Dear Umbra,

I am getting an early start on my Christmas shopping this year, and always try to find sustainable gifts whenever possible. My father is an avid golfer. I have been pleased to see that the golf community’s efforts to be more ecologically sensitive have been making news lately. I would like to treat my dad to a round on an eco-friendly course, but have had trouble finding a list of such courses online. Also, I saw that they are coming out with biodegradable golf tees and balls. Do you think these products make an impact? Any other suggestions for how to make this not-so-eco-sport more sustainable?

Jamie Clausen
Seattle, Wash.

Dearest Jamie,

Opportunities for eco-minded golf gifts abound. But before I get into that, let’s take a quick look at why this sport tends to be vilified by greens.

Get in the swing of things.

Photo: iStockphoto

Imagine an area of open space that is about to be turned into a golf course. It may not be the prettiest land, but it’s got some trees, some native grasses, and some wildlife. To put in the course, the developers cut down the trees and yank out the native grasses, substituting that non-native ultra-green grass that the pros like, usually creeping bentgrass. Keeping that grass super green requires water. Tons of water: In the Tucson area, golf courses use an amount that could water the lawns and supply the showers of more than 60,000 families. It also requires lots of pesticides, sometimes more than farms of the same size use [PDF] (and without producing any food). Add to this a fleet of gas-powered mowers that can pollute like you wouldn’t believe, and you’ve got a green space that’s very, very far from green.

Since golf’s primary ecological impact stems from land-use decisions, the little doodads that golfers use like tees and balls are matters of much less concern. Of course eco-doodads like the biodegradable golf balls and compostable tees you mention are better than non-eco-doodads, and they might even prompt your father or his golfing buddies to ponder the other, more significant eco-impacts of their sport.

As you mentioned, rare as they are, eco-courses do exist. Since golf is a centuries-old sport, most of its history has been as a pesticide-free endeavor. In that tradition, there are a few courses I’ve come across that claim to be managed organically: one in Australia, and two in Canada. Others are likely out there. You could send your dad to one of these, though the comparative eco-bonus of playing an earth-friendlier course would effectively be canceled out if he traveled far enough. It’s never easy.

Another idea closer to home is to offset a couple of your dad’s games at his local course. This would be like offsetting energy or travel emissions, but you could do your own holistic eco-math and come up with other, more direct offsets. Maybe every $20 you donate to a pesticide-action group offsets one round. Or maybe curbing pesticide use at your own home this year compensates for a couple of games. If you do choose this option or something like it, be sure to talk with your dad about why you feel it’s important. Be careful to avoid self-righteousness, though — you want to send him on a golf trip, not a guilt trip.

Ironly,
Umbra