The High Cost of Golf

Though I’m partial to my Xtracycle cargo bike, once in a while I’ll rent a pickup truck to haul some big items. Yesterday it was time to get a bunch of straw bales to use as bedding for the chickens. While driving by a public golf course on the way to the feed store, the windshield suddenly shattered startling me and my passenger, Ari of Islands of LA, who had come along to help out. Instictively, we ducked thinking that someone was shooting at us. Though my heart was racing, I soon realized the culprit: a errent golf ball sent hurdling over the fence by some anonymous, impossible to trace Tiger Woods wannabe. We circled back to the club house to file a report with the manager of the course and begin the long tedious process of settling the insurance claims.

So what does this have to do with urban homesteading? A lot. It’s time for another anti-golf rant. Here are my problems with golf (especially municipal golf courses):

1. The colossal mis-allocation of land. Wouldn’t a lot more people benefit from a large community garden instead of a golf course? Most people in Los Angeles and many other big cities live in apartments and don’t have any space to grow their own food. Meanwhile, waiting lists for plots in community gardens grow longer for lack of space. Most neighborhoods, of course, have no community garden at all. According to the City of Los Angeles’ 2006-07 budget, city run golf courses account for 1,500 acres of LA’s meager 8,520 acres of developed park land, meaning that 17% of park land is devoted to wealthy, middle-aged men with a taste for polo shirts and plaid pants.

2. Unfair subsidies. That errant ball came from a course owned, paid for and maintained by the City of Los Angeles. I’m sure the municipal courses bring in revenue (the city budget reports $18,000,000 from golf course use fees), but I doubt this offsets their costs (I was unable to find the cost of golf facilities in the same budget–coincidence?). I suspect we all pay for these city golf courses through our taxes. The city of Los Angeles operates the largest municipal golf course system in the United States according to the Mayor’s 2008-2009 budget. I love sports, participate in a few and believe that recreational facilities should be subsidized. But I also believe in a return on that investment. We should subsidize recreational facilities that encouraging physical activity, health and well being. Investing in initiatives and facilities that get people to exercise pay for themselves in the long run in reduced health care costs and a healthier, happier population. But is golf the kind of exercise we should subsidize? No way. Especially since on many courses, including some municipal courses in Los Angeles, players are required to drive a golf cart to speed play and increase the number of people who can use the course at any given time. I also believe in democracy. I say let’s put it to a vote: should the city fund golf courses or soccer fields? I suspect, in Los Angeles, soccer fields would win by a landslide.

3. Water. We’ve got a many year long draught here in the southwestern U.S. that shows no signs of letting up soon. Modest water rationing requirements are in effect, but that municipal golf course green I was forced to visit looked, well, very green. The amount of water used to irrigate the world’s golf courses could support 4.7 billion people at the U.N.’s daily minimum according to the Worldwatch Institute. Let’s not even get into the deleterious effect of herbicides. And while we’re on the topic of water I’ll point out that the two city running paths I use have no drinking fountains.

4. Golf kills. If I had been on my bike or going for a run I could have been killed by that ball. The supreme irony is that the stretch of road on which my rented pickup truck’s windshield was shattered is the same spot where the Department of Water and Power puts on a lame, drive-through Christmas light show that is, in effect, a city sponsored multi-month traffic jam. They ban bikes during this period because they say it isn’t safe. My friends Stephen and Enci have pointed out to our city officials that banning bikes on a city street is a violation of the state vehicle code that defines bicycles as vehicles. So far the light show, despite opposition from neighbors and the Sierra Club is poised to continue this winter. But I digress. Let’s just say that I’ll think twice before I ride down this street on a bike again, and it won’t be because of the light show.

The Griffith Park municipal course, from whence that windshield smashing golf ball originated, is the birthplace of the municipal golf course system in the U.S. It’s well past time for government subsidized golf to end. Let’s tear up those courses and go for a run, play some soccer, create wildlife habitat and plant some food.

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  1. Wow, what a spiderweb. The duffer that hit your windshield must have really bad aim. Probably using one of those encephalitic titanium drivers that lets you wack a ball 500 yards…in the wrong direction. Excellent points re the private/public aspect of these exclusive spaces. Its evident that an incredible amount of land is used for relatively few people in a park-poor city. What a concept, to repurpose some of the space for… food or other recreational uses.

    Not to defend this silly Scottish game, but some things I’ve learned: many public golf courses in Southern California use recycled water to irrigate, and here in LA County they are looking into using public golf course land as infiltration/recharge areas to capture and help store local runoff in the rainy season, as part of an overall plan to reduce dependence on imported water. The maintenance regime still uses tons of fossil fuels and chemicals. And golf courses (public and private) figure heavily into the PR machines of many a sunbelt chamber of commerce; in some places they are revenue-generating and/or lend that wholesome, artificial sense of “community” and privilege to those looking for such in the land of sprawl. There’s some selfish profit-motivated stuff behind them.

  2. In my hometown, Raleigh NC, one of the largest remaining undeveloped green spaces (and home to some fine bike trails) is being bulldozed for a golf course. The land is owned by NC State University, which apparently has a “Turfgrass Management” major. There’s big alumni money involved, and Arnie Palmer himself has blessed it with his presence.

    I hate it. Here’s a brochure that’ll make you “ewww”:

  3. I was in Greenland recently doing research. Our group was based in a small town (Kangerlussuaq) and every day as we drove out towards the ice sheet we would pass the Kangerlussuaq golf course. There was no pretense to this golf course. The clubhouse was an old shipping container with an astroturf patio. The course stretched along the side of the massive glacial outwash river. 18 holes of sand sand sand.
    Use what you got: native landscapes and plants. Then maybe golf courses could be less of a blight.

  4. There are many golf courses in our area of south eastern Pennsylvania and it always makes me cringe as I drive by when people are teeing off. I wonder how much money a typical golf course loses on insurance claims…

    As horrible as it has been losing so many of the farms in our area to developments and retirement communities, there was a recent battle with local government attempting to use eminent domain to take farm land for a municipal golf course. Here is the farm owner’s site about the whole mess:

  5. Flightless birds–you and I have both been to Kangerlussuaq! For me it was just a stop at the airport on the way to Nuuk. You bring up an excellent point, also hinted at by ghaines that there may be a way to make the golf course work if we all thought out of the box. I know that some golfers play “extreme” golf, making up a course in improvised open spaces. I’ve heard US troops in Afghanistan play this way. I’ve often thought that archery might make a nice substitute for golf. It’s a bit more practical (if you want to hunt), as well as not requiring any turf management. You can even, as we do, have an archery target in the backyard.

  6. I was visiting Seattle and the same thing happened to me. In my case the golf ball hit my windshield so hard that there was a circular hole in the windshield and glass all over the inside of the car. If I didn’t wear glasses I would have been seriously hurt. When I went into the office of the golf club they handed me a printed form to fill out about the incident, so apparently this happens often enough that they had specific forms for “cars damaged by golf ball” incidents. Scarey, and I’d hate to think what could happen to a cyclist or a pedestrian.

  7. I quite loved Kangerlussuaq. I had the frequent thought whilst I was roaming around next to/on the ice sheet that “wow, I’m at work right now. Take that, office buildings!”

    Thinking outside the box could come up with some positive solutions. It might just be my anti-lawn bias but I think some beautiful and challenging courses could be integrated into a landscape rather than replacing the landscape with something completely artificial. Native plants would also not require fertilizers or massive water consumption. It reminds me of the games of “ultimate croquet” my best friend and I used to play.

  8. Heh, heh, I wonder what guerrilla golf course gardening would entail…Just thinking out loud, ya know…

  9. Scary! I always take this route instead of the bike path when I need to go over the hill. Now I’m not only dodging cars and busses but also bullets, uhm, sorry, golf balls in this beautiful park.

  10. While I agree with much your sentiments, golf was the inspiration for one of the greatest and most quoted movies of all time: Caddyshack. So, hey! Survivela-ma! How about a little somethin’, you know, for the effort?

  11. 4.7 billion gallons will supply 2.5 billion people with water – sorta. That statistic is less than 2 gallons a day, which presumably is for drinking and cooking, maybe washing hands or a sponge bath.

    The world water shortage isn’t about drinking water – there is no shortage of that worldwide. There can be local and regional shortages, but that is overcome by transporting in water – the limiting factors are not availability, but cost of transport.

    The real water crisis involves the fact that agriculture and industry demand huge amounts of water – it can easily be hundreds or thousands of gallons a day per person.

    Golf courses in the desert are obviously unsustainable, and golf courses everywhere tend to pollute with herbicides and fertilizer run-off. I am not a golf fan, but think things should be put in perspective. If golf were outlawed tomorrow, there would be a negligible change in world water consumption patterns. In drier, prosperous areas, the water would quickly be siphoned to another use. In wetter areas, it might benefit the local ecology or reduce groundwater depletion slightly. But even in humid areas, groundwater is being pumped much faster than it is recharged, and golf is usually a bit player.


  12. Uh.. golf courses look like gardens to me. alotta grass, trees, and ponds. me thinks you should go after parking lots instead.:)

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