The new value of golf's green spaces

PGA Catalunya Resort, Spain. Photography: Steve Carr

PGA Catalunya Resort, Spain. Photography: Steve Carr

AS golf courses around the world begin to recover from Covid-19 disruption, there is evidence in some markets of a surge in play and an increase in sales of club memberships.

What’s driving the demand? Is it a new-found love of golf’s sporting challenge? Or is it something deeper; an instinctive response to the freedom of spending time outdoors?

Environmental psychology – which includes explaining the effects and wellbeing benefits of our interactions with green spaces and nature – may have the answer.

For clubs and courses, it might also offer important insights on how golf can broaden its appeal and develop its sales messages for audiences that appreciate and value access to green spaces more than ever.

Coming up in this feature, we’ll be speaking to:

  • Environmental psychologist Prof. Jenny Roe from the University of Virginia
  • Olympic golf course architect, Gil Hanse
  • Jonathan Smith of GEO Foundation.

Also, we learn from a top European resort that employs a biologist to enhance its environment, a superintendent who sees his team as environmental custodians – and we catch the buzz with Operation Pollinator, a Syngenta initiative to introduce beneficial wildflower areas to golf courses around the world.

Professor Jenny Roe

Professor Jenny Roe

Green spaces for wellbeing

Professor Jenny Roe

Although not a golfer, Prof. Jenny Roe, Director of the Center for Design & Health at the University of Virginia, has her own pandemic golf story to tell.

Sheltering in place with family in Scotland during the Covid-19 outbreak and academic summer recess, she started exploring nearby golf courses.

“I walked on golf courses in Edinburgh which had been opened up to the public under Covid and I am very grateful for that,” explains Prof. Roe, a leading expert in environmental psychology. 

“Having appreciated their value, it could now prompt my interest in golf as a sport.”

Yet it wasn’t so much the physical exercise that Prof. Roe appreciated in her daily strolls; it was the calming benefits of walking on green grass, seeing trees all around and being surrounded by nature. 

“Contact with nature slows down our stress response and induces calm,” Prof. Roe explains. “There is evidence to show this is happening in our biological system.

“It is promoting stress resilience, it is improving our mood, it’s decreasing our risk of depression and increasing our social wellbeing, particularly on a golf course where you are interacting with other members of that community. So there are a host of mental and social wellbeing benefits."

While the two theories of how nature benefits our health are somewhat more complex, the result is clear: spending time in nature – at least two hours per week, as recent research has suggested – is good for you. 

And it may be a key reason why the call of the golf course has been so strong as people emerge from their homes in the wake of Covid-19.

Why green spaces are good for us

Two theories for how nature benefits our health:

1. Attention Restoration Theory (ART)

Suggests our response to nature is a cognitive one, where experiencing nature (e.g. seeing light filtering through a tree canopy) captures our involuntary attention which, in turn, provides scope for reflection. Our fascination, curiosity and wonder at nature promotes psychological restoration, or restorative health.

2. Stress Reduction Theory (SRT)

Suggests our response to nature is an emotional response, in turn slowing down our stress response and inducing calm. Seeing and experiencing nature triggers the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, effectively a biologic brake that slows down the body and enables it to ‘rest and digest’. 

Golf's natural appeal

Ohoopee Match Club, GA, USA, Hanse Golf Course Design

Ohoopee Match Club, GA, USA, Hanse Golf Course Design

There’s little doubt golf courses have a natural appeal.

In global market research* commissioned by Syngenta, more than 3,515 non-golfing women in eight countries, from the United States to Japan, were asked what piqued their interest about golf.

The top two answers were: 1) Being outdoors and 2) Relaxation or stress relief. The physical exercise benefits of golf ranked fifth.

One respondent commented in a focus group: “When I see golf on TV, it looks so relaxing and it looks so calm. It looks beautiful.”

It’s an important insight into how golf might develop its value proposition and sales messaging.

In fact, environmental psychology informs us that many of the natural features that help us to relax and destress are found on golf courses, including:    

Water: green spaces with water have an added benefit with increased opportunities for curiosity and fascination (e.g. from patterns of light and wind hitting the surface of water).

Biodiversity: a richer natural environment has an important impact on the restorative health experience. Also, a healthy planet makes healthy people.

Spatial variety: land forms, undulation and the way the terrain changes stimulate our fascination and curiosity, including the shaping of holes and fairways.

Light patterns: the way light filters through trees and is cast across the ground triggers physiological and mental processes.

Les Dunes, Golf d’Hardelot, France. Photography: Steve Carr

Les Dunes, Golf d’Hardelot, France. Photography: Steve Carr

Demonstrating the value of golf courses

During the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK, a public campaign was launched to open courses for public exercise.

While some courses voluntarily opened their gates as acts of goodwill to local citizens – as experienced by Prof. Jenny Roe in Edinburgh – the vast majority did not.

The campaign might be an indication of future pressures on green spaces, including golf courses, especially as growing populations swell urban areas.

According to Jonathan Smith (pictured below), Executive Director of GEO Foundation, the international not-for-profit dedicated to helping golf gain greater recognition for its value to people and nature, there is a clear opportunity.

“Golf could become such a valued and welcome land use, particularly in a world where communities are appreciating nature, and are recognizing that the quality of the local environment is directly linked to the quality of life.

“The win-win is that golf courses that are naturalized are less expensive to maintain, provide more stimulation to golfers, create opportunities for other types of recreation and deliver many wider ecosystem services to society.”

But how do you value a golf course as a green space, with social and environmental benefits?

Measurement and evaluation is already integrated into GEO’s OnCourse® and GEO Certified® programs.

Last year, the GEO team completed a significant international ‘Sustainability reporting for golf’ project, involving over 200 people in consultation, gathering all of the social and environmental metrics required to value and communicate the value of a golf course’s green space.

This includes carbon emission and sequestration calculations as well as annual Sustainability Reports. It will be broadened in future to include further ecosystem service and natural capital elements.

“It’s really about quantifying, increasing and then promoting the whole range of environmental and social services a local golf club provides, as well as being open about the resources that are used to sustain that value,” says Smith. 

Image left: Jinji Lake Golf Club, near the city of Suzhou, China

Enhancing golf's green spaces

Boston Golf Club, MA, USA, Hanse Golf Course Design

Boston Golf Club, MA, USA, Hanse Golf Course Design

The opportunity for golf now is to think about how it can improve course environments for the benefit of customers – and the planet.

Bland golfing landscapes with lollipop trees and limited biodiversity are unlikely to be valued as highly on social and environmental scales.

But in a post-Covid era where superintendents may well be working with reduced budgets and smaller teams, how can courses do more to enhance environments with less?

The opportunity may lie in focusing maintenance on the in-play areas – tees, fairways and greens – while taking a more naturalistic approach to out-of-play areas.

That’s the view of Olympic golf course architect, Gil Hanse, who firmly believes golf courses can be beneficial for the environment.

While Hanse’s work focuses primarily on the construction of new courses, he likens courses to ancient tapestries, focused on tightknit turfgrass playing areas at the center, but then fraying at the edges where the course blends into natural surrounds.

“We've seen it first hand; golf courses can be beneficial for the environment,” says Hanse. 

“It’s our responsibility to ensure courses should come as close as possible to reflecting the natural surrounds.”

Hanse talks about the importance of preserving soil structures and using indigenous plants.

“We want to make sure golf courses belong in their own environment and habitat and by doing so we’ll absolutely create habitat for wildlife to flourish in those surrounding areas.”

Gil Hanse, Golf course architect

Gil Hanse, Golf course architect

Get involved

The challenge to golf courses is to begin to think about how to use out-of-play areas for the benefit of both people and wildlife.

Nature trails around course perimeters are one idea. Dedicated wildlife areas are another. 

A decade ago, Syngenta initiated Operation Pollinator, a program that introduces low maintenance, native wildflower areas to golf courses to encourage bumblebees and pollinating insects.

Now, with more than 200 active projects, primarily in the United States and Europe, clubs and courses are reporting not only the nature benefits, but the positive responses of customers, including local communities and schools who are invited to visit and experience good environmental stewardship.

Syngenta also supports Monarchs in the Rough, a partnership between Audubon International and Environmental Defense Fund, encouraging the creation of habitat for the monarch butterfly in North America.

Image: Bowood, UK. Photography: Syngenta Operation Pollinator

The new value of golf's green spaces

So, might the Covid-19 pandemic change the way we look at and value golf courses as green spaces?

“Absolutely,” concludes Prof. Jenny Roe.

“Covid-19 will unleash a tsunami of mental health problems. I think people are already beginning to change their perceptions of the value of nature and its importance, particularly to mental health during a time that is very challenging, when we are all experiencing anxiety.”

In the new normal, golf and golf courses could be perfectly positioned to offer a solution. 

Case Study 1:

PGA Catalunya Resort

Oriol Dalmau, Biologist, PGA Catalunya Resort

Oriol Dalmau, Biologist, PGA Catalunya Resort

PGA Catalunya Resort’s in-house biologist, Oriol Dalmau, and his colleagues at the nearby Girona University, Spain, used to believe that golf courses were damaging to the environment.

“We were all wrong,” says Dalmau. “When golf is planned correctly it can create a great diversity of habitats and therefore act as host for an incredible diversity of species.”

Dalmau’s about-turn came when he realized the resort’s pioneering double purified water system, combining long-term lake storage, was having a beneficial impact on native flora.

Now, the 36-hole golf estate, which also features a 5-star hotel and residential development, has received the IAGTO Sustainability Award for Nature Protection for 2020.

Its biologist has led a number of positive environmental projects, including the introduction of one million honeybees, situated in hives neighbouring the resort’s organic vegetable garden. Both the garden and the hives supply the resort’s restaurants and residents.

There are also conservation projects for bats, birds, tortoises and plants – and guided nature walks for residents, guests and local children.

“PGA Catalunya Resort not only stimulates the local economy, but most importantly it stimulates the ecological environment and aesthetics,” says Dalmau.

Conservation projects have stimulated the wildlife population.

Conservation projects have stimulated the wildlife population.

Conservation projects have stimulated the wildlife population.

Double purified water has proved beneficial for both flora and fauna.

Double purified water has proved beneficial for both flora and fauna.

Case Study 2:

Operation Pollinator

Operation Pollinator is designed to reverse the plight of bumblebees and pollinating insects, by creating valuable new habitats in out of play areas of golf courses. 

There are now more than 200 active projects in the United States and Europe.

Syngenta has conducted more than 10 years of research on the benefits of establishing an Operation Pollinator habitat, which include:

  • Playing a key role in reviving native bees and other pollinating insects
  • Introducing native wildflowers to courses for pollinators
  • Attracting organizations and players interested in sustainable efforts on golf courses
  • Generating pride for courses and local communities
  • Enhancing visual appearance of the course and overall golfing experience when full establishment is achieved
  • Creating positive publicity for the club.

Learn more about the latest winner of the Syngenta Operation Pollinator Award, presented at the 2020 Golf Environment Awards, Banchory Golf Club, Scotland.

Case Study 3:

Royal Bled Golf

Golf courses’ wellbeing benefits are undersold, says a leading superintendent.

Stephen Chappell of Royal Bled in Slovenia, says, "I’d like to think that the people that come and experience our environment are not just looking at it from a point of view of manicured turf or a good conditioned golf course, but it’s the peripheral vision that myself and my team gets every morning when we set the place up.

Stephen Chappell

Stephen Chappell

"You hear the birds singing, the water running, wildlife, the backdrop of the mountains. There’s a lot to be said for what golf courses can offer from a physical health point of view but also mental health, the wellbeing of people to be in that kind of environment. It’s a big plus point."

Take Action

To get free access to Syngenta’s golf market research reports, click here

Learn more about sustainable golf with GEO Foundation

For information about Gil Hanse, visit Hanse Golf Course Design

Interested in introducing wildflower areas to your course with Syngenta Operation Pollinator? Visit Greencast (UK) or Greencast Online (USA) and Monarchs in the Rough

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