There are an estimated 30,000 golf courses around the world which host 16 million golfers in love with the game. Like environmental filmmaker Andrew Nisker and his dad, featured in Dad and the Dandelions, they've come to enjoy the fresh air and wide open spaces.  But that green, peaceful tranquility can be deceiving. Golf courses have long battled a reputation for being water-guzzling environmental wastelands.

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Change is afoot. In 2006, Jonathan Smith founded an international non-profit, the Golf Environment Organization (GEO) dedicated to promoting sustainability in the golf industry. 

“It’s time to shine a light and ask some tougher questions and look for innovative solutions," says Smith in Dad and the Dandelions.

GEO works with industry professionals to find new ways to solve some of the industry’s biggest problems and create green spaces that benefit their communities.

Here in North America, Audubon International offers a co-operative sanctuary program for golf courses. The group provides information and assistance in planning new courses and maximize the environmental aspects of existing ones. Courses meeting Audubon International’s environmental practices are eligible for certification.

Water Management

Golf courses have long been considered huge wasters of water.  Audubon International estimated that the average North American course uses more than one million litres of water per day — equivalent to what 780 families of four might use. In golf-crazy, drought-ridden areas such as California, this is becoming a huge problem and some golf courses have already put themselves on a water diet.

  • Many golf courses are using alternative water sources, switching from potable tap water to recycled, untreated wastewater
  • The industry is developing new salt-tolerant grasses, which are able to grow and thrive with the newer sources of wastewater
  • Underground drainage systems collect irrigation water for use over and over, before it finds its way into local waterways
  • Course designs are being tweaked to remove turf and trees for sand and cactus plants.
  • Smart water systems tell groundkeepers exactly where to water and how much eliminating the need to drench large areas. 

‘Brown is the new green’, an initiative from the US Golf Association is much more than a catchy slogan.

Land Footprint

Golf requires more land per player than any other sport. Environmentalists say that developers destroy natural habitats to build courses, removing native species and contributing to soil erosion and sediment runoff to nearby bodies of water.

In space-conscious England, a column by a housing advocate claiming that golf courses take up twice as much land as housing made the headlines around the world. Although the numbers were later called into question, the story sparked an intense debate about golf and land use issues.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Director Andrew Nisker visits The Vineyard, an organic golf course in Martha's Vineyard.

GEO advocates a new ‘less is more’ approach. New golf courses are designed to use less acreage per hole and preserve as many natural elements and native species as possible.  Golf courses can provide habitat for land and aquatic animals.

In a study of 10 golf courses in North Carolina, researchers were surprised to find that golf courses provided a wonderful environment for stream salamanders, an amphibian that they say played an important ecological role in the area’s food chain.

Prairie grasses and wildflowers can be an excellent alternative to turf, suitable for out-of-play areas and along ponds and wetlands. They attract a variety of birds, mammals, insects, and amphibians — all signs of a healthy eco-system. A strategically placed wooded area can provide important wildlife corridors for coyotes, fox, and deer, commonly found in urban and suburban areas.


Over fifty pesticides are commonly used in the industry although the number typically used on any one course is much lower, ranging from four – 12 per year, depending on the location. When golf turf is mowed to low heights, the grass is stressed and more vulnerable to pests, which requires more pesticide use.

In Canada, many pesticides which are banned for cosmetic use on properties are still in use on golf courses which are exempt from the regulations.  A recent report by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment In recent years, golf course managers have begun to work with environmental experts to maintain their greens in ways that reduce potential impact on the environment.

  • Growing more tolerant variety of native grasses selected to thrive in local climates
  • Carefully monitoring water levels, too much or too little will encourage weed growth
  • The golf industry is being encouraged to consider pesticides as only one of many tools that can be used to manage a golf property.

    Can We Live With A Few More Dandelions on the Golf Course?
    How to Reduce Possible Exposure to Pesticides on the Golf Course

    And of course, more natural golf courses are better for the bottom line because they require less water, fertilizer and pesticides to flourish. So it’s a win-win for both the golf industry and the environmental movement.  

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