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19 Apr 2017

Community Voices: Fore No More—I'm Cheering Golf's Steep Decline to Preserve Water, Save the Environment

Written by  Michael Baughman

As a teenager caddying at a restricted country club, I resented the bigotry, but accepted the tips. I learned to play golf myself and eventually got fairly good at it—but now I hate the game.

Let me tell you why.

The ecological and aesthetic harm caused by most of the world’s 34,000 golf courses—45 percent of them here in the United States—is widely acknowledged today. Natural habitats have been disfigured and destroyed to create highly organized, artificially watered and unarguably fake nature. Some people find golf courses calming and beautiful, but that beauty comes at a price.

Since 1982, the United States Golf Association has funded efforts to conserve water through improving irrigation technologies, planting grasses that require less irrigation, and using recycled water from sewage-treatment facilities. Despite these commendable efforts, precious water is still being squandered—including a lot of it right here in the Coachella Valley, where, despite a severe drought, golf courses continue to use about 37 million gallons of water a day. In drought-stricken Arizona, Phoenix-area courses routinely use more than 80 million gallons per day. The pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides spread by irrigation water harm complex ecological systems on land and at sea.

So critics like me are happy that the game’s popularity is waning. According to the National Golf Foundation, a high of 30.6 million golfers in 2003 had been reduced to 24.7 million by 2014. The number of golfers between ages 18 and 34 has declined by 30 percent over the past 20 years. Kevin Fitzgerald covered this very topic in the Independent last December in a story called “Business Bogeys.”

One of the issues Fitzgerald covered: Millennials are apt to find the game far too slow—five hours or more to finish 18 holes—for their 21st century tastes.

The ultimate result is that more than 800 courses across America have closed in a decade. Some of these courses have become housing developments, others parks, while a few landowners have taken advantage of tax breaks by donating their properties to nature trusts.

One of the reasons for this change had been explained succinctly in Forbes Magazine: People simply can’t afford to play golf anymore. I find that easy to believe. In 1958, a friend named Bob and I, both of us college students, reserved a tee time and paid $8 apiece to play 18 holes at the famed Pebble Beach course on the Monterey Peninsula. (We talked about natural beauty during our round and agreed that the land, sea and sky we saw that day would have been far more beautiful without the intrusion of the golf course on which we played.) For a similar tee time today, however, Bob and I would be required to stay a minimum of two nights at the Pebble Beach Lodge or an affiliated property, and the 18 holes would cost us a minimum of $1,835 apiece—carts and caddies not included.

Mark Twain may or may not have said (the quotation’s origins remain murky): “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” But even that isn’t true anymore, because very few golfers still walk. Most climb in and out of motorized carts whose costs aren’t included in Pebble Beach’s exorbitant greens fees. The only virtue the game ever had—moderate exercise—is gone forever.

It would be impossible to pass legitimate judgment on golf without mentioning our current so-called president, who owns 37 courses worldwide. He also plays the game—though apparently not very well. Of course, former President Barack Obama and many others also played some golf, too. But Donald Trump is in a league of his own, as sportswriter Rick Reilly put it: “When it comes to cheating, he’s an 11 on a scale of one to 10.”

We assuredly have a right to ask for both better games and better presidents. I understand that a backpacker or cross-country skier might be too much to hope for, but we’re in desperate need of an authentic populist. When we get one, maybe she will bowl or shoot pool.

Michael Baughman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where a version of this piece first appeared. He is a writer in Oregon. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily the opinions of the Independent.

2 comments

  • Comment Link JC Saturday, 22 April 2017 15:44 posted by JC

    I'm 57, and I've always thought of golf as a sport for rich old farts, played at exclusive clubs that discriminate on the basis of class, if not for more nefarious reasons. The land and water resources that these golf courses exploit for the benefit of a select few are obscene in today's world. The era of enormous man-made green spaces and lakes in the California desert should be over but, god forbid, you tell some rich old fart what to do with his money. I'm sure golf isn't going away anytime soon, but I'm not crying over its decline. Thanks for the article.

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  • Comment Link Jim Jacobs Wednesday, 19 April 2017 04:15 posted by Jim Jacobs

    You obviously know very little about the positive aspects of golf, you present it as an old man's game when this is not the case at all. In 2015 2.2 million people took up the game, the highest since 2004, as well as this youth participation in organisations like the First Tee and AJGA too increased significantly from the previous year. Outside of golf's apparent growth, golfing organisations like the PGA last year gave $2.46 billion to charity, a lot more than the NFL and other sporting organisations. It's becoming irksome to see the Media present golf in such a negative light when they clearly know very litlle about the sport

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