Game Changer: What Does Climate Change Mean for Golf?

In his wildly imaginative novel Golf in the Year 2100, Bob Labbance postulated a future in which golfers would strategically control factors like temperature, precipitation, and wind while playing a high-tech version of the game that he termed “Altered Environment Golf.” He made it sound like great fun. But if you believe what the overwhelming majority of the world’s climate scientists are saying, golfers may need to devise clever ways to control the environment long before the next century arrives.

Members at Montrose Golf Club in Scotland only wish they could flip a switch and make Mother Nature behave. That site, where golf has been played for 450 years, is fast losing ground to coastal erosion and saw high winds bury an entire hole under inches of sand. In England, Royal North Devon Golf Club surrendered 49 feet of coastal acreage near its 8th tee to the sea while its 7th and 8th holes remain at risk. Other courses around the world have been dealt similar blows by erosion, floods, drought, and other consequences of climate change brought on by global warming.

It’s a tough time to be a course manager or superintendent—and it’s not likely to get any easier. As golf looks into its dimpled crystal ball and sees the effects of climate change growing in number, frequency, and severity, we have to ask: How long will it be before golf as we know it ceases to be viable? Are we doomed to a future of hitting into ever-larger simulator screens? Will we need to build immense domes over our courses? Or be restricted to playing on artificial turf—or under artificial light only when it’s cooler at night? 

Tim Carr (Photos: Getty Images)

Any answers to questions like these must start with an understanding of how the world’s climate is changing—and why. These have been subjects of controversy in America for decades. But not among climatologists. For the great majority of them, global warming is real and undeniable—and human activity is primarily responsible for it.

Dr. Raymond Bradley is the University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, and Director of the school’s Climate Science Research Center. Along with two other scientists, he was responsible for research that led to 1999’s much-publicized “hockey stick” graph, which charted the earth’s surface temperatures over a 1,000-year time period and showed that while temperatures remained relatively stable for the first 900 years (the stick’s shaft), they’ve experienced a sharp increase over the last 100 years (its blade). That research was widely criticized by representatives of the fossil fuel industry, but it is generally regarded now as seminal research in charting the effects of anthropogenic global warming.

“The atmosphere is essentially trapping more energy, in a simple sense,” Bradley says. “And that means weather patterns, weather conditions, tend to be more severe. And so, when we have a thunderstorm, for example, commonly now it’s more intense and we get heavier downpours of rain. When we have a windstorm, it tends to be more severe. When we have a hurricane, it tends to be more intense, and so on. And they may start to occur in areas—or more frequently in areas—that haven’t experienced them in the past.

“We’re experiencing unprecedented changes in global temperature, and associated with that, changes in the circulation of the atmosphere,” he adds, “which is leading to changes in rainfall patterns. And as far as we understand, those changes are mostly the result of the buildup in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuel and the loss of natural vegetation, particularly in the tropics, which is where most of the carbon dioxide used to be sucked out of the atmosphere. So the world is warming globally, and it’s warming more in polar regions where the big ice sheets are. And so, those are really contributing to—and will continue to contribute to—sea-level rise.

“We’re talking about a rise on the order of about three feet over the next 50 years, which will be significant for U.S. cities like Boston, New York, Miami, and others. It’s important to note, though, that while we tend to think of sea-level rise as just something that goes up and down, in fact it also involves tidal or wind-driven wave action that causes erosion. We just got back from a holiday in the Hebrides of Scotland—the island of Colonsay. There’s a golf course there that is right up on the coast. It is literally in the sand dunes. And you sort of make your way through the sheep, the rabbits, and the dunes. It’s a great place, but it’s very close to the coast. The holes are right on the coast. Places like that will be in jeopardy.”

Another course that by its own admission is in jeopardy is Trump International Golf Links in Doonbeg, Ireland, where they’ve received permission to construct about one kilometer of coastal defense walls. These rock walls are not without opposition, though. Critics have gathered more than 100,000 petition signatures, claiming that the walls will destroy the beaches in front of them and increase the rate of erosion on adjacent beaches. At Montrose, the club has run into similar opposition to its ideas for shoring up coastal defenses, as has Royal North Devon. Natural England, which oversees the environmentally protected land upon which that course is situated, indicated that it has no plans to allow the club to install defenses against future erosion, saying, “the dunes and shingle ridge are naturally dynamic coastal features and subject to constant change.”

Constant change has been a way of life at the Wild Dunes Resort in South Carolina, too. The acclaimed Tom Fazio-designed Links course there got battered so badly by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 that it had to be completely rebuilt. In 2007, its oceanfront par-five 18th hole lost its green and more to tidal erosion and had to be temporarily changed into a par three. A year later, a coastal renovation project enabled them to reestablish it as a par five, but in 2013, erosion swept much of the hole away a second time. Today, for the time being at least, it again ends on a par three—proving that for oceanfront courses like Wild Dunes, the only constant going forward may be change.

Tim Carr (Photos: Getty Images)

In St. Andrews, a coalition comprised of scientists from the Scottish government, the University of Glasgow, and Scottish Natural Heritage issued a report in 2017 indicating that as much as a fifth of Scotland’s coastline could come under threat by 2050. In announcing the report’s conclusions, Scottish Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said, “Since the 1970s, the rates of coastal erosion have doubled, and that pace will not slow down anytime soon. In fact, it will probably get worse—and faster.” 

What does this mean for the Home of Golf?

“We’re fighting back against the sea,” says Sandy Reid, Director of Greenkeeping at St. Andrews Links. “And in some places we’ve actually made some gains. We had one dune recharge, actually, really quickly. Wind can be as big a factor [as sea-level rise or wave action] and we’re taking measures that are helping to contain wind-blown sand and build up the dunes.” Those measures, all environmentally friendly, include planting salt marsh grasses, installing chestnut paling and fencing, and sprigging marram grass on the dunes bordering West Sands Beach—as well as not removing seaweed from the beach. Even recycled Christmas trees are being used to aid in this effort. 

Could the Old Course survive a one-meter sea-level rise? “Sea rise like that would cause us problems,” Reid says. “It would be a problem for most links courses around the UK. A rise of just a foot could cause us issues—especially if you started getting ‘perfect storms.’ The extra force and the tide… I don’t know that the beaches we’ve built up could manage it. And there would be water-table issues, too. Even if your coastline was coping with it, if water levels were that high the Swilcan Burn would be flooding every day every time high tide came in. But with sea rise like that, it’s not just golf courses that would be at risk. It’d be a big concern for the whole of civilization.” 

Over the past few years, flooding caused by unusually severe weather has damaged and closed courses all across America. In June of 2016, a “1,000-year flood” decimated the famed Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, leaving the nation’s only publicly accessible C.B. Macdonald-designed course covered in mud, destroying infrastructure, and canceling a PGA Tour event. The death toll from that storm was 23.

All around the globe, the sharp rise in temperatures is another factor challenging golf courses and their managers. Higher temps, like the record heat waves seen this past summer, lead to problems with turf management, including those caused by invasive pest species and diseases that have migrated into new areas. 

The USGA’s Green Section has been focused on improving course conditions since 1920, studying things like agronomy, course management practices, and integrated pest management. Since the early 1980s, it has spent almost $40 million on turfgrass research. Today, with an eye toward the future, that research includes trying to breed turf varieties that can withstand higher (and also lower) temperatures, use less water (and less potable water), and be more resistant to pests and diseases.

“To me, the responsibility of the USGA’s Turfgrass Environmental Research Committee has been and continues to be to make sure we’re anticipating what the potential issues are when you look 15, 20, 25 years out on the horizon,” says Kimberly Erusha, Managing Director of the Green Section. “We want to make sure we’re doing that work now so that we have solutions on the shelf when those problems arise down the road.”

In 2018, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, along with approximately 25 other organizations including the GEO (Golf Environmental Organization) Foundation, created Golf 2030—an industry initiative to consider the impacts, both positive and negative, of our changing climate. Its aim is to produce a roadmap that will steer the discussion and help stakeholders understand the challenges that lie ahead.  

“Golfers need to become aware of these issues and how they’re going to impact your golf facility,” says Steve Isaac, Director of Sustainability for the R&A. “Almost every week of the year, you’re seeing flooding somewhere around the world, you’re seeing drought damage somewhere around the world, you’re seeing major storm damage. And when you look at the impact of weather events, when you look at reduced resource availability, and when you look at the impact of regulation that’s coming through, there are serious challenges for our course managers to try and continue to produce a quality product for their customers… it may be that we have to get used to golf courses that look and play differently than what we see now.”

That seems only fitting considering that we may also have to get used to a planet that looks and behaves a lot differently than the one our ancestors knew. Whether we’ll have to adapt to playing a different kind of golf than they played remains to be seen.