By: David A. Smith
Golf … is the infallible test. The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well.
Fetch me that lost ball, will you Jeeves?
Yesterday’s post put the story in the fairway, itself a visual expression of the romanticized city in that it was a swath of well-kept green lined with wilderness and dotted with hazards.
Once more into the breach, dear friends:
The Himalaya bunker at Royal St. George’s
Sources used in this post
Goldfinger (1959), Chapter 9; Olive green font
WS Journal review, The Kingdom of Golf in America (August 16, 2013; pastel blue font)
Wikipedia on golf’s environmental impact; emerald green font)
The Economist (December 20, 2014; black font)
A golf course is everything a nineteenth century industrial city was not.
Where the city is cramped, a golf course is spacious – in fact, it’s extravagant in its consumption of land for low-impact use:
While most modern 18-hole golf courses occupy as much as 60 hectares (150 acres) of land (other sources quote 200 acres), the average course has only 30 hectares (74 acres) of maintained turf. [The rest is left natural and untrimmed – Ed.]
Where the city was dirty, the golf course was clean; where the city was loud, a golf course is quiet, even the longest drive making little more noise than a swish and a twank. Where the city is all right angles, a golf course is dog-legs, curves, swales, undulations.
Office in a Small City, Edward Hopper, 1953
A green at Royal Aberdeen
Where the city was entirely man-made, a golf course is entirely natural – or designed to look that way.
With the end of World War II and the return to normalcy, golf was a lovely expression of the desire of men to have a place of tranquility that gave a respite from their week.
Despite our Protestant work ethic, leisure had become a virtue by the 1950s, a decade during which, by Mr. Moss’s reckoning (there are other and higher reckonings), real wages increased by 25% while two-week vacations and five-day weeks became standard. There was time and money to play golf.
For the working men of that era, golf was a perfect weekend relaxation: lots of talk, lots of companionship, a journey and a purpose. Like all leisure activities, it also signified that one had the time and money for such leisure.
Golf is not unlike a first home or a college degree: it carries the allure of progress, of arrival in the middle class. Only a few years ago some golf gurus forecast that the sport would grow even more, as baby boomers retired and flocked to the fairways.
Today, golf’s popularity is rising in countries whose middle class is both expanding in number and rising in consumerist expectations:
The Chinese Dream?
In China, where Mao Zedong banned golf in 1949 and building new private courses is illegal, it is still booming. According to Dan Washburn, author of “The Forbidden Game”, plenty of courses are built under the guise of adding “green space” and “ecotourism zones”, but a recent crackdown by the central government on corruption has slowed new course development. The party is not over, says Mr Curley, the architect, “but all the lights are on and the cops are out at the curb”.
Though Mr. Curley may be bearish on golf’s prospects in the Middle Kingdom, in his heart I expect that he’s actually bullish, for everything about China’s rise – including its emerging entrepreneurial class’s rejection of the ruinous and ruining Chinese urban environment suggests that twenty-first century golf in China will ride the same green-space and leisure-time wave that America rose 75 years ago – because people who play golf will emigrate for it unless it’s provided at home.
Golf, then, is urban or suburban green space – but is it morally green?
Ironically, the growth of cities has led golf developers to redesign previously under-used urban space:
Golf courses can be built on sandy areas along coasts, on abandoned farms, among strip mines and quarries, and in deserts and forests. Many Western countries have instituted environmental restrictions on where and how courses are allowed to be built.
Start with an abandoned quarry
To some it might have seemed an impossible task; transform two large, old municipal landfills and former granite quarries near downtown Boston into an award-winning golf course. But for architect John Sanford, the opportunity was one he couldn’t pass up.
A key to the site’s development centered on using soils being excavated from tunnels in Boston’s Big Dig, the state’s 15-year, $24-billion road infrastructure makeover of the city’s main thoroughfares. By making the future golf course site a repository for the 900,000 truckloads of 13 million tons of material just seven miles from the epicenter of the Big Dig, it became a unique way to save the taxpayers money, cap the current landfills and reclaim wasted acreage, converting the site into a true asset for Quincy, Milton and the entire Greater Boston community.
What can we do with all this sand?
Then too, even the remediation of an abandoned quarry had to avoid the sand traps and water hazards of Massachusetts’ NIMBYs:
The project required 74 permits from local, state, and federal agencies.
The effort was singled out recently by the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) for outstanding effort that “shines a light on the innovation and problem-solving skills required of today’s golf course designs.”
Clearly the demise of as-of-right zoning, and the increase complexity of developing in already-built urban environments, poses cost obstacles that make new golf course development harder:
In the U.S., land administered by the Army Corps of Engineers such as those bordering levees and lakes is often desirable for building courses, due to the scenic natural views and the unsuitability of the land for other purposes due to it lying in a planned flood plain; in these cases, the course designer must work with the Corps of Engineers to plan a course layout that protects environmentally sensitive areas, provides for a means of quick escape in case of flooding, and does not invite players to hit into or toward controlled structures such as levees or dams.
The engineering of golf courses doesn’t stop with construction; it continues right through maintenance and groundskeepiing:
The United Nations estimates that, worldwide, golf courses consume about 2.5 billion gallons/9.5 billion liters of water per day.
Naturally enough, the water used to irrigate a golf course goes into the soil, and returns as greenery and plant life, so it’s not lost – in fact, quite the reverse:
These, along with health and cost concerns, have led to research into more environmentally sound practices and turf grasses. The golf course superintendent is often trained in the uses of these practices and grasses. This has led to significant reduction in the amount of both water and chemicals on courses. The turf on golf courses is an excellent filter for water and has been used in communities to cleanse grey water, such as incorporating into bio-swales.
Water restrictions established by communities have forced courses to limit the amount of maintained turf grass.
Many golf courses are now irrigated with non-potable water and rainwater.
Those who protest housing development in Belmont ought to be happy if instead a golf course was proposed for the site … but somehow I think they’d find ways to oppose that too. Instead, some of those who are most passionate about preserving and protecting green space are also golf’s fiercest opponents:
In some parts of the world, attempts to build courses and resorts have led to protests, vandalism, and violence. Populists perceive golf as an elitist activity, and thus golf courses become a target for popular opposition.
More than almost any other participant sports, golf arouses anti-elitism passions – perhaps it’s the collective race memory of large parks belonging to the aristocracy rather than everyone, or the subconscious perception that all this green space should be public, not private … even if ‘private’ means simply that one has to pay a greens fee to play the course.
In the Bahamas, opposition to golf developments has become a national issue. Residents of Great Guana Cay and Bimini, for example, are engaged in legal and political opposition to golf developments on their islands, for fear the golf courses will destroy the nutrient-poor balance on which their coral reef and mangrove systems depend.
At issue underneath these particulars is the question of externality: do private property owners have the right to change their property’s use, if that change of use upsets the ecosystem? Golf in its way echoes the NIMBYite objection to affordable housing, or any other form of dense development – it’ll upset what we have now.
Resisting golf tourism and golf’s expansion has become an objective of some land-reform movements, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia.
Certainly golf taps something primal in both its players and its opponents:
Fairway, green, and water hazard: yes, you could put a golf course here
In ‘The Art Instinct,’ a book about evolutionary psychology that has little to do with golf, the late Denis Dutton quotes scholars on the notion of an ideal landscape, one that humans have evolved to see as beautiful. It is a landscape like the ones where mankind arose in Africa, rolling grasslands with signs of water and groups of trees and bushes where our forebears hunted and gathered.
If so, speculates Wall Street Journal reviewer Henry Allen, golf evokes that primal sense, and not just any primal sense – male private sense.
We learn so many things from golf—how to suffer, for instance.
Greg Norman losing the Masters
[Continued tomorrow in Part 4.]