation. How long this will take, and whether or not legislation will be passed in the future, cannot be confirmed but an indication from European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, in February 2024 is that “the topic stays.” She added that, “to move forward more dialogue and a different approach is needed, and the Commission could make a new proposal with much more mature content and with the stakeholders together.” This is a further indication that complacency on this issue will be dangerous because the pesticide journey is only heading in one direction.

Prepared for future   

There is no doubt that the non-adoption of the SUR 2024 has provided the industry with a reprieve and created some time for action to be taken and changes to be made so we are better prepared for the future. This was certainly the message communicated by R&A agronomists when discussing the potential implementation of SUR 2024. If the legislation had passed and amendments to the regulation had been accepted as set out in a roadmap, a reduction of 50% pesticide reduction could have been expected by 2026 with a further period of transition towards 80% reduction by 2030. If this basic premise becomes reality as a result of future legislation (and it could), work will have to start now, not only with benchmarking of pesticide use and communication campaigns, but also with the end user and clubs committing to the necessary improvements in turfgrass species management and environments.    The current position of the working group is published in a recent communication EU SUR update from the EGA_ 2024.01.22.pdf. For now, our work at The R&A continues to drive sustainability which protects and promotes golf, and ensure golf clubs and their environment are well equipped to understand and prepare for future change whether influenced by legislation, climate, player expectation or other challenges which come our way.  Experienced experts in The R&A Sustainable Agronomy Service are available to support clubs with further insight and bespoke understanding of the course agronomic conditions, greenkeeping management, threats and opportunities and guidance for ongoing management, balancing the sustainability initiatives with the delivery of appropriate standards. For more information, and to see the practical resources available from The R&A Research Programme GC2030, visit The R&A website at  and read about research in progress at