When I was considering how to spend my vacation time
– a year off from work, a sabbatical – my friend had one word for
me: “Golf.” He said that since my nickname is “Green Gene,” I would
enjoy the natural setting of a golf course. He contrasted golf with
racket ball, saying the latter sport traps you in a concrete box.
I told my friend I would think about taking up golf
and I even went to play the front nine at a local course. I found
out that the course was the subject of some controversy ten years
ago; a pristine native canyon was destroyed to build it. It is now
150 acres of non-native grass and trees, mowed and trimmed
regularly. It is not really a “natural setting,” but it is pretty.
The beauty of the course is somewhat disrupted by the golf carts
purring about, speeding things up and sparing players the exercise
they might have gotten.
A truly natural setting would have native plants
flourishing as parts of the native ecosystem, including the insects,
birds, and animals that go with it. By contrast, a golf course is a
monoculture: Only the imposed set of plants are allowed, thus
mitigating the biodiversity of the area.
I was still prepared to give golf a chance. Even if
golf courses are not really natural, they are at least a welcome
break from crowded housing areas, malls and freeways. So I set out
to do research on golf courses. The following two well-documented
cases gave me pause.
U.S. Navy Lieutenant George Prior, age 30, died
after playing golf on three successive days at the Army Navy Country
Club in Arlington, Virginia in August, 1982. At first he had
headaches and nausea, then a severe rash; finally his organs shut
down and he died of a heart attack. Medical experts agreed that he
died because of exposure to Daconil 2787 – a fungicide which was
sprayed on the brown spots on the greens.
Among the many cases involving claims about chemical poisoning
is that of the famous golf pro Billy Casper. Over a 20-year period, Casper says
he suffered from symptoms including headaches, nausea and undue loss of energy.
Doctors diagnosed his condition as “pesticide poisoning.” Casper correlated his
symptoms with “heavily sprayed golf courses.”
Some golf courses did use less poison as a response to public
outrage about such cases. But temporary green gestures by greenskeepers do not
show us their true colors. Caution by greenskeepers varies over time, depending
on media coverage and especially in response to political currents. Although
there may be some truly green golf courses, my best advice for golfers today is:
The issue that finalized my decision about golfing was the use
of water on golf courses. Even in the rare locations where there is usually
sufficient precipitation, the greens are a special problem. Greens are a kind of
artificial environment because they are very closely cropped and subjected to
extremely high levels of foot traffic. (As the saying goes, even the world’s
worst duffer finally walks onto the green.) So when there is a pause in the
usual precipitation rate, heavy watering is required on 18 greens. Waterwise,
golf courses are always a threat to our supply.
Water shortages are a global problem today. In the U.S., 36
states will be facing water shortages this year. The most outrageous situations
are in California, Arizona, and New Mexico where there is simply not enough water
for golf courses. Water is piped in at great cost in order to create a “golfing
oasis.” While residents of Albuquerque are subjected to water rationing laws,
the very existence of golf courses seems absurd.
Golf advocates point to the fact that some courses drill their
own wells and even use grey water. But wells further deplete our precious
aquifers and public parks should be given priority when the limited amount of
high grade grey water is allocated. Parks are for everyone but golf courses are
for the special use of a minority – a minority of adults who want to play golf
and who can afford the greens fees.
I priced the greens fees at courses near my home in southern
California. A round of golf where I live costs at least $50 and golfers complain
that the fees are rising ahead of the cost of living. But surely we must
consider environmental costs as well. Golf courses incur a major cost to the
environment and hence to us all. If I play golf, I exercise a dubious privilege
in a world beset with problems of dwindling wilderness, chemical pollution, and
shortage of precious natural resources. All considered, I would have to say that
the old stereotype of the golfer as a member of a privileged elite has new
validity today. I told my one-word-golf friend that I have one word for him:
Gene C. Sager is Professor of Environmental
Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California.