Will Golf Ever be Outlawed?

Sounds like a crazy question, no? Just last month I wrote that even in these good times for the golf industry, golf courses and clubs need to have a plan for potentially repurposing their properties. One element I failed to acknowledge is the ever growing issue of water. If not outlawed due to shortages of water, is the game likely to change as a result?

As we all know, golf courses use lots of water. Just yesterday, a friend sent me a blog post by former PGA Tour Professional Kermit Zarley suggesting that golf could actually be outlawed in the Southwestern United States due to the recent droughts. There have been several stories of late about the record low water level on Lake Meade, Zarley’s article points out that the City of Las Vegas, NV has already passed a law prohibiting grass lawns. Could golf courses be far behind? I don’t seek to rehash Zarley’s points (which can be read by clicking the link), but rather to fuel consideration for such an occurrence by golf courses.

In recent years, many golf courses have undertaken major renovation projects. More are being planned now as courses, flush with cash from the COVID sparked surge in golf are looking to enhance and improve their facilities. Should these clubs be looking at alternatives?

In the US Southwest, the issue of water usage is staring the golf industry in the face – NOW. However, many experts suggest that it’s not just the arid desert areas that are threatened as water becomes more and more of a scarce resource. I decided to pose this issue to 2 of the golf industry’s premiere experts. I asked award winning golf course architect Dr. Mike Hurdzan, and renowned agronomist Terry Buchen of Golf Agronomy International for their thoughts and suggestions on options for a potentially “dry” future in golf.

Dr. Mike suggested that there are possible solutions, but none may be very desirable. He thinks that a Southwestern US golf course uses about 1 million gallons of water per day during the most stressful periods, assuming wall to wall irrigation, fine turfgrasses, short heights of cut and irrigating up to the 90 acre limit. He provided six (6) ideas for consideration:

  1. CUT OUT GREEN TURF—Naples National (FL) has only about 50 acres of maintained turf, so turf reduction is the first step, even though it makes the golf course play more difficult for average and older folks.   I think that we could get by with perhaps 40 acres if required to do so.   Greens might have to be reduced to about 2,500 ft². 
  2. USE DROUGHT TOLERANT GRASSES—These would replace the Bermudas and Zoysias with Buffalo grass and more native species.   The playing conditions would be pretty rough but you could do it.
  3. USE MORE EFFLUENT WATER—Right now we try to blend effluent with fresh (somewhere around 50/50) to avoid salt problems.   Using 100% effluent would mean lots more Paspalum grasses or other salt tolerant grasses like Alkali grass.   California green construction is FAR better for salty water than is USGA.
  4. SHORTEN GOLF COURSES—get rid of as much length as you can and use a reduced flight ball (Cayman Ball), this might reduce the green turf down to perhaps 25 acres.
  5. USE ARTIFICAL TURF— this is an alternative to tees but it is not for greens.    Greens would be made small as I suggest in point #1.  
  6. GO TO “OILED SAND” GREENS—This is not the best of ideas but grassless greens do exist where there is no water, and it is a fun game to play.   Not fun when it is the only game but it would work.   Tom Lehman grew up on sand greens.

Buchen first asked: “During my lifetime, the population of the US has increased more than 135M people. Where is the fresh/potable water going to come from in the future just for the population let alone recreation water for golf courses, parks, lawns, building, resorts, etc.?” He also suggests the use of less turf, drought resistant grasses and more effluent but recognizes that getting effluent to the customer is a challenge. Buchen notes that Arnold Palmer designed a course years ago in Colorado that was 100% artificial turf. Warranties for the synthetic turf were for approximately 20 years. The course was never built so there’s no record of golfer acceptance.

As Buchen points out, it’ll likely be politicians who decide how valuable recreation is for the golfing public and whether the use of fresh water for irrigation can continue. Water usage records, submitted by superintendents to government agencies, are becoming more prevalent so that future water restrictions can be made on golf courses during drought or simply when there is not enough water to go around.

In some cases, any solution to the prospect of golf being banned is financially out of reach. Properties would need to be repurposed. We recently worked with a client whose water bill was so high that they are considering identifying a less water-dependent turfgrass and re-grassing the entire course. This club isn’t even located in the desert. But, water is so expensive that the impact on profitability and value is so significant, the cost may well be worth it.

Certainly, none of us want to be playing on sand greens, artificial turf or some other yet to be identified surface that would change the game to such a degree. Like Hurdzan says “You can’t ski where there isn’t snow. You can’t surf where there are no waves. You can’t climb if there are no mountains. And you MAY NOT be able to play golf where there is no water.” However, golf has a long history of responding to such challenges and stewardship of the environment. Let’s hope we don’t have to go there, but being prepared with a plan is always a good idea.