The organic golf course: green or greenwash?

US presidents golfing on vacation is hardly news, but President Obama’s choice of a course for his ten days of family time in Martha’s Vineyard this month did make the New York Times… because the Vineyard Golf Club “is thought to be the only completely organic golf course in the United States…”

That’s a good thing, no doubt: the club uses no synthetic chemicals for controlling pests, weeds, or fertilizing the course’s grass. You’ll even find some weeds here and there… a rarity on the typical chemically-controlled course.

But is this, and other “green” golf course management practices a case of the “hidden trade-off” form of greenwashing? Limiting or eliminating synthetic compounds certainly decreases the health impact of maintaining courses on workers and nearby residents, and insures that pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers aren’t killing beneficial flora and fauna… but the environmental impact of golf courses doesn’t stop with applications of nasty chemicals. Other potential problems include

  • Water use: As recently as 2008, Audubon International estimated that the average course used 312,000 gallons of water per day… and courses in desert region could use as much as 1 million.
  • Wildlife and habitat impacts: Any golf course built on virgin land will impact the plants and animals there, from cutting off migration routes to introducing non-native, and potentially invasive, species into that ecosystem.

Greening the Golf Course

Course managers have been addressing these issues in many places: Rutgers’ Professional Golf Turf Management School has a brief overview of some of the steps these professionals can take to lighten the ecosystem impact of courses. Some courses have been built on less-desirable land: strip mines and quarries, for instance. In the Middle East, course managers often don’t try to create “green space” — courses are sandy (but, of course, deserts are ecosystems, too). And Audubon has created a program aimed at balancing course management for players with maintaining critical habitats.

There’s clearly some innovative activity going on here… is it enough? Is the President making the right statement by playing on an organically-managed course… or would it be better if he just didn’t play at all? I’m not a golfer, so I don’t have insight into the environmental concerns (or lack thereof) of those who regularly hit the links… so I’d love to hear from those of you who do.


Image credit: The White House at Flickr