golf sustainable tourism systems thinking development

How Systems-Thinking Helps in Developing Sustainable Golf Tourism

4.5-minute read

To my complete surprise, I was prompted this question:

“How does systems-thinking help in developing sustainable golf tourism?” 

My intuitive response:

It doesn’t. 

Many times, intuition is not sufficient by itself, so let us dig a bit deeper.

Systems-thinking, as we may already know, is the holistic analysis and comprehension of relationships across components and processes of systems and within the context of larger systems over time. 

We know that social and economic health are significantly dependent on environmental health and THAT is where the problem with golf resides: environmental health. 

The first four objects that come to mind when we hear the word “golf” are: vast expanses of perfectly trimmed, monoculture grass; golf balls; golf clubs; and golf carts. 

Let us focus on the first object: grass. 

Golf courses worldwide are constructed predominantly of 1 of 5 types of grass: Poa Annua, Bermudagrass, Bentgrass, Perennial Ryegrass, and Zoysia[4]. 

 Now let us consider the fact that there exist at least 12 distinct climate zones (per the Köppen secondary climate zone classification method): 

  • rainforests, 
  • monsoon,
  • tropical savanna,
  • humid subtropical,
  • humid continental,
  • oceanic climate,
  • Mediterranean climate,
  • steppe,
  • subarctic climate,
  • tundra,
  • polar ice cap, and
  • desert[1]. 

Within these climates, we can find approximately 400,000 different types of plant species. Each of these plant species is uniquely adapted through millions of years of evolution to function optimally in their native climates. Each of these plant species possesses unique environmental conditions to sustain itself. 

Coming back to “golf course grass,” there are reports that we have developed around 40,000 golf courses around the world[3].

Let’s multiply that by an average course size of 30 hectares (74 acres)[2], and we find ourselves with over a 1,200,000 hectares (2,960,000 acres)–a conservative estimate of the surface area which golf courses worldwide occupy. 

How could only five types of grass species for golf courses be considered sustainable? It is a terrestrial homogenization. #BiodiversityLoss

In the development of golf courses, the top 6-12 inches of soil is stripped away and replaced with a monoculture grass that is often non-native. Many golf courses are developed in forested areas that further exacerbate the displacement and destruction of native animal and plant species.

Most golf courses apply chemical fertilizers and biocides to maintain and ensure optimal health for the non-native grass. These petrochemical cocktails permeate the soil and work their way into the groundwater table. They also runoff with stormwater into their local watershed’s riverine systems. This dumping of chemicals into ecosystems that previously had no such volumes are producing levels of toxicity with harmful effects to the native flora and fauna.

The depleted biodiversity results in ecosystem services collapsing related to soil, water, climate regulation, pollination, pest regulation, food, and more.

A majority of golf courses also require exorbitant amounts of water to maintain their green grasses. California’s desert city, Palm Springs, has more than 100 golf courses. It seems laughable that a city located in the desert would possess any luxurious, water-excessive activities at all. 

I have so far discovered 0 positive environmental impacts from golf courses. Adverse effects are far outweighing the environmental benefit. Over time, these negative consequences accumulate and begin to take their toll on society and then end up hitting the economy as health and quality of life deteriorates from a sick environment.

So, “how does systems-thinking help in developing sustainable golf tourism?”

From my perspective, it doesn’t.

Systems-thinking would lead one to understand that “sustainable golf” is an oxymoron.

At best, employing features like native plants, rainwater, stormwater and greywater systems can alleviate the total damages; however, there is no net benefit to the environment from installing a golf course that I have identified yet.

I even considered virtual golf. Virtual golf "courses" could potentially require fewer resource inputs once established; however, the embedded energy needed to create the technology used is, again, not sustainable but harmful to the environment. 

What are your thoughts?

A response from one of our readers, CEO of TurnKi Sustainability, Leif Skogberg:

"True, golf courses are not a beneficial landscape use when it comes to the environment or wildlife, and they will probably go extinct as younger generations reject them and turn to more natural and sustainable sports and recreation. As I see is happening in many areas of the USA. The golf industry is simply unsustainable. Environmentally this is very true and financially this is increasingly true. They are a perfect “transition opportunity” of open sunny land ready for more ecological uses and benefits such as farming. They have most of the infrastructure already onsite ready to go. 

However, much can be done to make current golf courses way better and more sustainable. A balance of luxury and decadents (the antithesis of sustainable) with efficiency and responsible earth and nature care. 

For example, they can expand native habit areas with pocket plantings, native riparian corridors and “rare habitat native roughs”. They can restore and maintain native habitat in all non-essential golf play areas. They can plant pockets of bird and bee habitat. They can manage grass with sheep or cows. They can use more bioregionally appropriate turf varieties and manage turf organically with compost, compost teas and OMRI Certified fertilizers. They can protect water quality from fertilizer runoff and they can charge their electric golf vehicles with solar. Etc. Etc. all of this, I am sure you are fully aware of too. 

Sustainability is a spectrum of degenerative to regenerative. Anything we can do to move something (a product or an industry) to less degenerative is good. Sustainable is in the middle of that spectrum. The goal is still regenerative, since we are so far down path of degenerative systems, but I believe, we can get more done with an open mind and heart to the industries that have notoriously been labeled as “bad” and “unsustainable”. So in response to your article, “yes, and...”"


1. Climate. (2020, January 18). Retrieved January 19, 2020, from Climate#Climate_classification 

2. Golf course. (2020, January 3). Retrieved January 19, 2020, from wiki/Golf_course 

3. Heath, E., Tadman, J., & Tappin, N. (2019, June 25). How Many Golf Courses Are There In The World? - Almost 40,000. Retrieved January 19, 2020, from 

4. Journey to The Tour. (2018, January 7). How to Play on Different Types of Golf Course Grass. Retrieved January 19, 2020, from different-types-of-golf-course-grass/