Sunday, September 04, 2005

Scorched Golf Greens turning Brown

The clipped emerald lawns of Spain's golf clubs are a lure to millions of tourists each year, but a sharp rise in the number of thirsty golf courses has made increasing demands on dwindling water reserves in a country fighting its worst drought on record.

Spain boasts hundreds of courses, mostly concentrated in the tourist regions of the southern coast. Their number more than doubled from 91 in 1989 to 250 in 2003, according to the Royal Spanish Golf Association.
More are planned to cash in on golf's tourism potential: the sport attracts well-heeled visitors and extends the tourist season, keeping euros flowing into an industry that accounts for around 12 percent of Spain's economy.
The average golf tourist spends around 4 to 8 times more than someone on a package holiday, says Roddy Carr, former Irish international and tourism consultant at U.S. sports marketing firm IMG.
"It's less people with more money," he said. He estimated the golf tourist industry in Spain is worth over $500 million.
Spain needs big spending golf tourists more than ever as it fights off competition from cheaper, more exotic holiday destinations like Turkey and North Africa.
Developers are planning around 21 new courses per year over the next decade, according to environmentalist group Greenpeace.
This could be bad news for precious water supplies in a country where the worst drought on record has slashed crop harvests and seen over 6,000 fires rage through forests.


The average golf course consumes the same amount of water as a town of 15,000 people in a year, according to Greenpeace.
Spanish water authorities are investigating 10 of the 28 golf courses based in the Madrid region following reports they have been using drinking water to irrigate the greens. There are also concerns that courses are not using enough recycled water.
But even environmentalists concede golf has an important role to play in Spain's profitable tourist industry.
"It's nonsense to say we shouldn't have golf courses here," says Guido Schmidt of environmental group WWF. "The question is the availability of water."
Some clubs have decided to make a feature of natural arid landscapes, rather than trying to mimic the sandy, grass-covered links of eastern Scotland, the historic home of golf which evolved from a game played there during the 15th century.
One municipal golf club on the outskirts of Madrid uses no water at all to maintain its course.
Although the land at the public Quijorna club is green during three seasons of the year, in summer it dries out and the browns and yellows of the central Spanish countryside dominate.
"The only thing we do is cut the grass," says vice director Javier Guerra. "At the moment we are using absolutely no water."
The 9-hole course stretches out beneath the sierras, dotted with evergreen oak trees, on land formerly used for growing crops of chickpeas.
The club plans to start watering the greens, where the holes are, and the tees to improve the quality of the game. But even so they will use only 20 percent of the water used by an average golf course, Guerra says.


On a far grander scale is the Desert Springs club, which has been hewn out of scrub and desert near Almeria, southern Spain and has hosted the Spanish Open International Championship.
The course was designed by golf champion Peter McEvoy, who led Britain and Ireland to success in the Walker Cup.
The club uses selective watering and aims to blend into the stretch of desert, beloved of "spaghetti Western" directors in the 1960s and where Clint Eastwood filmed "A Fistful of Dollars."
"Rather than watering everything, you're just watering the playing areas. You don't play solid green all the way from tee to green," said McEvoy. "It's a question of trying to design something that looks right in the landscape."
There is no reason why these innovative courses should be a rarity, said golf consultant Carr. Good design should eliminate problems with water supply, he said.
New strains of grass that thrive on salt and brackish water, selective watering and recycled water programs can make all the difference.
"If the planning laws and regulations stipulate strong enough policy to ensure that the golf courses are to be built with environmentally-friendly ingredients, then there is no argument on the environmental issue," Carr said.
Back at Quijorna, Guerra points at the larks circling nearby. He says wild boar come out at night to feast on the acorns from the oak trees. He doesn't see why golf must be played on grass courses.
"It's like playing football: there are many grassed football pitches like Bernabeu (home of soccer team Real Madrid), but there are hundreds and hundreds of earth pitches," he said.


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