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Sustainable Golf Courses: A Complete Guide to Going Eco-Friendly On and Off the Course

Sustainable Golf Courses: A Complete Guide to Going Eco-Friendly On and Off the Course

With golf’s post-pandemic popularity still surging, course operators and golf’s governing bodies walk a tightrope between recreation and responsibility. Done well, sustainable golf courses are additive spaces that promote recreation, aid in drainage and water runoff, sustain natural habitats, aid in carbon capture and more. That said, golf courses can also be disruptive, wasteful operations if they are poorly managed.

For the sake of the environment, as well as golf’s long-term viability, sustainable architecture, agronomy, maintenance and business practices must be top of mind for all new and existing golf courses in North America. With that, let’s look at what goes into running sustainable golf courses and how operators can become more eco-responsible.

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What is golf course sustainability?

Golf course sustainability is a broad topic that covers everything from golf’s environmental impacts, to accessibility and participation, to economic concerns. For our purposes, however, environmentally sustainable golf courses are ones that consider the following:

  • Balancing golf course conditioning and the consumption of critical natural resources
  • Optimizing water consumption, irrigation, sourcing and storage
  • Routing courses with minimal intervention and in harmony with the environment
  • Preserving the natural habitats in and around facilities and playing areas
  • Minimizing the use of chemicals and pesticides
  • Reducing their carbon footprint through technology and infrastructure investments

Sustainable golf courses also minimize the footprint of their off-course business activities: clubhouses, restaurants, pro shops and outbuildings. It’s important to consider the impact all of these on- and off-course operations to fully commit to sustainability.


How much water does a golf course need?

As temperatures rise and drought conditions persist, how golf courses manage water and irrigate playing surfaces has become the critical issue in the era of climate change.

It’s important to understand the challenges, opportunities and industry initiatives aimed at standardizing smarter water use.

A golf course’s water needs depend on a host of factors, from the type of turfgrass, soil, climate and seasonality to aesthetics and playing surfaces. Ultimately, superintendents must consider all of these factors to create the most enjoyable, sustainable courses possible.

The type of grass

Golf course turfgrass comes in many varieties, each with their own subspecies, benefits, drawbacks, growing patterns and water needs. Here is a very general overview:

Warm-season grasses: Thrive in hotter, sunnier climates and will go dormant in the late fall and winter months when temperatures are consistently below 60F. Warm-season grasses are generally more drought tolerant than cool season grasses. Bermuda, Zoysia, Buffalograss, Kikuyu, Bahiagrass

Cool-season grasses: Grow well in cooler temperatures between 60 and 75 and are well adapted to cold winters. Generally, cool-season grasses require more water than warm season grasses. Fescue, Creeping bentgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, Perennial ryegrass

Transition zone grasses: Grasses that grow well in the transition zone—a strip of land separating the USA’s northern and southern growing regions: Certain warm season grasses like bermuda grow well in the warm, dry summers and are better at withstanding the winters. Cool season grasses like certain species of fescue can handle the region’s cooler winters while maintaining better drought tolerance in hotter, sunnier conditions.

Resilient, drought-tolerant grasses that need less water are essential for golf course sustainability. When grass is irrigated or rained on, it naturally loses water through evapotranspiration (ET).

Evaporation + Transpiration = Evapotranspiration

The process by which a plant loses water by evaporation from the soil surface and by transpiration from the leaves of the plant itself. The ET rate fluctuates based on factors such as solar radiation, wind, humidity and temperature.


Accounting for ET, the more water turfgrass is able to retain, the better. A 1994 turfgrass study (cited in this paper) found that ET rates for cool-season grasses generally range from 3 to 8 millimeters (mm) per day, whereas rates for warm-season grasses range from 2 to 5 mm per day.

Take bermuda grass: this low-maintenance warm-season grass has a very high drought tolerance thanks to its deep root system that reaches groundwater more efficiently. Conversely, cool-season grasses like Kentucky bluegrass and fine fescues are less heat tolerant and dry out quickly without regular irrigation.

Climate and season

Of course, not all Bermuda grasses and fescues are created equal. Studies carried out by the USGA found that the drought response of turfgrass species varied significantly depending on the local climate.

This is also the case when comparing cool-season and warm-season grasses. In cooler, very rainy climates, golf courses can get by with using only one acre-foot of water per acre each year. Compare that to courses in very hot, dry climates that can use up to six acre feet per year.

As we’ve mentioned, warm-season grasses go dormant and brown in the winter months and cold-season grasses exposed to peak summer sun will need more water relative to other times in the year.


Soil drainage, or how water moves through soil via gravity, is a key measure of a golf course’s overall turf health and playability:

  • Good drainage means water flows more freely down from the surface of the soil to the roots, preventing excess water, as well as shallow rooting
  • This leads to firmer, faster playing conditions.

If we’re solely talking about drainage, sandy soil reigns supreme: its large particles take up less service area per given volume of soil when compared to denser silt and clay soils. This allows water to distribute efficiently, while also making it easier for grasses to establish deep, healthy root systems.

While pure sandy soil retains less plant-available water and often requires more frequent irrigation than denser soils, it also requires less water per irrigation cycle.

But what about denser silt and clay soils that retain more water? This is clearly a key consideration for golf course sustainability and water conservation. But denser soils that are slower to drain can lead to damp, diseased, unhealthy turfgrass if they are over-watered and improperly managed.

To compromise between drainage, playability and water retention, golf courses can turn to loamy soils that are a combination of sand and silt. Courses can also install layers of gravel, leak-proof sub-grades and plastic liners underneath soil with high sand content to improve water retention around root systems in areas where water conservation is important.

Playing surfaces

Tees, fairways, rough and greens are stressed differently, mowed differently, seeded differently and irrigated differently. Specifically, the differing mowing height of these playing surfaces has a large impact on water use. This is because reducing mowing height impacts the root system, as well as the grass plant’s ability to absorb water and nutrients.

Grass at increasingly lower mowing heights is also more prone to damage from heat, high traffic, insects and disease when subject to drought stress, and requires more water. Conversely, rough areas and native areas with good soil conditions require very little irrigation relative to low-mowed areas.


Smart water management for sustainable golf courses

Let’s look at the sustainable water management practices golf courses can leverage to improve their environmental stewardship, become more efficient and create amazing playing conditions.

Better irrigation systems and best practices

How well golf courses can accurately control and tightly regulate water distribution around their properties plays a crucial role in sustainability and conservation. Both irrigation systems themselves, as well as irrigation best practices matter here:

  • Sprinkler zoning: Adjusting spacing between sprinklers to reduce overlapping coverage, leading to overwatering and unnecessary water runoff
  • Multiple cycling: Ensuring one area is not watered too fast for too long, causing runoff and waste. Instead, using irrigation systems that can divide watering times for areas into multiple shorter cycles via automation
  • Timing: Watering in the late evening through the early morning means less evaporation and more efficient water consumption.
  • Equipment design: the USGA cites the importance of constantly evaluating and optimizing sprinkler head design, nozzle selection, pipe size, head spacing and more to ensure uniform coverage while reducing water and energy consumption
  • Automated controls: Investing in automated irrigation systems help greenskeepers both schedule watering regimes for greens, tees and fairways, while helping them quickly adjust for ambient weather, soil moisture and different root zones around the course
  • Weather tracking: Using advanced on-site weather stations and weather reporting software can help courses their precise irrigation replacement needs to reduce overwatering
  • Monitoring soil moisture: Hand-held moisture sensors can now help greenskeeping staff accurately measure turf soil moisture needs to ensure no unnecessary watering
  • Benchmarking: It’s essential for golf courses to meter the water used for irrigation in order to create benchmarks for all conservation and water reduction efforts

Deep infrequent irrigation (DI) vs light frequent irrigation (LF)

Light frequent irrigation involves keeping the first few inches of soil consistently moist, whereas deep infrequent irrigation waits for signs of plant wilting before applying enough water to wet the soil down to 10 inches or more.

According to a study at the University of Maryland, deep infrequent irrigation produced improved root quality, quantity and surface area while using less water overall when compared to light frequent irrigation.

Sustainably-sourced water

How golf courses source water has become a point of scrutiny, especially as many regions regularly grapple with water insecurity and drought. So, how has the industry done in recent years?

  • According to a 2021 survey by the Golf Course Superintendents Association, US courses used nearly 10% less water in 2020 compared to 2013 and 29% less compared 2005
  • One third of this reduction was due to course closures while the remaining two thirds was due to advances in water use efficiency
  • Median acre-feet per acre of applied water per U.S. golf facility in 2020 was 1.01, which was 22.9% less than 2005
  • The percentage of water applied from recycled water in the US increased from 15% in 2005 to 21% in 2020 but remained flat since 2013
  • The Southwest and Southeast regions accounted for 58% of the total applied water in the US in 2020 which was comparable to 2005 and 2013
  • The Southwest region accounted for 47% of the total applied recycled water in the US in 2020 and 50% of the total applied municipal water

There are encouraging signs that suggest more efficient, diversified water usage. But the survey also highlights the challenges of specific regions with regards to water use (notably the Southwest) and that reliable access to recycled water infrastructure is still lacking nationwide.

Recycled water

Recycled, reclaimed water refers to the use of wastewater from municipal sewage treatment facilities (also called effluent) to irrigate golf courses. Starting out of necessity in the Southwestern US due to the hot, dry climate, irrigating courses with highly quality effluent has become a standard—and in some cases mandatory—practice there.

Following an extensive treatment process, reclaimed water is a viable, sustainable way to irrigate golf courses. It also helps municipalities avoid dumping effluent into nearby rivers.

There are challenges:

  • Recycled water can be high in soluble salts, which can stress the turf and soil
  • This water must be routinely tested for quality to ensure it meets a certain standard
  • Many courses lack the necessary access to infrastructure and financial resources to make high quality effluent a reliable source of irrigation

Stormwater runoff

Capturing stormwater runoff for irrigation helps courses subsidize water needs in the face of rising costs and restrictions. In addition to channeling, capturing and storing stormwater via ponds and other design features, golf courses can also work with local communities to capture stormwater, reduce flooding risks and minimize waste.

Like with reclaimed effluent, courses must filter and treat stormwater or adjust their agronomic practices to ensure water quality reaches a standard for irrigation. Municipal stormwater from parking lots, roadways and other high traffic areas is high in sodium and chlorides, which can cause dehydration in plants and poor turf health.

More resilient turfgrasses

The golf industry is also working to identify more resilient, drought-resistant turfgrasses that need less water and fewer pesticides. The USGA has invested millions via university grants and worked with organizations like the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) to test, evaluate and breed grasses with these attributes in mind:

  • The joint USGA/NETP warm season grass water-use trial tested various strains of bermuda, buffalo and zoysia grasses over three years in a variety of climates across the Southern USA
  • The study found a significant difference in turfgrass response across region, climate and strain
  • So while bermuda generally outperformed buffalo and zoysia for its drought tolerance, certain strains of bermuda (such as ‘TifTuf’) maintained better quality and more consistent drought tolerance than other bermudas across more regions ranging from the Southwest to the Southeast

This thorough, multi-year study is exactly the type of industry research that can help new and existing courses make better decisions about sustainable turfgrass selection in the most vulnerable regions.

Read the full results from the study here

Transition zone bermudas?

The University of Oklahoma has developed cold-tolerant bermuda grasses that are better suited for cooler transition zone climates. Recall that cool season grasses use more water than warm season grasses like bermuda. Leveraging more resilient bermuda grass in these cooler climates can result in water savings of between 30% and 50%.

Better bentgrasses

For cool season grasses such as bentgrass that typically require more water, finding more resilient strains can be a massive benefit for more northern courses. These “super bents” have been around for years now and are a viable option for courses who are looking to find ways to use less water.

Conditioning and aesthetics

One of the biggest misconceptions about golf course conditioning is that greener is better.

We’ve all marvelled at the images of Augusta National during the Masters: Elysian-like fields of impeccably green, impossibly uniform grass. The problem is that, due to Augusta’s outsized popularity and reputation, this aesthetic sets a false standard for many golfers as to what a golf course should look like in order to be considered worth playing. This is a standard that needs to change.

Why? Green fairways and rough don’t automatically translate to better playing conditions.

In the case of Augusta, its brilliance lies not in how it looks, but in its slopes, strategy, angles and overall design. In fact, the only reason why it appears so green each April is because the club overseeds the bermuda grass fairways with rye each fall to turn up the contrast. If its fairways and other tightly–mown areas were left to blemish, brown and go dormant, the course would still play just as dynamic.

Just look at the links courses in the UK and sandbelt courses in Australia—both of which are considered the best turf for golf in the world. Is playing golf in these areas enjoyable because the turf is green? No! It’s because the turf plays firm, fast and is a joy to hit off of, regardless of the visual “imperfections”.

The point? Overseeding with cool season grasses like rye simply to make courses appear more green requires using more water, all for a process that has little effect on play. By debunking myths around golf course conditioning and reinforcing the enjoyment of playing on fast, firm, dormant grass, the golf industry can both celebrate and commit to creating more sustainable golf courses.


Sustainable golf course maintenance and design

Water use aside, there are a number of course-specific decisions golf facilities can make to improve sustainability and environmental stewardship. Let’s dig into a few major ones.

Maintaining and protecting natural areas

The forests, wetlands, native grasslands, water features, etc that both border and fall within a golf course’s acreage are biodiverse areas home to ample plant and animal life. According to the USGA, the average American golf course contains 23.3 acres of natural areas (representing approximately 18% of the total average facility acreage).

When you consider that there are around 16,000 golf courses in the USA alone, golf courses play a vital role in conserving, protecting and expanding plant and wildlife sanctuaries in municipalities across North America. Doing so can create more sustainable golf courses that serve an essential recreational and an environmental purpose. So what can be done?

  • Mark off environmentally-sensitive areas to golfers and prevent access via carts and foot traffic
  • Route holes, walking paths and cart paths around or alongside natural areas instead of through them
  • Expand natural areas and add native vegetation wherever possible to increase protected land and reduce the amount of managed turfgrass
  • Work with third-party organizations and environmental groups like Monarchs in the Rough to restore and preserve thriving natural habitats in out-of-play areas
  • Refer to guidelines and standards set by organizations like the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf and get your course assessed and certified as a sign of your positive environmental stewardship

Green maintenance equipment and golf carts

Golf cart and course maintenance technology has evolved to the point where investing in a greener fleet is a viable option for golf courses. Of course, this equipment is a major investment for golf facilities. So while it’s difficult to build out a greener fleet all at once, gradually making the switch to electric-powered equipment is a commitment towards reducing emissions and your overall carbon footprint.

sustainable golf courses are switching to green golf cart fleets that use electricity over gasoline

Pesticide use

Chemicals and pesticides are key tools that superintendents use to maintain optimal turf conditions. While the use of pesticides at golf courses is tightly regulated across North America and requires extensive training and certification, there’s no doubt that there are environmental risks and consequences associated with their use.

  • Superintendents should focus on creating integrated pest management programs that strictly limit and regulate the use of pesticides and focus on eco-friendly practices
  • This comes down to strictly monitoring pest activity to make early detection and preventative practices easier, less invasive and more efficient
  • Carefully monitoring pest activity also makes pesticide spot treatment much easier

Incorporating natural areas into course design

The most effective way to reduce the amount of managed turfgrass is to remove it altogether in favor of natural grasses. Not only can this approach result in reduced water use, it can also create more dynamic, striking architecture.

Afterall, in their purest form, golf courses are found, not manufactured. Modern architects like Coore and Crenshaw, Tom Doak, OCM and Robert Trent Jones Jr. have committed to a more naturalistic, more sustainable approach to golf architecture focused on using the site’s natural hazards, grasses and play areas that require minimal intervention. For a dramatic example, consider the restoration that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw did at Pinehurst No. 2, one of America’s most revered layouts:


Sustainable golf course restaurants, pro shops and clubhouses

Sustainable golf courses are about more than the course itself. Committing to sustainability is about assessing your facility holistically and making incremental improvements wherever possible.

Reducing food waste

Food waste in North American restaurants has been a massive, persistent problem for decades.

For sustainable golf courses to become the norm, food waste is perhaps the single most pressing issue to solve outside of turfgrass management. Here are just a few steps you can take:

  • Adhere to strict food storage standards to reduce unnecessary food spoilage
  • Use a POS platform with advanced analytics and forecasting tools to understand what, when and how much stock to re-order to avoid over-ordering and overproduction
  • Reviewing training to reduce spillage and incorrect orders (better POS software will help here as well)
  • Talk to your staff and get their input and buy-in on how to reduce food waste and improve FOH and BOH communication
  • Find creative ways to reuse or repurpose leftover ingredients
  • Recycle and compost diligently wherever possible

Reducing food waste with an inventory management system

Inventory management software such as Lightspeed Inventory automates routine stocktaking, allowing restaurant proprietors to concentrate on actionable data to address inventory issues.

With this software, it’s simple to keep track of the amount of inventory acquired, generated, wasted or sold and minimize waste by making more informed purchases. In addition, Lightspeed Inventory streamlines the process by providing real-time deductions as menu items are sold and restocking when new inventory is received.

Learn more about reducing food waste here

Sourcing food and beverage locally

A major component of becoming more sustainable is shrinking the carbon footprint of your supply chain.

11% of food-related GHG emissions are a direct result of transportation. To reduce your golf course restaurant’s carbon footprint, consider sourcing your ingredients from local suppliers. From craft breweries, wineries and distilleries to farmers, butchers and bakeries, sourcing local:

  • Cuts down on emissions associated with deliveries
  • Creates smaller, more flexible supply chains
  • Supports the local economy
  • Makes your golf facility more of a community hub
  • Improves your course’s image among your customer base

Plastics and waste management

Single-use plastics are a cheap, easy solution when it comes to pre-made food prep and storage. This is especially true for golf course halfway houses and beverage carts serving sandwiches, wraps and other on-the-go meals.

That being said, single-use plastics are incredibly wasteful and harmful to the environment. It’s gotten to the point where countries like Canada are in the midst of a phased plan to ban single-use plastics completely by the end of 2025.

Taking steps to reduce the use of plastics is a major step towards creating more sustainable golf courses:

  • Eliminate the use of plastic bags and straws
  • Switch to compostable or recycled takeout containers and cutlery
  • Charge for takeout containers

In addition to cutting out single-use plastics, it’s essential for golf courses to have a proper system in place to manage waste both on and off the golf course.

  • Have dedicated trash collection on every tee box with bins separated out for recycling and garbage collection
  • Compost can enrich soil or plants, making it a great way to reuse waste.
  • If you have enough space and time, composting can be done either inside or outside your restaurant using a closed bin, soil and shovels
  • Enforce a zero tolerance policy for littering on the course and post signage reminding your customers in carts, in the clubhouse and out on the course

Using energy-efficient appliances

Cooking food, storing food and beverage and washing dishes to cleaning linens, ventilation, space heating/cooling—a golf course operation uses a substantial amount of energy in order to run smoothly. Upgrading your appliances and energy sources to ensure they are ENERGY STAR certified is a must to ensure your operation is running as efficiently and sustainably as possible.

Given the cost and energy savings associated with ENERGY STAR products, as well as the range of options available for commercial use, switching out your old commercial equipment is a quick win for golf courses looking to improve efficiency and sustainability in food preparation.

Go paperless where possible

Gone are the days when paper was a fundamental part of doing business. And while it’s impossible to eliminate paper use entirely, there are plenty of alternatives that golf courses can explore to go as paper-free as possible.

  • Instead of printing out tee sheets every morning for the starters, use a cloud-based tee sheet they can access via an iPad, anywhere on the course
  • Instead of printing out receipts for each customer, send pro shop and restaurant receipts directly to customers’ emails or phone numbers. This saves paper while also making it easier for customers to actually keep track of their receipts if they need them
  • Install hand dryers in washrooms to eliminate paper towel use
  • Ditch the physical menus in your restaurant: digital menus accessed via QR code offer far more flexibility, allowing staff to easily update or make edits when needed
  • Tools like Lightspeed Order Anywhere, let you create an online ordering experience that fits your branding with digital menus and gives customers more control over their order, anywhere on the course


The time is now to invest in sustainable golf courses

The golf industry faces numerous challenges as the climate continues to change and global environmental insecurities mount. That said, there’s no question that the industry has invested ample time and resources into making the game more sustainable.

So while the narrative still needs to change and more buy-in is needed, it’s never been more possible for golf course owners, operators and superintendents to invest in sustainability and become environmental stewards.

To find out how Lightspeed’s golf course management software can help your facility reduce waste and become more efficient, talk to one of our golf experts today.

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