By Seth W. Hiller, on April 2, 2013

Since the economic downturn in 2008, the formerly booming golf industry saw large declines in the number of people playing golf and the number of new courses being developed.[1] Despite the downturn, there are still over 15,000 golf courses in the United States, covering an area the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.[2]  Golf courses are notoriously thirsty consumers of water, and recent droughts have put an additional strain on the already struggling golf industry.[3] With global warming altering weather patterns and threatening water supplies across the country, some scientists are predicting an increased frequency of droughts like the one that devastated much of the Midwest in 2011 and 2012.[4]  The severity of the recent drought and its continuing effects can scarcely be understated, as multiple sources have claimed that it is the worst drought since the dust bowl of the 1930’s, with estimated damages in the tens of billions.[5]  In response to the drought and ongoing water shortage issues, many areas have seen an increase in laws governing water usage, and golf course superintendents anticipate a continued rise of water restrictions.[6] Golf course personnel would be wise to pay attention, as the average U.S. course uses 312,000 gallons of water a day, or the equivalent of what a family of four gets through in four years.[7]

The golf industry has been aware for decades of environmental concerns surrounding golf courses, one of which is water consumption.[8] In addition to providing researchers with millions of dollars for turfgrass and pesticide research and making significant efforts to educate groundskeepers on best management practices, leaders in golf have been exploring ways to reduce water consumption.[9] Since major research initiatives in the 1990s, conflicting reports abound about the number of golf courses that have become more eco-friendly.  A report in 2004 said that “despite nearly a decade of effort by the golf industry to mitigate the sport’s environmental impacts, golf courses remain as controversial as ever and the sport’s soaring popularity has enlarged, not shrunk, its ecological footprint.”[10]  Another source proffers that 77% of eighteen-hole golf facilities in the US that have taken steps to conserve energy.[11]  Yet, the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA) states that only approximately “12 percent of golf courses in the U.S. currently use recycled water for irrigation,” and “29 percent of 18-hole golf courses are involved in a formal, voluntary environmental stewardship programs.”[12]  Another source declares that a study by the National Golf Foundation (NGF) “reported approximately 13 percent of golf courses nationwide now use effluent irrigation sources, and this increased to 34 percent in the Southwest.”[13]

Regardless of the specific numbers of courses that employ improved irrigation techniques to reduce water consumption, golf is substantially better suited to cope with drought because of serious efforts by many in the golf industry to curb negatives environmental impacts from courses.  Planning ahead in anticipation of water restrictions has inadvertently benefited many golf courses by preparing them for natural restrictions on water resources, such as extreme drought.  While many courses can get by utilizing their own water supplies such as ponds and wells, those supplies may run dry soon and the local government may not be in a position to fill the deficit with restricted potable water supplies.  In short, “rainwater is the best form of irrigation for any golf course, but those that can use recycled water have had a distinct advantage over golf courses that rely on well water or city water.”[14]

Courses that failed to take environmentally friendly initiatives over the last decades are worse off for their lack of planning and investment.  For example, a course in Oklahoma was closed last month after failing to reach an agreement with the city after a meter indicated the course was using a million gallons a month during one of the worst droughts in the state’s history.[15]  Other courses are faring better by using retreated wastewater, which allows them to pump “thousands of gallons more than usual onto the fairways each day” to keep the courses green.[16]  Courses that previously invested in effluent and other water reclamation technologies have not only survived the drought, but some have actually seen an increase in play.[17] A more efficient irrigation system alone may not be enough to save some courses, as one superintendent complained: “when it’s above 90 degrees people just don’t play . . . we normally average 100-150 rounds per day and lately it’s been around 40 per day.”[18]

Irrigation systems are sometimes combined with other environmentally sound management practices, such as using native turfgrasses that are resistant to drought or altering the course to effectively capture runoff.  Courses engaging in responsible water usage and other environmentally friendly investments will certainly weather the drought better than those that don’t.  The golf industry stands as an example of the need for intelligent environmental foresight and stewardship, as courses that did the right thing and embraced environmentalism are now better situated to face nature’s challenges.

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[1] David Hueber, The Changing Face of the Game and Golf’s Built Environment, The Graduate Sch. of Clemson Univ. (Aug. 2012), available at (detailing decline of golf course development and participation over last five years).
[2] See Kit Wheeler & John Nauright, A Global Perspective on the Environmental Impact of Golf, 9:3 Sport in Society 427 (July 2006), available at
[3]Mike Bailey, Drought Takes Its Toll, But At Some San Antonio Golf Courses, There’s a Green Lining, World Golf (Sept. 26, 2011), (noting “many courses’ tee sheets have been greatly affected by the drought conditions . . .”).
[4] Nick Wiltgen, 2012 Drought Rivals Dust Bowl, The Weather Channel (July 16, 2012, 1:03 PM), (noting that “the 2012 drought disaster is now the largest in over 50 years, and among the ten largest of the past century, according to a new report released by the National Climatic Data Center . . .”).  See also Jack Healy, Thin Snowpack in West Signals Summer of Drought, N.Y. Times, February 22, 2013, available at (predicting widespread summer drought in 2013).
[5] John Reitman, Another Year of Drought?, TurfNet (Feb. 21, 2013), (“The NOAA called it the worst drought since the 1930s Dust Bowl.”).
[6] Bailey, supra note 3.
[7] Ben Schiller, Fore! Water-Sucking, Pesticide-Covered Golf Courses Try To Clean Up Their Act, Fast Co. (Sept. 12, 2011),
[8] David Dornak, A New Generation is Teeing Off: Is Tiger Woods Making Divots On Environmentally Sound Golf Courses? 23 Colum. J. Envtl. L. 299 (1998) (noting first golf industry environmental summit in 1978).
[9] James T. Snow, Water Conservation on Golf Courses, Int’l Turf Producers Found., Case Study 7, p.48 (2001), available at (“Since 1982 the United States Golf Association has distributed more than $18 million through a university grants program to investigate environmental issues related to the game of golf, with a special emphasis on the development of new grasses that use less water and require less pesticide use.”).
[10] Thirsty Golf Courses Drive Environmental Protests, Scripps-Howard News Serv., Apr. 22, 2004, available at
[11] Golf’s Sustainability, We Are Golf, (last visited Mar. 13, 2013).
[12] Id.
[13] Water Woes: A New Solution for Golf Courses, Cybergolf, (last visited Mar. 13, 2013).
[14] Id.
[15] Steve Metzer, Waning Water Supply Claims Comanche Golf Course, The Lawton Constitution (Feb. 28, 2013), available at
[16] Melissa Jenco, No Lie: Area Golf Courses Enduring the Drought, Chi. Trib. (July 15, 2012), available at
[17] Bailey, supra note 3 (“While many courses’ tee sheets have been greatly affected by the drought conditions, Willow Springs, an excellent 7,221-yard A.W. Tillinghast design, has seen an increase in play.”).
[18] Scott Davidson, Golf Courses Weather the Drought, Stacey Page Online (July 18, 2013),


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