Climate change: The future for golf courses?

A parched Ballybunion Golf Club in Ireland during the UK’s 2018 summer heatwave.

A parched Ballybunion Golf Club in Ireland during the UK’s 2018 summer heatwave.

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that it’s been rather hot and dry recently. Record temperatures and the most prolonged heatwave in UK history have left the nation sweltering and its golf courses scorched. The course above looks like a dramatic layout in some far-flung desert. It’s Ballybunion Golf Club in County Kerry, Ireland. A few months ago it was lush and green. And whilst it looks fantastic in this parched condition, it is, in all likelihood, a potentially ominous sign of things to come when it comes to golf courses in a changing climate.  

“Golf is impacted by climate change more than most other sports,” says Steve Isaac, director of sustainability at the R&A. “We are feeling it now with increases in unplayable holes, winter course closures and disruption to professional tournaments. And the future threats are very real.”

The global climate is getting hotter and drier. That means golf courses need more water than ever, but water is scarcer than ever. It’s a perilous situation that will change the golf courses we play sooner than most people think.  

“Over the coming years, water availability will become a major issue in the UK,” says Dr Keith Duff, specialist in golf environment issues. “Leisure interests are likely to find that unfettered access to irrigation water is no longer available, and it is highly likely that golf clubs will come under considerable pressure to reduce water use significantly. There will be a massive impact on how courses can be maintained, and the days of bright green golf courses will be numbered. They are not going to be sustainable in the longer term.”

So, if the days for golf courses in their current state are numbered, the key question must be how can they evolve to become sustainable in a changing climate? Here are a few of the options.


1. Synthetic courses
Golf courses made of artificial turf are already a reality, including Zilzie Bay Golf Club in central Queensland. “On a normal course you would spend $1-1.5 million looking after it,” says developer Chris Dadson. “We spend about $100,000 to 150,000 a year, including labour.”

Synthetic course could become more common in the near future.

Synthetic course could become more common in the near future.


2. Sustainable course design
“I foresee every course in the country having to become self-sufficient within the next decade with its own reservoir and water supply,” says leading course designer Jonathan Gaunt. “Eco-friendly architects will create sustainable courses which collect drainage water to be used on the course.”

Indoor golf is a solution to the sustainability concerns surrounding golf.

Indoor golf is a solution to the sustainability concerns surrounding golf.


3. Indoor Golf
Increasingly sophisticated golf simulators mean you can play 18 holes on the Old Course or Augusta National without leaving your house. While they are currently merely a handy alternative to the real thing, they may prove a viable replacement if real courses prove unsustainable.  

Nick Wright