The case against golf courses

An average 18-hole golf course is larger than 70 football fields – why do we allow them to drain a community's resources?

By Ray Brescia

Golf courses – those rolling green hills on which elites spend American taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars – occupy roughly 3,500 square miles of land in the US, a land mass larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware.

golf course
A ‘Trump’ helicopter sits near a putting green during a ribbon cutting event for a new clubhouse at Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point, in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Not only is their operation alone costly and environmentally tolling, but they also do affirmative harm to the communities in which they’re housed, in myriad ways. Those harms are imposed almost exclusively on those who do not use golf courses, while those who do use them reap all the benefits of their existence.

The concept of the tragedy of the commons – developed by Garrett Hardin – is often used to describe situations in which individual residents of a community might extract all the benefits from a common resource, causing resource depletion and often pushing the burdens and costs of that exploitation onto others. Hardin’s chilling words on his theory? “Freedom in an unmanaged commons brings ruin to all”.

Golf course and the environment

First and foremost, golf courses are environmental hazards. The typical golf course uses over 300,000 gallons of water a day and applies harmful pesticides and fertiliser to the grass, which then can often leach into groundwater and water systems. The lawnmowers that manicure that grass make significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. And – because many courses were built before the laws that might have required an environmental impact statement prior to their construction – these effects are almost never taken into account when considering the true cost of operating and maintaining golf courses today. 

But arguably more egregious are the costs to local communities from the presence of golf courses. Many municipal golf courses operate at a loss, meaning those within a community who do not use those courses are underwriting the play of those who do. Private courses also get gigantic tax windfalls in many states and communities. 

California law shields many courses in that state from having to pay millions of dollars in taxes each year. In Seattle, two private courses are reportedly valued at roughly 5% of the valuation of neighbouring properties per square foot, meaning the city forgoes millions of dollars in taxes each year on account of this differential tax treatment for golf courses.

There are also opportunity costs to tying so much land up in golf courses. The space could be put to better use – that could benefit the broader community – like affordable housing, parks, solar or wind farms, camping sites, playgrounds, public pools or urban farming.

Discrimination in golf

To make matters worse, golf courses are not a true commons, because, historically, not everyone has had access to them. This is the case even though George Franklin Grant, the first African-American professor at Harvard, invented the golf teeJoseph Bartholomew, a talented African-American golf course planner, could not play on the very courses he designed.

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Black people were often groundskeepers, club chefs and caddies. The more experienced caddies counselled their white patrons on the nuances of the game, altering an otherwise dramatic imbalance of wealth, power and privilege. Indeed, golf courses have been the locus of bias and exclusion, with access limited to wealthy white men for generations, preventing those outside the “old boys’ club” from the opportunities for professional and social advancement that these environments created. 

Today, golf courses are still locations of exclusion, even municipal ones, as it is expensive and time-consuming to play. There is perhaps no better example of America’s golf course problem than the Trump Links course in New York City. Located on the south-east corner of one of the poorest counties in the country, this prime stretch of over 200 acres of waterfront property could certainly be better used for its community.

Yet, the City of New York heavily subsidised the construction of this course to the tune of over $120m in taxpayer money and leases it through a sweetheart deal to a Trump company that siphons off millions in revenue from its operation. Not only is it likely the most expensive municipal course ever built, at taxpayer expense, but it is also one of the most expensive public courses on which to play, costing nearly $200 for a round of golf on a weekend, well more than a day’s wage for someone earning the minimum wage in New York City. 

Courses for the community

Our communities need to take stock of the environmental harms golf courses cause and the tax subsidies they receive and adjust the cost to play to compensate communities for this damage. Admittedly, if those who use golf courses actually had to pay for “externalities” – the harms that golf courses create – it is likely that the sport will become even more elitist, but at least it would no longer be subsidised by the taxpayers who never play golf in the first place. 

Looking across the emerald rolling hills of the courses spread throughout the country, are there better uses for some of this land? Could we at least require, at a minimum, that golfers should actually bear the costs that the courses impose on the community? Golf courses, as centres of exclusion, exploit neighbouring communities and extract subsidies from those who will never play on them.

The average resident of a community with a golf course gains little, if anything, from its presence.  Perhaps it’s time that the US rethinks its golf course problem – before their environmental and financial toll brings ruin to us all. 

[Read more: Should cities be turning golf courses into parks?]

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