Published online: Jul 17, 2017 Sod

With its immaculate fairways and majestic views of the ocean and outlying islands, the Reef Palms Resort’s 18-hole golf course along the coastline of Queensland, Australia, is tough to beat. The 100 sprawling acres of lush greenery amid towering palm trees contain another rare feature: They are 100 percent synthetic — or artificial — turf.

In a region with frequent droughts and salty soil, it seems like a no-brainer to think outside the bunker and try something new. But it’s not just in places like Queensland that golf course owners and developers are facing pressure to reduce their environmental impact and rein in the increasingly onerous costs of maintaining 100-plus acres of natural lawn. Why don’t they do themselves, and the planet, a favor and move toward a more sustainable solution? Why shouldn’t golf go faux?

Consider this: According to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, there are over 2.2 million acres of golf courses in the United States alone — roughly the size of the state of Delaware — of which about 1.5 million acres are natural, high-maintenance turf. Audubon International estimates the average U.S. course uses more than 300,000 gallons of water per day, and closer to 1 million per day for desert courses — about the same volume of water the average U.S. family uses over a decade. “Golf courses are intensively managed landscapes, which, in addition to the large amount of water,” says Cristina Milesi, a former environmental scientist at NASA and director of the Evalstat Research Institute, “use a lot of pesticides and fertilizer, which are often washed out in the streams, threatening to adversely impact the local ecosystem.”

Add to this environmental impact the fact that the areas where golf is expanding most rapidly are generally hot and dry, like the American Southwest, making it expensive and energy intensive to grow fine turf grasses — and the incentives to move beyond natural turf accumulate further. And today’s synthetic turf (usually made of some combination of polypropylene, polyethylene and nylon) is not your grandfather’s rock-hard AstroTurf. Many practice facilities already use synthetic surfaces, and some professional golfers use synthetic greens to practice at home. Synthetic turf also allows for more consistent performance in locales with less friendly year-round climates — courses in places like Luxembourg and Alaska have already used synthetic surfaces for tee boxes and greens.