Climate Change and the Game of Golf

No matter whether you attribute climate change to the impact of human behavior or the implacable, centuries-long cycles of nature, shifting patterns of weather and climate are affecting golf. From the craggy coasts of Scotland to the lush islands of the South Pacific, shifts in weather patterns and sea-level rise are taking a toll on golf courses and the golfers who play them.

Early in 2018, officials at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R&A) stated that “extreme weather” has contributed to a 20 percent drop in playing times in Scotland over the past 10 years. Further, they cited 80 links courses in Scotland that are at great risk from coastal erosion, including Montrose Golf Club, which has been in the news recently for losing some 70 meters of the course due to the collapsing coastline.

More recently, Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida panhandle and points north, including Highland Oaks, a beautiful course on Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. More than 300 old-growth trees were downed by the storm.

The problem isn’t limited to storms and angry seas. A drought has been a ruinous force for many courses in the American West and parts of Canada, including many popular courses in Vancouver, British Columbia. There, severe watering restrictions curtailed courses’ ability to keep their fairways in optimal condition. Also, the prevalence of wildfires, though they may not have directly damaged courses, certainly curtailed play for many as drifting smoke and debris created conditions that were undesirable, at the least.

One more factor to consider is the effect of shifting climate on the grasses and other plants on which golf courses depend. A course with bentgrass greens, for example, which does best in the relatively cooler climates of places like the Mid-Atlantic or the northern Midwest, may begin to see deterioration as warmer weather impacts growing conditions.

To anticipate and prepare for the liabilities of climate change, the R&A has recently recommended to its members the importance of awareness of climate change data and predictions in order to understand future challenges. They have also recommended that golf clubs re-evaluate their groundskeeping policies and procedures in light of the more extreme weather conditions that are becoming more prevalent. Finally, they advocate greater cooperation with local authorities and a more aggressive education of members with regard to the new realities of golf course maintenance in a changing climate.

Many of us have seen the cartoon poster of the golfer clinging to the flagstick with one hand, his feet blown off the ground by hurricane-force winds, as he tries to tap in a one-foot putt. The caption for the image is “Dedication.” Certainly, maintaining our golf facilities in the face of climate change will require loads of dedication, coupled with keen awareness.

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