The Sustainability Label Trap

Sep 11, 2023


In the ever-evolving world of golf course development, "Sustainability" has been a buzzword for some time, much like the resurgence of interest in using the term "Organic" for food. The word "Sustainability" is nothing new for many of the non-golfing population, as we see it used in almost every industry. However, golf has traditionally had an image problem related to sustainability, impacting the evolving perception of our great game. The words "Organic" and "Sustainability" are amusing to me. Mainly because what is now deemed "Sustainable" used to be the norm. In the old days, Golf Architects and their clients had no choice but to work with the land because they would have needed more sophisticated equipment to bulldoze a site into submission. They had fewer synthetic means of fertilizing or pest control. Simply put, they used what was available to them. 

Organic Sustainability

Before we dive into the world of golf course architecture, let's take a moment to reflect on the concept of "Organic" foods. The term "Organic" often conjures images of wholesome, pesticide-free produce, but in the not-so-distant past, it was merely known as "food." The rise of convenience-based processed and pre-packaged foods led us to a place where we now must distinguish between organic and non-organic options. Today, we understand that the depletion of resources and the consequences of convenience-driven living have prompted a return to a more natural, authentic, or "Organic" way of life.

Now, consider the world of golf course development. Sustainability, much like organic food, has emerged as a pivotal concept. Yet, it's essential to realize that many sustainable practices in golf have existed for over 100 years or longer. Back then, they were not labeled "Sustainable"; it was simply just how things were done. Golf courses of the past were much more inherently environmentally friendly, driven by necessity and the available technology or resources.

golf course design

The Past is History

For the past few decades, golf has experienced a rekindled fascination with the "Golden Age" of golf course design. The Golden Age included the early 20th century leading up to World War II. This era featured architects like Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie, and many other brilliant minds who worked with the land, creating courses that blended seamlessly with their natural surroundings. The result was an inherently more responsible, economical, and uniquely styled approach to golf course development.

However, during the mid-20th century, as new technologies emerged, golf course architecture took a different turn. Post World War II and the baby boom brought urban sprawl, planned communities, high-end destination resorts, and a high volume of golf course projects to feed the demand. Generally, we look back on this period with disdain, but can we really blame those involved? After all, the built environment of the period was a response to human needs and advancements in technology meant to improve our existence, or so we thought. Nowadays, we are also responding to our human needs and technological advances to improve our own lives. This self-inflicted vicious cycle has become an essential part of our survival. However, we seem to be better at predicting how our current needs conflict with future generations, but I digress. 

If golf development followed the same patterns as other forms of development, why is golf more often called out and pegged with being the resource-intensive land hog reserved for the fortunate few?

With golf becoming televised, the desire for perfectly manicured, lush green courses led to practices now widely criticized as detrimental to the environment. The "Augusta Syndrome," characterized by pristine, tightly mown turf and an air of elitism, became the standard expectation. Everyone was trying to keep up with the Joneses. While this era expanded the game's footprint and reach, it came at significant social and environmental costs. Not to mention the reputation of what was once seen as a commoner's game. There is a reason why many Golden Age or classic era courses, not to mention traditional links courses, have stood the test of time, with little more than periodic restoration work. The long-term cost of fast-paced, convenience-driven planning, development, and operation methods has created a need to differentiate between Sustainable and Non-Sustainable golf. What a shame.

Many courses from the mid-twentieth century are now being completely redone, going away ultimately, or in a free fall to failure. Since we can't undo the past, let's stay positive. Since the market crash of 2008, golf supply has been correcting itself. The quality and outlook for the Sustainability of new or renovated golf courses are much better. 

The Return to Sustainable Practices

The good news is that existing facilities and new projects aspire to be more "Sustainable." Many seek advice and validation from various sources to get there, which is commendable. Today, we find ourselves approaching golf development in similar ways to those of the Golden Age. Golf course architects and developers are in a renaissance period where much inspiration is drawn from those classic-era courses. Projects are often designed to harmonize with their natural surroundings, utilizing native grasses, more intelligent or minimal irrigation, and responsible maintenance techniques. Like any other industry, golf has recognized the need to learn from past mistakes and prioritize environmental stewardship and exceptional design principles for the foreseeable future.

golf course sustainability

Avoiding the Buzzword Trap

Back to food for a minute. In recent years, "Organic" has become a term often wielded more as a virtue signal than a genuine reflection of its core principles. Evidence resides in the eye-rolls at the mention of the word from people who know there is a decent chance that the "Organic" label was purchased, and there may be little difference between their options. 

I would argue that the term "Minimalism" has also started falling into this same misconception trap. Initially rooted in simplicity, functionality, and harmonious integration of golf courses with their natural surroundings, today's "Minimalism" in golf design can sometimes veer into ostentatious displays of perceived restraint. Minimalism has become a buzzword to portray environmental responsibility and aesthetic or strategic purity when some "Minimalist" projects require the same resource-intensive practices and indulgent features as the courses they hope to differentiate from. 

Granted, my colleagues and I may only sometimes get the luxury of a site ideally suited for golf. We do our best to mimic what the contextual influences of a site provide to create something that appears to have always existed. It is the right thing to do, but can what was not minimal in practice really be labeled "Minimalist?" Or are we just fooling ourselves with a label to signal that we do "get it." There can be a significant distinction between what is minimal in practice and what is minimal in style.

In this age of greenwashing and image-driven development, true Minimalism, with its profound emphasis on Sustainability and respect for the land, risks becoming a casualty of its own persona, as its essence is sometimes overshadowed by superficial gestures.

Sustainability is in danger of falling into the same trap. Sustainability is not a one-size-fits-all concept, style, or look that can be applied at will to signal righteousness or fit some marketing trend. In golf, real Sustainability means finding a self-perpetuating existence within your specific context, socially, economically, and, of course, environmentally. If one were to dig deeper (and I will in the future), much of it is a common sense reaction to what nature already provides. Whether a desert course conserves water or a coastal course protects fragile ecosystems, each site will have varied circumstances and carrying capacities that require tailored solutions to fit the project context.

golf course impact


The resurgence of Sustainable and Minimalist practices in golf is undoubtedly a positive, much like the resurgence of "Organic" food. However, we must be vigilant to ensure that Sustainability doesn't become an empty label that can be bought and deployed without a genuine understanding of its widely varied circumstances and required criteria to be deemed as such. Just as our grandparents or great-grandparents enjoyed organic food without the existence of the label, golf courses of the past embodied Sustainability as a natural part of their existence without even trying. As we move forward, let us embrace Sustainability less in name and more as an evolving practice. 

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