This story in The New York Times, published mid-February 2024, struck a chord. Not because I’m a golfer, but because I’ve written quite a lot about abandoned golf courses, the re-wilding of courses, even the resuscitation of courses gone fallow. As long ago as 1994, the NYT has even seen fit to quote me on the subject of how many golf courses is enough, and how many legitimately eco-friendly credentials an operative golf course can claim.

This recent Times piece proved a solid piece of reporting, and the comments section was chock full of even more examples of layouts that have been returned, in full and in part, to open space. In each case, everyone appreciated the fact that here was a gorgeous piece land where the public could now hike, walk their dogs, bird-watch, etc.

In a golf economy where 150 courses were shuttered annually — a culling the U.S. golf market endured every year from 2008 to 2021 — what to do with former course properties proved a fairly pressing issue. But that market correction appears got have stabilized. There were approximately 90 golf course closures in the U.S. last year (as measured in 18-hole equivalents), according to the National Golf Foundation. There were also more new course openings in 2023 than at any time since 2010: 24 18-HEQ.

For a variety of reasons, the golf establishment will always be expected argue for just how sustainable golf courses should be, as golf courses, and how many of them (and what sort of facilities) we really need, full stop. But it’s important to think about these issues in two different ways:

First, the issue actually hinges in critical respects on access. The real problem, in America, is that private clubs here are so very private. The idea that non-members in a particular community might use a private golf course property as open space is pretty much anathema. Whereas, in the U.K. and Australia, and across Europe, it’s common place. There, even the most private clubs often double as places where non-members can play golf — but also walk their dogs, cross-country ski, even hike. More important, this ethos trickles down to all courses, where golfers treat the property as a playground, while an even larger population of non-golfing locals treat them as quasi-public spaces.

We don’t do that here in the United States. Our private clubs are very exclusive in comparison — and this attitude trickles down, too. One doesn’t see walking paths for non golfers (and their dogs) even at public and municipal courses in the U.S. Why not? This is something the golf course industry can and should work to address. Why not build community walking and biking trails through public courses, which account for some 90 percent of the golf course facilities in America? Read all those comments on the Feb. 2024 NYT story above: Folks just want to walk these properties with their dogs, maybe hike a bit, or ride their bikes on these decommissioned course properties. If this is what the community seeks, and these activities can be enjoyed inside and beside operative golf courses, why not be a better neighbor? Who knows, you might sell more food & drink in your grille room, or find new customers for your banquet facility.

Second, it’s critical that golfers and non-golfer alike recognize that courses offer a level of flexibility that other development categories do not. As February’s NYT story illustrates, even golf courses that viably served a golf population for decades can pivot to other public services quite quickly and easily. I’m not sure that I agree with the subhead above: that most courses are in some way “paved over”. Many of the golf courses closed down the last 20 years were decommissioned to make room for housing, something desperately needed in this country. If that’s what we mean by “paving,” that’s another outcome I can live with. Yet here again, not all developments allow for such repurposing, not with such relative ease.

“Courses will always offer non-golfers that flexibility,” architect Jason Straka told me in the re-wilding story linked above. “Here’s what I mean by that: In China, where we’ve worked quite a bit, we’ve told people that in times of dire need, you cannot take a shopping mall and easily convert it back into productive farm fields, for example. With a golf course, you can.”

The China example is complicated: President Xi Jinping famously halted all new courses development, beginning in 2013, not because the courses proved environmentally questionable. Or because they soaked up limited open/public space. But rather because he and his regime have found it politically useful to single out golf as the preferred pastime of corrupt, bourgeois class traitors. Yet the point remains: During the Chinese course-building boom (1995-2013), many Chinese developers built golf courses as a means to merely control a piece of property, in the longer term, until such time that another higher, better use came along. There is no privately held property in the People’s Republic of China. But if you want to build a golf club and employ hundreds of locals, the local government is happy to have you use and “hold” the property until such time that the developer, or maybe the local government, or maybe even the Central Government, identifies a better way to deploy that land.

Yet, even these scenarios further illustrate Straka’s point above. Allow me the rare opportunity to quote the Times quoting me, from 1994, on the matter of golf’s flexibility and relative, long-term environmental impact:

“Because golf is seen as a rich white man’s sport, it’s an easy target for environmentalists,” said Hal Phillips, editor of Golf Course News Asia-Pacific, an industry journal. “At least with golf it’s open space that’s being developed. Would you rather have a golf course or a strip mall? A golf club or a 400-room hotel? If you want to compare the environmental impact, it’s really no contest.”

In short, new golf course development and course-conversions of all stripes should be viewed in similar light. Because yes: We built a few too many golf courses here in America from 1990 to 2008. Supply exceeded demand, and all these closures have since corrected that imbalance. But aren’t you glad that — back in 1955 or 2005 — a golf course got built in your town? And not some Walmart distribution center? Or maybe a massive shopping mall that sits dormant and cannot be repurposed today? Good luck converting those monstrosities into operative green space today, or 2055.