Golf’s Biggest Water Hazard

I once saw Geoff Ogilvy, the Australian who won the opening golf tournament of the year, the SBS Championship—just like he did last year—at his home golf course, Whisper Rock Golf Club in the desert outside of Phoenix, Arizona. He was, as might be expected from a multiple winner on the PGA Tour, astonishing, even just watching him hit balls on Whisper Rock’s huge range. I have seen numerous pro tournaments and watched dozens of tour pros hit range rocks over my years in golf and only three other sessions have ever stood out in my mind: Tiger Woods at Medinah in 1999, Sergio Garcia the same year, and Phil Mickelson at the Bob Hope in Palm Springs in 2006. Mickelson’s bombs in the desert were, I think, the furthest I have ever seen anyone hit a golf ball, while Tiger actually holed his second practice shot of the day in ‘99, but Ogilvy stood out not only because of how far he was hitting it but the various curves the balls took after impact: what golfers call “shape.” A really skilled golfer can make the ball dance—Tiger, in ‘99, actually made the ball take 90 degree turns after landing, something I’ve never seen before or since—and is called a “shotmaker”; Ogilvy is one, which is rare in these days of ferocious distance. But Ogilvy’s skill isn’t really what I want to talk about; rather, it’s what those skill have meant for him—and what they might mean for us—that are significant.

What I’m interested in is just how weird the whole phenomena I’m describing is to the outsider: Ogilvy is an Aussie who went to college in the U.S. but plays golf around the world, belonging to a golf club that happens to be in Arizona but might as well be in Dubai, winning golf tournaments that are as peripatetic as the players themselves. Once called the Tournament of Champions because it has only ever been open to the previous year’s winners on the PGA Tour, what’s now the SBS was originally held in Las Vegas at the old Desert Inn. Later, for a long time it was held outside of San Diego and sponsored by Mercedes, a company that most people have heard of at any rate. Now it’s sponsored by a South Korean television network, which is kind of indicative of the way the wind is blowing in golf these days, a canary in the coal mine  because more than perhaps any other sport, excepting perhaps soccer, golf is a harbinger of the oft-foretold “global market,” a symbol of the New Economy, the New World Order, or whatever other scare capitals can be drummed up: let’s call it the Idea of Global Big Business.
The action for golf is in Asia, where the U.S.-based PGA Tour and the European Tour are maneuvering for position over which tour will become the umbrella organization for professional tournaments there. Recently, a golf course architect was quoted as saying you have to be in China to work these days—there isn’t any construction anywhere else. There is money to burn in China these days; the Financial Times reports that one development there—Mission Hills Hainan—will, when built out, be home to 22 golf courses. That will make the development “the largest collection of golf courses in the world”—ten more than its already-built sister project, Mission Hills Shenzhen, north of Hong Kong, where each course has been designed by a different famous name, Faldo, Nicklaus and Norman among them. This is building on an epic scale, flabbergasting in scope, and perhaps indicative of how golf is going as the sport of liquid capital, mirroring the movement of money in the new global financial regime just as money mirrors the global movements of the sport’s top players, like Ogilvy.
A lot of people are disgusted by such realities, and there are a number of good reasons for disgust. Rodney Dangerfield, in the film Caddyshack, said golf courses and cemeteries were the biggest wasters of prime real estate, and that’s only one reason to dislike the sport. Golf courses also eat up a great deal of water, particularly precious in places like Arizona, and that is only going to get worse as water becomes a resource on a par with oil as time passes. But not only that: golf courses are generally disasters for the water supply in the other direction of flow as well, often pouring fertilizers and pesticides into local water supplies. There’s been some progress in recent years, but golf courses, if not managed well, can be ecological nightmares.
The point is being taken perhaps most seriously, oddly enough, by the Chinese government. There were no courses in China at all before 1984, and the best guesses are that there are over 500 today. I say “guesses” because this construction has been so vast—and unregulated—that even the government has little idea of exactly how many there are. According to Trent Baker in The Scotsman, a Scottish newspaper (duh!), the government is working on the problem: in an interview Dong Zuoji, head of land planning in the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources, says “The culprits will face harsh punishment.” There is a kind of totalitarian surreality in this response—one imagines golf architects being tortured with bamboo under the fingernails—but the issue is a serious one in China: one estimate predicts over 2500 courses in the country by 2015, and if that construction is being done with as little supervision as Zuoji’s almost-ridiculous threat implies, then that bodes ill both for golf and for China’s environment.
That doesn’t mean that golf is inherently anti-ecological though. After all, one reason to preserve the earth is to be able to enjoy it, and that doesn’t necessarily mean climbing Mt. Everest or hiking the Grand Canyon. Nor should it. Golf is something that nearly everyone can enjoy and gets people outside. But what then is the real ecological cost of golf? Is it more or less than other activities? An article by David Own, who also writes for the New Yorker, tackles the question in this month’s Golf Digest. Clearly, he discovers, there’s reason for concern: “So much water has been pumped from the aquifer under the Coachella Valley,” which includes Palm Springs, “that land in some parts of that region, which includes 126 golf courses, has subsided more than a foot since 1998, as the aquifer has been depleted.” At the same time though there’s reason for some measure of hope, as in this quote from Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency that governs water use around Las Vegas: “People love to beat up on golf, but what very few people realize is that golf courses have the most sophisticated, high-tech irrigation systems possible, and, as a result, they are the most efficient irrigators in the valley.” Owens describes how golf courses have been at the forefront of developing efficient water use technology throughout the American Southwest.
That doesn’t of course mean that new courses in, say, China are being built with the latest technology, nor that older courses in other parts of the United States are at the cutting edge either. But the experience of golf courses in such dry environments, and the statistics they generate, suggest that it’s generally private homeowners, not golf courses, that are more wasteful of water in the Southwest—and neither compares to the useage rates of agriculture in those regions. There’s a lot of cotton in Arizona, and a lot of rice in Texas, being grown in regions whose landscapes would otherwise dictate cactus, not cash crops, without huge irrigation projects. Golf is at best a minor player in these debates; one industry source claims that golf uses less than one half of a percent of all water in the United States. And water policy in the United States has, historically, rewarded “tragedy of the commons” thinking in which it’s often better for a farmer or other user to overuse water than to risk being shortchanged in the next allocation round, like an institution trying to use up all of its budget before the next fiscal year. Golf courses have had very little impact, historically, on water use, in the United States.
The response is that there’s been little reason to worry about golf’s use to water until now because it is only now that golf has become a global sport, as exemplified by the career of Geoff Ogilvy. Golf, as a sport, is totally dependent on the landscape—nobody worries about reproducing a basketball court—and not only that, but the landscape golf courses attempt to reproduce is one overwhelmingly soggy. Scotland is, you might have heard, one of the wettest countries in the world. Attempting to reproduce Scotland in, say, the Sahara—as the King of Morocco, for instance, has tried to do—might be the definition of a Ridiculously Bad Idea. It doesn’t seem to help that golf has been so relentlessly identified with the Idea of Global Big Business, as Ogilvy’s career seems to exemplify. Everything wrong with Global Big Business seems to map easily onto golf, and vice versa.
Yet while it might be absurd to use Ogilvy’s career as some sort of symbol, in one way there’s a very good reason for taking a look at his career as something readable: Ogilvy hits the ball a long way. So do a lot of other pros. What this has meant for the PGA Tour is that a number of golf courses that used to be host courses for various tournaments, and some courses that used to hold major tournaments, are no longer long enough to put the world’s best players to a test. The usual example here is Merion, outside of Philadelphia, where Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open in 1950 but hasn’t hosted a major pro tournament since 1981. It’s now scheduled to hold the Open in 2013, but only could do so after a massive reconstruction job to lengthen the course. As it happens, lengthening golf courses also means more water usage, which is to say that the state of the professional tours are driving golf courses directly against the sort of ecological awareness that the planet itself may be telling us is necessary for our survival. There may be some sort of allegory in all of that.

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