The Ethics of Golf

My esteemed adviser and I have been in an ongoing debate over the steamy summer months about the essence and ethics of golf. Initially, our conversation focused on whether or not golf was a sport. I argued based on the etymological root of “sport” coming from “disport,” meaning “to be lively or frolic” or “spiritus” meaning “life, breath, or wind” that to be a sport, a certain degree of liveliness, vigor, and activity that transcended that of ordinary activity, was necessary for the essential nature of a sport. Football, basketball, and hockey were clearly included; baseball was more tenuous. Golf, because the level of activity was lacking liveliness and vigor, could not be included.

My adviser argued (I think rightly) that the level of bodily motion of a golf player in full swing was both “aesthetically beautiful as well as intellectually complicated.” He went on to argue (I think wrongly) that such motion included a certain degree of liveliness, at least in the moment of the swing, that led gold to be rightly categorized in the realm of sport.

After a long discussion with my husband, we have established the following three essential criteria for a sport: (1) physical activity which, if using an instrument, requires that the instrument not be capable of acting on its own (baseball bats are acceptable; Nascar vehicles are not); (2) competition. That is, sports are something that are played against another party. So competitive golf could potentially be a sport whereas golf played alone or casually with a few buddies who don’t keep score may be an activity, but is not a sport. And finally, (3) a set of rules that maintain the integrity of the game and allow for clear winners and losers without a judge acting as a third party. So basketball is in, but gymnastics, which requires a judge to determine winners and losers would be an athletic activity but not a sport.

The debate about whether or not golf is a sport is fun, but my real vocation is in the realm of ethics. Thus I find this article from the New York Times Ethics Columnist Randy Cohen much more up my alley. Cohen examines the recent vote to include golf in the 2016 Olympics and the subsequent protests from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez who, in response to the Olympic committee’s decision, denounced golf as a bourgeois sport and took measures to close some of Venezuela’s courses. My adviser wanted to know whether I had more in common with Chavez than I did the Olympics Committee.

Cohen, if you read the article, introduces his argument with some pretty arcane points like the facts that golfers are overwhelmingly upper-middle class, male, and conservative. He brings these issues up because they are probably what Chavez is referring to when he calls golf “bourgeois.” But the people playing golf are accidental to the ethics of golf in itself. So in that sense, I disagree with Chavez.

What I find much more convincing is the arguments (which Cohen raises though Chavez does not) is that golf in environmentally unsound. He writes,

Unesco warns of the lamentable consequences of building golf courses to attract international tourists: “An average golf course in a tropical country such as Thailand needs 1500 kg. of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides per year and uses as much water as 60,000 rural villagers.” Some courses have become more frugal with water, and a team of British scientists argues in “The Biologist” that “many golf courses actively promote nature conservation and harbour some of our rarest plant and animal species.” But it is hard to believe that the best-designed nature preserve includes 18 putting greens, or that even the most sophisticated golf course is better for the environment than no golf course at all. These considerations are putatively important to the Olympic Movement, which declares its intent “to encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport.”

An extraordinary amount of natural resources and labor go into maintaining golf courses, which are largely private and available to only a select few who can pay the extraordinary fees to gain the “rights” to play on such prime property. While some public course are available (16,000 nationwide, as Cohen notes), they still require exorbitant green fees. The golf course nearest to me charges anywhere from $25-50 in green fees, clearly precluding the vast majority of people from participating. From a market perspective, it makes sense to charge such high fees to participate–the upkeep of the course probably requires it.

But let’s think about what this upkeep entails. The course constantly needs to be watered, which, for 18 holes, is already quite a strain on at least one valuable natural resource. The green needs to stay green, which in most cases requires pesticides and fertilizers, which not only pollute the natural environment, but also cause chemical run-off that also contaminates neighboring environments and water supplies. And to build golf courses in the first place, you have to cut down trees and destroy existing ecosystems. As this article points out, golf courses cover more than 1.7 million acres and soak up nearly 4 billion gallons of water daily. All of this to feed an upper-middle class desire to play a game.

When ethicists talk about consumption of the environment and of natural resources, a word they throw around a lot is “sustainability.” Sustainability is based on the principle that current consumption practices in no way limit the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The question about the ethics of golf, to me, boils down to the question of sustainability. Obviously, there is no way to tell if future generations are being deprived by present golf practices. But we can say that generally, golf courses consume environmental resources without contributing anything in return. A farm which cuts down trees and uses fertilizer and consumes water at least produces a product that in some way allows that use of natural resources to be sustainable in the long run. But a golf course, at least as far as I can tell, contributes nothing accept some pleasure and some minimal athletic activity to mainly upper-middle class suburban folks.

The question of sustainability is also a question of virtue. Are we a society that is flourishing? That is, are we a society who is practicing social activities in such a way as to support and build up the common good? A society which is only interested in its present needs, and especially of meeting the need of satisfying the appetite of middle and upper-class individuals at the definite expense of the environment and the probable expense of the good of future generations is probably not a society which is striving for the common good.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that if you play golf and if you enjoy it and if you want to keep playing in the future you are in some grave way an unethical person. I am simply asking that we look at a widely-accepted society practice and question how this practice is forming us as a society. I am not convinced that a practice like golf, which consumes resources without contributing any resources in return, and which is a luxury that can only be enjoyed a select few with the prerequisite financial resources and leisure, is a practice that is making us a more virtuous society. Maybe Chavez has a point.


10 comments so far

  1. chris on

    so golf is a sport, right?

    • everydaythomist on

      Yes, Chris, if golf is played competitively, golf is a sport.

  2. Scott Haile on

    Well, I guess skiing is unethical too…

    • everydaythomist on

      Yes, Scott, skiing, insofar as it consumes massive amounts of natural resources, including, at least in Virginia, the artificial production of snow several months of the year, is unethical. And only marginally sporty.

  3. Courtney on

    Anyone who has ever lugged a bag full of golf clubs around 18 holes can attest that it is indeed quite physical. Therefore I submit that golf is a sport as long as you do not utilize a cart or a caddy.
    When I was I Las Vegas, I was stuck by the sight of a golf course in the desert. I think it really drives home your idea about sustainability and upkeep. If grass doesn’t naturally grow in the region, don’t try to force it. But then again, who would want to play golf on the dry brown grass that grows in the desert?
    I think the best solution is the wonderful game of disc golf (or frisbee golf) which (at least on the course I played on in Spokane) utilizes the natural terrain to enhance the difficulty of each hole (it is quite difficult to try to aim a disc around a tree).

  4. Scott Haile on

    We felt like things you do without competition are best termed activities. With golf, it can be ambiguous though, since you can “compete” against par or against yourself from another time you golfed. But if you’re not keeping score, I’d tend to say you’re not playing a sport. Like hitting golf balls at the driving range, or shooting free throws in an empty gym–you’re practicing for a sport, but not playing one.

  5. everydaythomist on

    Mowing the lawn, chopping wood, and having sex all require physical activity, but not all of them are sports. I don’t deny that golf is difficult or that it is physical, but to be a sport, it requires something additional. I think additional categories of (1) competitiveness and (2) objective rules are enough to nail down golf as a sport.

    I like your idea of frisbee golf. Nothing bourgeois about that! And like you say, it uses the natural terrain, which I would argue, in doing so, cultivates a virtuous disposition of respect for the environment and the sustainable consumption of it as well.

  6. Ad Abolendam on

    Is skiing any different? In New England, it usually requires snow machines which use massive amounts of energy, as do the ski lifts. It is also just as expensive, if not more so.

  7. gravey on

    When I read the title of your article I thought it would be about the ethics of the game. Golfers keep their own score and penalze themselves on rule violations. The Ethics of Golf certainly includes enviornmental stewardship but it must also include “how you play the game.”

  8. everydaythomist on

    For all of those who are still interested in the larger ethical implications of the sport of golf, check out this article from the NYTimes about how Vietnam is using farmland in order to build golf courses. Again, a game which has such negative repercussions not only for the environment, but also adversely affects the poor, I think, is not sustainable and is therefore ethically unsound.

    Couple of excerpts:

    “Developers and foreign investors are saying they want to make the country a tourist destination, and to do that you need to offer more amenities like golf,” said Kurt Greve, the American general manager of the Ocean Dunes Golf Club and the Dalat Palace Golf Club. Most of those tourists would come from elsewhere in Asia, especially South Korea and Japan, where golf courses are hugely overcrowded. . .

    . . . In its drive to industrialize, Vietnam has already lost large amounts of farmland to factories and other developments. According to the Agriculture Ministry, land devoted to rice, the national staple and a leading source of export revenue, shrank to 10.1 million acres from 11.1 million acres, just from 2000 to 2006. . .

    . . . “Golf courses are for rich people, account for vast areas of land, cause pollution and affect food security, so taxes should be appropriately high,” he told the newspaper Tuoi Tre in July. And when rich people play, it appears that farmers and villagers pay the price. Development of a single course can cost the land of hundreds of farms, displacing as many as 3,000 people, sometimes devouring an entire commune, Nguyen Duc Truyen, an official of the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, said at the recent conference. Only a small number of them find jobs on the new golf courses.

    For example, the Dai Lai golf course in Vinh Phuc Province drove thousands of people from their land but provided jobs for only 30 local residents, according to a report in July on the Vietnam News Service. Farmers are typically compensated at a rate of $2 to $3 a square meter, the news service said, about the cost of a sack of rice.

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