Q: Not to toot my own horn, but I fancy myself as a pretty planet-friendly guy. I drive a hybrid, have installed all sorts of energy-saving devices around my home and eat a minimal amount of meat. I work hard so I can play hard and my “playtime” involves biking, hiking and an activity that’s a touch more civilized: golfing. Recently, I’ve entered a period of golf-related guilt — call it nine iron neurosis — as it has become more and more clear how resource-intensive and polluting golf courses are.


When I swing, I choke thinking about water use, landscaping chemicals and the destruction of natural habitats to make way for new courses. Seriously, it’s handicapping my handicap. I prefer to frequent regional courses and sometimes ones further afield. But no matter the locale, I’ve yet to play one that promotes itself as “eco-friendly.” As summer approaches and my golf engagements pick up, I’m curious how I can go about finding a golf course that I can feel good about playing (and one that can improve my skyrocketing handicap). I heard Justin Timberlake recently opened a “green course” … is there a certifying agency that deemed it so?


A green golfer trying to keep up to par,


— Joel, Boise, Idaho

Hey Joel,

Yikes … this question sure does bring me back. I come from a long line of golfers although I myself was born a hacker. Still, I spent much of my childhood on and around golf courses. In fact, my granny lived directly on one and would frequently send my brother and me out into a heavily wooded system of ravines that wove through her course on golf ball hunts. I’m not sure if she had recycling or thrift in mind, but we loved spending hours romping through the woods on the prowl for errant balls that were hit off course and lost in the dark underbrush of the ravines … think of it as a country club Easter egg hunt. With each ball we found we’d scream “Geronimo!” and at the end of the hunt, we’d scramble out of the ravine to see who had collected the most salvageable balls. So I guess, in a way, I helped make that golf course a bit more green by putting lost golf balls back into circulation. Or, at least, I saved my grandmother a few bucks.

But excuse my tangent, Joel. It’s no surprise that you’re experiencing waves of eco-guilt that are affecting your game because golf courses aren’t the most sustainable of places despite their well-groomed, verdant looks. You were, ahem, on course when you mentioned intensive irrigation needs (an average American gold course requires up to 50 million gallons of water per year), the use of landscaping chemicals that can pollute ground and surface water (an average of 18 pounds of pesticides are used per acre, per year on golf courses compared to 2.7 pounds of pesticides used per acre, per year in agriculture) and development that degrades natural areas (golf courses cover over 1.7 million acres of land in the U.S.) — those are the big eco-concerns.

There is, however, a rather sizeable movement within the golf industry focused on greening the sport and I’m not talking about just recyclable golf balls and bio-resin tees. The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses is an established certifier of courses that “protect the environment, conserve natural resources, and provide wildlife habitats.” There are hundreds of certified courses across the country, including four in your neck of the woods. Then there is the more heavy-duty restoration/redevelopment certification for existing golf courses, the Audubon Classic Program. Only one course in the U.S. is designated as a certified Audubon International Classic Sanctuary. That would be none other than Justin Timberlake-founded Mirimichi in Tennessee.

While the ACSP for Golf database will help you locate a course that takes environmental stewardship seriously, the Golf and the Environment Initiative, a joint effort of Audubon International, The PGA of America and the USGA, maintains a comprehensive website where you can learn more about the important eco-issues and solutions and even pledge to become an Audubon Green Golfer.

In addition to the ASCP, the Scotland-based Golf Environment Organization is an international nonprofit group “working to enhance the social, economic and environmental benefits of golf.” A key component of GEO is a rigorous certification program. Although there are several GEO Certified golf courses in Europe, only one property in the Americas has achieved GEO certification: Mirimichi.

So, Joel, I hope knowing that there is indeed a burgeoning “green golf course” movement will help you shake that nine iron neurosis and improve your game. While golf’s sustainability crusade may not have a “face” as tennis does in the form of Billie Jean King (perhaps it’s JT or Don Cheadle?) that doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands of avid golfers who similarly feel that golf shouldn’t result in “a good planet spoiled.”


Related on MNN: Justin Timberlake's eco-golf course receives international honor.

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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