This Letter to the Editor is written in response to an opinion article written by Alex Nobel titled “It’s time to say goodbye to golf.”
Mr. Nobel is right. Golf is elitist, racist and sexist. Golf uses too much water, space and pesticides.
And yet, he — and the small but growing number of people who think that golf should be abolished — are completely wrong. Arguing that we should abolish golf is an absurd and ignorant position and the result of a politics that focuses on aesthetics over substance.
Abolition, as a political strategy, presumes an institution that is inherently flawed and incapable of reform. Slavery, capital punishment, prisons and capitalism have been targets of abolition. Does golf belong with them?
Golf does use a lot of water. As Mr. Nobel noted, golf uses billions of gallons of water a day. Yet, golf consumes less than 1.5% of the water, per a 2013 analysis, used in the United States for irrigation. That pales in comparison to far greater water consumers like the meat industry, which consumes nearly half of all the water used in the U.S.
Golf does use a lot of space. But it’s a speck on the map of land use in the U.S. Almost all the land used by golf courses in the U.S. could fit inside Yellowstone National Park. Moreover, the 100 largest landowning families in the U.S. control 40 million acres of land, 17.8 times more than all the land used by golf courses. Additionally, space is not the primary obstacle to affordable housing. Zoning laws, weak labor protections, an unjust healthcare system and an insufficient safety net are where we should focus our attention.
Golf does use a lot of harmful pesticides. Unfortunately, so does almost every outdoor industry. Just like golf superintendents, farmers and their families have higher rates of cancer due to toxic pesticides. Additionally, the chemical company Monsanto has been sued by tens of thousands of people who claim its weedkiller, Roundup, causes cancer. Addressing harmful pesticides will require broad changes made through policy and innovation — abolishing golf wouldn’t change the underlying problem.
Golf is elitist, racist and sexist. Even so, it’s played by 24 million Americans, 56% of whom have a household income under $100k, 18% of whom are people of color and 24% of whom are women. In fact, you could argue that golf is less elitist than the University of Michigan — 66% of University students come from families who have a household income over $110k.
It’s clear that golf doesn’t need to be abolished. Yes, golf has significant problems but they aren’t unique or intractable — racism, sexism, elitism and environmental sustainability are problems facing many American institutions, and they can be addressed through dedicated reform efforts.
Here are some possible paths forward: The United States Golf Association, golf’s governing body in the U.S., recognizes that golf needs to address its water use — executive director Mike Davis recently said that “long-term, water is going to be the biggest obstacle to the game of golf, more than participation, more than anything.”
The USGA has made progress, reducing golf’s water use in the U.S. by almost 22% between 2005 and 2013. To further that progress, courses in the Southwest could close during the summer. Closing would conserve a lot of water — courses in the Southwest use five times more water per acre-feet than courses in the Northeast. And closing is doable — courses in colder climates already close for the winter, and summer is the Southwest’s slowest season.
To make golf’s outdoor space accessible to more people, golf courses could set aside a day each month for general recreation. A number of courses opened for general recreation in the early months of the pandemic to encourage social distancing, and people loved it. It’s not without precedent — the Old Course at St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf, opens for general recreation every Sunday. Allowing more people to enjoy golf courses’ valuable outdoor space is the right thing to do, and might even inspire some new golfers.
Additionally, there are a number of initiatives that focus on diversity and inclusion in golf. For example, the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour was founded in 2008 with the mission of preparing golfers of color to participate at the highest levels of golf. Another example is the First Tee, a nonprofit that aims to expand access to golf through youth programs. But the existing diversity and inclusion efforts aren’t enough.
Only 5% of golfers are Black, and more than 23 years after Tiger Woods won his first Masters Tournament, there are only four Black players on the PGA Tour. Laz Versalles, a Black former club professional argues, “we need to move the narrative away from ‘how do we get more people access to the game’ to ‘how do we get black communities more invested in the game.’ ”
He suggests bringing back caddy programs as a way to build stronger ties to the game among young people, especially young people of color. Similarly, female club professional Alison Curdt focuses on youth programs as a strategy for addressing sexism in golf. She argues that youth programs should teach girls and boys together so that boys can learn and experience golf alongside girls from the start, breaking down the tradition of gender segregation in the game.
However, well-meaning initiatives can only go so far — many of golf’s problems are cultural, and can only be addressed by people in golf, particularly in positions of power, making a conscious effort to combat racism and sexism. For example, No Laying Up, a media upstart popular with younger golfers, has used its platform to highlight female golfers and the issues facing them, including unequal treatment by courses, media and equipment makers.
These are just some of the ways to address golf’s problems. Much more is needed but the key is that reform is possible. And that’s my main problem with golf’s abolitionists: It would’ve taken just a little bit of effort to recognize that golf can be improved and doesn’t need to be abolished. I wonder if golf’s abolitionists would support abolishing orchestras and art museums — some people probably see them as an elitist waste of wood and space. I doubt they would. They probably appreciate classical music and fine art, and feel that though they may be flawed institutions, they certainly don’t deserve to be abolished — think of all the beauty and joy that would disappear!
That common-sense response doesn’t seem to apply to golf; for golf’s abolitionists, the image of golf matters more than the reality. Based on nothing more than a caricature, they argue for eliminating millions of people’s treasured pastime, claiming the moral high ground in the process.
Arnold Palmer once said, “What other people may find in poetry or art museums, I find in the flight of a good drive.” Golf’s abolitionists should realize that there’s room in the world for both.
Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Computer Science and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.