Golf Course Environmental Profile

In 2006, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) conducted the first in a series of five surveys to determine the physical features of golf courses, maintenance practices used by superintendents, and inputs and outputs associated with golf course management. The goal of the research is to develop an environmental profile of golf courses.

GCSAA and the golf industry need information specific to the environmental attributes of golf courses, including natural resource inventories, management inputs and environmental stewardship practices. This information will provide baseline data for documenting changes in environmental practices over time and help set priorities for education, research, member services and other environmental programs. 

The data will also help the golf industry respond to governmental inquiries and answer the public's questions about environmental issues. Existing environmental data are very limited, and not complete, uniform or centralized.

Using the results of the profile surveys, GCSAA identified the following conclusions for continuous improvement within the golf course industry:

Environmental improvements and environmental programs


  • On average, over the last 10 years, an 18-hole golf course has made five environmental improvements.
  • Approximately 29 percent of 18-hole golf courses are involved in a formal, voluntary environmental stewardship program.
  • Facilities involved in formal, voluntary environmental programs have made an average of seven improvements to enhance the golf course environment in that 10-year period.
  • The data suggests that such programs are having a positive impact on the golf course environment.

Non-Turfgrass Acreage


  • The non-turfgrass landscape on golf courses is substantial and can make an important contribution to green space and wildlife habitats for local communities.
  • Non-turfgrass landscape of an average 18-hole golf course is 50 acres, including 35 acres of elements such as forests, wetlands, ponds, streams or other specialized habitats.
  • Facilities have the opportunity and the responsibility to maintain these areas in a sustainable manner to further enhance the environmental qualities of a golf facility.

Irrigation Water Management and Conservation


  • Superintendents at nearly all 18-hole golf facilities utilize information from multiple sources as part of their decision-making process for scheduling irrigation. Most facilities utilize direct observations of turfgrass and soil conditions.
  • Approximately 35 percent routinely utilize evapotranspiration data, and approximately 3 percent use soil moisture sensors to aid in irrigation scheduling.
  • Golf course superintendents should take advantage of technology as part of the irrigation decision-making process to conserve water.

Irrigation Water Sources


  • Golf facilities utilize multiple water sources for irrigation, and the most commonly used water sources for 18-hole golf facilities are listed below.
  • Golf courses should maximize the use of non-potable water to irrigate golf courses when economically and practically feasible.
  • Most golf course facilities utilize open water or on-site irrigation wells as a source for water.
  • Approximately 12 percent of golf facilities utilize recycled water as a source for irrigation water and 14 percent use potable water from a municipal source for irrigation.
  • 52% – open water (lakes, ponds, etc.)
  • 46% – on-site wells
  • 17% – rivers, streams and creeks
  • 14% – municipal water systems
  • 12% – recycled water

Irrigation Systems and Audits


  • Golf facilities should utilize irrigation system audits as a means to increase the effectiveness of the irrigation system and conserve water.
  • Approximately 8 percent of 18-hole golf facilities nationally have had their irrigation systems audited by a certified irrigation auditor since 2001.
  • More golf course facilities should take advantage of an irrigation system audit to become more responsible users of water.

Written Drought Management Plans


  • A written drought management plan provides a documented procedure to reduce the use of irrigation water during drought. These written plans are a helpful tool for individual golf facilities and are valuable for the golf industry in developing practical public policy at the local and state level.
  • Approximately 28 percent of 18-hole golf facilities in the Northeast agronomic region have written drought management plans, more than any other agronomic region.
  • Written drought management plans should be adopted by golf facilities that are subject to drought cycles.

Environmental Stewardship – Nutrient Management


  • The results of the nutrient use survey indicate that golf course superintendents use a variety of nutrient sources. Quick-release and slow-release nitrogen sources and synthetic and organic nutrient sources are applied to most golf courses in the U.S.
  • No matter the nitrogen source (quick- or slow-release, synthetic or organic), superintendents decide the rate applied, the frequency of application, the time of year applications are made and the product used and are therefore responsible for producing the desired affect on the turfgrass without negatively affecting the environment.
  • GCSAA recommends that superintendents evaluate all sources of nutrients based on their agronomic performance, cost, potential impact on water quality and other environmental concerns and choose products that foster sustainability of the golf facility.
  • By itself, the source of nutrients (quick-release, slow-release, synthetic, organic) is not an indicator of the environmental stewardship of the golf facility.
  • The potential for nutrients to move from the application site is influenced by application rate, frequency of application, time of year, product applied, soil type, soil moisture content, temperature, turfgrass density and the intensity and amount of rainfall/irrigation following application.
  • Understanding and adjusting to the influence of these factors is the responsibility of a golf course superintendent.

Soil Testing


  • Since 2002, only 26 percent of 18-hole golf facilities have conducted soil tests on the rough.
  • On an average 18-hole golf facility, the rough comprises 50 acres (4), more than any other component of a golf course.
  • Since the greatest total amount of phosphate and potash are applied to rough, GCSAA recommends hat superintendents routinely conduct soil tests on the rough to determine phosphorus and potassium fertilizer needs.
  • This practice has the potential to curtail costs and promote fertilizer programs that meet, not exceed, the nutritional needs of the turfgrass.

Fertilizer Storage


  • In 2006, 50 percent of the 18-hole golf facilities that stored fertilizer for more than three consecutive days used a dedicated storage area.
  • GCSAA recommends that all golf facilities that store fertilizer do so in an area that is specifically designed for that purpose.

Nutrient Management Plans


  • Approximately 50 percent of golf facilities nationally use a written nutrient management plan or a written fertilizer program.
  • A written nutrient management plan or a written fertilizer program provides the means to achieve goals and should be used by all golf facilities.
  • GCSAA recommends that all golf facilities use guidelines developed by university scientists to develop written nutrient management plans based on the characteristics and expectations unique to each facility.