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Behind the Green: A discussion of the sustainability challenges and opportunities within the golf industry

Traditionally, the only thing ‘green’ about the typical golf course has been its colour. Excessive water, pesticide and herbicide use, compounded by the redevelopment of former wetlands and forests have led to harsh criticism from environmental groups. There’s increasing evidence, however, that a growing number of North American golf courses and organizations are embracing more environmentally responsible and sustainable approaches to golf course design, construction and maintenance.

As part of our commitment to golf (including the title sponsorship of the RBC Canadian Open and RBC Heritage) and our longstanding focus on environmental sustainability, RBC set out to explore some of the key challenges around golf and the environment, while shining a spotlight on some of the environmentally-progressive practices being implemented by an increasing number of courses.

The Challenges

Golf is one of the fastest-growing sports in North America. There are over 2.300 golf courses in Canada and 17,600 in the United States i. In years past, golf courses were constructed with little, if any, regard for the environment. The main environmental challenges associated with golf courses include:

Expand Water use

Expand Fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use

Expand Land management

Expand Energy use and air pollution


Advances in sustainable golf course design and maintenance

In recent years, we’ve seen increased efforts to incorporate environmental sustainability into golf course design, development and operations to reduce their environmental footprint. A golf course can provide benefits to the environment if constructed and managed using environmentally responsible methods. Golf courses looking to behave in a more environmentally responsible manner tend to focus their efforts in the following key areas:

Expand Golf course design

Expand Water mitigation

Expand Improved chemical use

Expand Energy efficiency

There has also been an emergence of third party environmental certification programs for golf courses. One of the most recognizable is the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses managed by Audubon International. To earn this designation, golf courses are subjected to an environmental audit in six categories: environmental planning, water conservation, water quality management, responsible chemical use, wildlife and habitat management, and outreach and education. Achieving certification demonstrates a course’s leadership, commitment, and high standards of environmental management. Currently, four per cent of Canadian and five per cent of U.S. golf courses are certified to the Audubon Program.


Looking Ahead

An increasing number of North American golf courses are demonstrating a willingness to become more environmentally sustainable by implementing programs and initiatives aimed at greening the design, construction and operations of their courses. While this trend is certainly encouraging, only a small percentage of golf courses in North America are Audubon certified today. And since the recession, many golf courses are in ‘survival mode’ and may not be allocating resources to managing environmental issues well.

Still, there is reason for optimism. Newly-emerging course design and maintenance techniques are contributing to a paradigm shift – one in which golf courses are contributing to, rather than detracting from, the natural environment. In this new and increasingly sustainable era, the leading golf courses will provide habitat for wildlife, serve as natural filtration systems for water and help raise awareness about the importance of preserving and protecting our natural resources.

So while the systematic greening of golf is not yet mainstream, a growing number of associations, organizations and golf courses are stepping up to demonstrate leadership in this area. In the meantime, organizations such as RBC have an integral role to play in helping to generate increased profile and awareness around the opportunities for enhanced sustainability in the sport. In the end, there will be significant benefits, not only to the game of golf, but also to the environment.


i. Saito, Dr., Osamu.

ii. National Golf Foundation. 2008.