Can golf cure its water addiction?

Drought is making it harder for golf lovers to justify the game’s copious use of water

A golfer tees off near some of the piping that carries treated sewage used to water the golf course at The Ranch at Laguna Beach in Laguna Beach, Calif., on May 2. (Rick Loomis for The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — At The Ranch at Laguna Beach, golfers tee off under the dramatic shadow of a vast canyon, zipping around in electric carts and strolling along gleaming grassy fairways.

From the lush greenery, you’d never know California is emerging from a historic mega drought.

Golf and the Southern California climate make for uneasy bedfellows. The sport is often a target of water cuts by regulators — and of environmentalists who believe the game uses far too many resources in a world of water scarcity.

Kurt Bjorkman, The Ranch’s general manager, is quick to agree with all of it. He’ll also tell you that golf can be part of the solution. Since reopening in 2016 after an extensive renovation, the course has cut back its water use by switching to reclaimed water and planting less thirsty grass varieties.

“We know that water is a very precious resource,” Bjorkman said. “If we want to have a beautiful golf course, we’re going to need to do some things that are different.”

Out of all the water soaked up by golf courses in 2020, 21 percent was recycled, according to a 2022 report by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, a group of golf course managers.

It’s no problem on the East Coast, where water is plentiful. But in drought-parched areas like Southern California and Arizona, it’s becoming harder for golf lovers to justify the game’s copious use of water and the stress it places on natural resources.

“You’re seeing full-on country clubs, with 36 holes of golf, slowly starting to die off because the kids don’t want to play because it just doesn’t seem right,” Bjorkman said. “It doesn’t feel right.”

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Golf was first played in Scotland in the late Middle Ages on rolling grassy hills that were far from the highly manicured greens of today. The game had virtually no carbon footprint and required no specialized irrigation.

Some innovators want to go back to that. Courses across the country have created wildlife corridors for salamanders, butterflies and woodpeckers. Some have even switched to artificial turf.

The course at The Ranch was recently renovated, pared down from 18 holes to nine. Water-sucking Bermuda turf grass was ripped out, replaced with drought-resistant Kikuyu and Poa blends. The sand in the course’s sand traps is made on-site from recycled glass. Single-use plastics are banned, and the kitchen uses ingredients from an on-site organic farm and composts its food waste.

Bjorkman takes most pride, however, in using entirely reclaimed water. It buys all its water from a treatment facility just behind the greens, which turns sewer waste and other wastewater into water fit to irrigate the course’s 2,200 yards of grass.

“It’s hard for us to stomach using 20 million gallons of fresh water for a golf course that is a luxury,” Bjorkman said.

Some 70 miles away, near Los Angeles, La Cañada Flintridge Country Club, like The Ranch, pulls most of its water from a reclamation plant, behind the 14th green. The course still relies on municipal water for irrigation on hot days, but its annual water bill is around $200,000, about one-fifth of a typical California golf course water bill, said Pamela Dreyfuss, the sustainability director at La Cañada Flintridge Country Club.

Dreyfuss and Bjorkman say golf courses can provide greater environmental benefits than alternatives such as freeways, shopping centers and housing developments.

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But these projects are still the exception. In Phoenix’s wealthy desert suburbs, golf courses regularly flout water limits, according to an Arizona Republic investigation last year. Many golf courses use drought-intolerant blends of Bermuda grass because of a popular perception that golfers would rather play on it — or, at least, that its bright green color is more attractive to nearby homeowners, industry experts say. Ground crews frequently paint grass with environmentally destructive nitrogen-based sprays to make it greener.

There are still no real industry-wide sustainability standards in golf. The ongoing merger between the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf, the two titans of pro golf, is a case in point. While LIV Golf made sustainability commitments before the merger, the PGA Tour has not publicly done so.

And while nonprofits such as the Scotland-based GEO Foundation and the Troy, N.Y.-based Audubon International certify courses based on a variety of sustainability factors, their credentials have yet to become widely adopted.

Environmental organizations have accused Audubon International of greenwashing and trading upon the name of the National Audubon Society, the birdwatching foundation, to which it bears no relation.

Christine Kane, Audubon International’s CEO, said the group takes into account “bird life and tree management” when working with golf courses. She said her group is not a competitor of the bird conservancy group, adding that “Audubon” is “a ubiquitous name.”

Whether they’re interested in sustainability or not, golf courses in the West are going to face more restrictions due to drought.

Craig Kessler, director of public affairs for the Southern California Golf Association, warned the PGA that if this year’s rains were as sparse as the previous three, the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club, held in June, would take place under stringent state drought protocols during which only tees and greens could be watered.

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“They knew that. They accepted it, they were prepared for it,” he said.

California’s historic January rains eliminated that possibility this year, but it’s just a temporary reprieve. Kessler says that while the golf industry as a whole stands to be more flexible in monitoring its water use, many course owners are receptive to new water regulations.

He wants regulators to give golf courses a total water budget, rather than metered limits by day or week, because course staffers know how to ration limited water to meet the specialized irrigation needs of golf greens.

“At any modern golf course in the Southwest, the superintendent can take out his or her smartphone and control one half of one [sprinkler] head,” he said.

Bjorkman believes other courses with the ability to use reclaimed water, or to reduce the grown turf area of their fairways, should be required to do so, along with using organic soil amendments. “To me, that’s low hanging fruit,” he said.

Golf has “big opportunities” to do better at adapting to climate change, said John Buse, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. But that may mean doing away with the shimmering, water-sucking greens of today’s courses for good, he said.

“Some of this will require golfers to change their expectations about what a course should look like,” he said. “My hope is that courses that look more like California than Scotland will become the norm, and will not only be expected but desired.”

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