Opinion: golf may be good for your health, but it's a different story with its environmental impact

Despite being described by many as a good walk spoiled, golf has long been recognised as beneficial to cardiovascular health. It is good to get out into the great outdoors and get your body moving, with the only minor risks being a fall or being hit in the head with a stray ball (statistically quite a low risk). 

Healthwise, golf is great, but is golf as green as its greens and its fairways? There has been very little research into the environmental impact of golf specifically, but here are five things to consider if we want to make it greener.

(1) The litter problem of lost balls

If you have ever played golf, you will know that you go through a lot of balls. Many end up in inaccessible places and most are never to be seen again. This is one of the problems. It is difficult to know how many balls are lost every year definitively, though it is estimated that in the 300 million balls are lost annually in the United States despite many patents being filed for golf retrieval devices.

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report on reactions to the 1980 budget, which included an 5% increase in tax on golf balls

A 2009 Scottish exploration hunting for Nessie found a monster they didn't expect in the shape of hundreds and thousands of golf balls at the bottom of Loch Ness. Not only are golf balls being lost but some golfers are practicing their swing directly into waterways from Loch Ness to Pebble Beach. Apparently, Seinfeld has a lot to answer for on this. There are even golf balls left on the moon.

(2) The issue of plastic

We are increasingly aware that we are making and dumping too much plastic, which takes up to 1,000 years to decompose naturally. As this happens, microplastics enter the food chain and we eventually end up digesting them, which is not a nice thought. 

(3) What's actually in the golf ball?

Golf balls are fairly innocuous things right? Wrong. While Nike has patented a carbon-sucking golf ball, they have not exactly tee-ed off. Golf balls do decompose slowly in nature, but this can release heavy metals into the environment. Dangerous levels of zinc have been shown to attach to sediment and soil and ends up poisoning flora and fauna.

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From the Irish Independent, former one-term US president Donald Trump runs into difficulties on the 18th hole at his Doonbeg course in Co Clare

(4) Those green greens could be a lot greener

All land use has an environmental impact. Managing a golf course means a lot of mowing, watering and fertilising, which requires energy and causes greenhouse gas emissions. One Swedish study found that the energy required for one golf course totalled 16.5 GJ per hectare per year, about the same as running five average American cars. The carbon footprint is about 29 tonnes of carbon per year on average, which equates to almost 10 times the average person’s carbon usage.

Golfing greens are monocultures (meaning only one type of plant is there - grass) which by definition means there is very little biodiversity. In many cases, golf courses have cleared areas of natural forest to create their courses.

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report on the 1966 discovery of a ring fort dating from the Early Christian period on a gold course in Fermoy, Co Cork

The main message is that there are many opportunities to make a positive impact on the environment and golf is one such opportunity. We all need to work together on climate impacts and biodiversity loss and lots of small actions add up.

Golfers can consider alternative products such as eco-golf balls that claim to decompose quickly, and some even have fish food in them. Local clubs can look for and act on tips and advice on pollinators and biodiversity. Check out the top 10 sustainable golf courses to dream about playing a round in once all Covid-19 restrictions end. Closer to home, Enniscorthy golf club is doing some great things. And if you want to check out how "bad" some other things are, this guide from Mike Berners-Lee to the carbon footprint of everything is worth a read.

There are really simple things you get started with at little or no cost. The first step maybe to just start the conversation.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ