Book Excerpt 4: The environmental impact of disc golf vs. ball golf

Followers of this blog know I’ve been working on a book project where my productivity has been on-and-off, depending on the demands of my day job. I’ve posted a few excerpts here in the past, all of which were pulled from the initial chapter, which sets the theme for the entire book.

It’s my assertion that golf is a wonderful game with numerous benefits, but the traditional version with clubs and balls is fraught with significant barriers (such as the cost and time required, which have been covered here in previous excerpts).


The goal of the book is to broadly publicize the sport of disc golf to the masses, and in such a way that its true properties rather than the tired stereotypes or over-simplifications are understood. I share the conviction with many others that once this happens, participation in disc golf as a recreational activity will explode. Interest in professional disc golf as a form of spectator entertainment may follow but, frankly, that is not where my passion lies.

This excerpt is a discussion about the contrast between what many consider to be the unacceptable environmental impact of ball golf course development and maintenance and the relatively invisible footprint of disc golf courses, which are nearly always adapted to existing natural surroundings or already developed suburban parks.

For a specific example, consider the resources consumed in placing a ball golf course (many believe the just water required to keep the grass green is an unconscionable waste) in the middle of a desert wasteland. A disc golf course on the same piece of land, on the other hand, would involve nothing except strategically placed targets and tees. Virtually no manipulation of the landscape whatsoever.

I hope you enjoy the read, follow the links and share your thoughts with us.

The Environmental Impact of Golf

Traditional golf attracts criticism from environmentalists for two primary reasons — water and pesticides.

Prodigious amounts of both are used each week by U.S. golf courses to keep fairways and greens lush, green, and free of weeds. The more radical line of thinking is the environmental impact on such large areas for the benefit — and recreational benefit at that — of so few is unconscionable. Even a good percentage of golf enthusiasts polled about the subject of golf and the environment tend to agree that course owners and greenskeepers need to modify maintenance practices.

Disc golf can be played on severe slopes and any type of ground cover -- in this case, bare dirt -- as shown in this shot from the fairway on the third hole at Pinto Lake in Watsonville, Calif. This course was the site of the 2011 PDGA World Championships.

Disc golf can be played on severe slopes and any type of ground cover — in this case, bare dirt — as shown in this shot from the fairway on the third hole at Pinto Lake in Watsonville, Calif. This course was the site of the 2011 PDGA World Championships.

As part of a comprehensive report about golf and the environment, written in 2008 by John Barton, Golf Digest magazine conducted a survey with the purpose of determining the opinions of golfers as compared to the general population.

When asked if pesticides used on a golf course creates a potential health hazard for humans, 40 percent of the golfer group responded yes (compared to 66 percent of the general population group). That says two things — two-thirds of the general population think the pesticides used on traditional golf courses are likely hazardous and even nearly half of all golfers are willing to admit it. Yet their reasons for wanting to play the game are so compelling that they don’t seem to care. They’ll take their chances!

When asked “should the amount of water used on golf courses only be enough to keep the grass alive, not make it green and lush?” 44 percent of golfers said yes. Pay attention on this one, not only to the reply (most golfers still want their course green and lush, whatever it takes), but to the specific wording of the question. “… enough to keep the grass alive... ” How much is that, exactly? And why is keeping the grass alive important if isn’t going to be aesthetically pleasing?

The answer to the first question is hard to nail down, although the difference between alive and lush and green is subjective and therefore likely to end up not being too great. But the answer to the second question is more illuminating, and goes directly to why golf will always be a concern — and therefore a barrier — to certain environmentalists.

Nice, consistent, thick, mowed (emissions from maintenance equipment are another concern of environmentalist) grass is essential to the game of golf because players hit the ball from wherever it lands. They expect to be rewarded for keeping the ball in the fairway by getting a clean shot at the ball as it lies atop the perfect grass.

And greens, where players putt, are supposed to be kept so short and uniform that the ball will roll straight and smoothly with a slight tap of the club. To get a better idea of how important this heavy manipulation of the land is to traditional golf, think of your favorite natural, open-space park. Now imagine people trying to play golf there, hitting balls from the dirt, brush, tall native grasses or bushes and clustered trees. Not to mention finding the ball after each shot.

In the Golf Digest story mentioned above, five people with different perspectives on golf and the environment were interviewed. One of them was a noted environmentalist who is also an avid golfer. According to Barton, Brent Blackwelder — who, at the time of the interview, was the president of Friends of the Earth, and, is now president emeritus — is one of America’s most prominent environmental advocates and has testified before Congress more than 100 times.

Blackwelder was asked a number of questions, but his answer to the final one was the most illuminating in the context of this book. After touching on specific issues like pesticides, energy use, and genetically engineered grasses, Barton asked “what would golf be like in a perfect world?” Blackwelder’s reply:

“You’d be playing on an organic course. The maintenance equipment would be charged by solar power. Recycled water would be used for irrigation, and used efficiently and sparingly. There’d be a great variety of wildlife habitats. This idea that you’ve got to make everything look like a miniature golf course with a green carpet is crazy. It’s the same problem that we see with these lawn fetishes — all the water and chemicals and energy that are used for a lawn that just sits there. So let’s get back to the rugged qualities of the game. People ought to read the history of golf.

“We’ve not been very good stewards of the earth as a species. We should be a blessing to the rest of life, not such a curse. The whole idea of living with and appreciating and understanding our surroundings is something we need more of. We have this incredible nature-deficit disorder worldwide. We’re sitting all day in front of a computer in an office and not getting out for a walk in the woods. Golf is a great opportunity to be outdoors. It should be a fun, interesting, great walk out there; a healthful, salubrious experience.”

The Utopian golf experience Blackwelder describes as “golf in a perfect world” is already a reality, and it’s even better from an environmentalist’s perspective than he imagines. It may not be the golf he grew up playing, with clubs and balls on 150 acres of heavily manipulated land. But it can be played on virtually every type of terrain with hardly any alteration required, and zero watering or pesticides.

As this books aims to clearly demonstrate, players get the full golf experience — the mental challenge, the constant risk vs. reward equation to solve — while in a completely natural, native, organic environment.

They may not realize it, yet, but for those like Blackwelder who see great value in the game of golf but also feel a strong obligation to minimize human impact on the planet, disc golf is the Utopian golf experience. It requires one third the land of a ball golf course, and rather than being carved out of a local natural habitat, a disc golf course can completely conform to it.

Final thoughts

To wrap up, I’ll reiterate my invitation for readers to add comments below, about on any of the excerpts posted to date as well as suggestions for using the very active disc golf community to help promote the book once it’s published.

The goal is to get the book promoted to and read by the large majority of the overall population who don’t yet know the full story of disc golf, and we can use all the help we can get.

Jack Trageser is the founder of School of Disc Golf and the instructional writer at You can reach him at

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6 thoughts on “Book Excerpt 4: The environmental impact of disc golf vs. ball golf

  1. I read an article from some guy in San Fran that was complaining about a disc golf course in his neighborhood and how bad it was for the environment because we trample over plants and wear on the paths. He also talked about the stereotypical disc golfer and saying we are all stoners. So basically for whatever reason he didn’t want the disc golf course and was going to use any reason against it. Most the comments were directed to what a jerk this guy was, but a few of his neighbors liked the comment. I didn’t see anyone mention the impact of ball golf, I wish they had.


  2. I wouldn’t give Disc Golf a 100% environmental impact grade. If left ignored, erosion can become a serious problem in certain areas. You can see this at very old courses that haven’t had tee pads installed, have a lot of traffic around slopped areas, and around baskets. Also, most discs (minus flywood) are not made from a renewable resource. Hopefully, discs will become recycled more. We have started to see with the eco plastic. In addition to this, after a disc has been heavily used and is no longer usable, it would be good if these discs are recycled into new discs. Its a good thing that the lifespan of a disc is quite long, that way we don’t have to keep replacing discs, and therefore creating more waste. I think Disc Golf is still in the high 90s as far as grading the game’s impact on the environment.


  3. I sometimes wish disc golf courses weren’t so “natural.” I’d sure like to spread some fire ant poison in the fairways of my home course.

    My home course is on a wildlife preserve, so courses don’t get much more environmentally friendly than that. The fire ants are really an issue though, mostly in the narrow fairways, but also on a couple of the concrete tee pads. I would REALLY like to take my lawn spreader out there once or twice a year and treat the tee pads and narrow fairways that define this course.

    A nearby course is on a university campus, and the ant hills in the most populated areas get spot-treatment, but spreading fire ant poison on the whole campus, or even the fairways, would be cost prohibitive.

    I also play a 24 hole course once a month, but most of the fairways on that course are too wide to consider treating them for fire ants.


  4. Looking back at this blog post and my comment about fire ants, I think it’s wrong to assume the most environmental choice is to not use pesticides. Fire Ants are an invasive species and pesticides, when used in moderation, can sometimes benefit the environment. It’s the OVERUSE of pesticides we should concern ourselves with.

    Also, it’s nice to have some disc golf courses located in natural parks and wildlife preserves, but let’s face facts here. Most of the available courses are built in existing parks, campuses, and land that is already in a state other than its natural one.

    Make sure you don’t make the false assumption that everything that is natural is inherently better. Arsenic is natural, but I wouldn’t want to put it in my coffee.


  5. Pingback: Book Excerpt 4: The environmental impact of disc golf vs. ball golf | Keystone Disc Golf

  6. This may be a bit off topic, and maybe you’ve already covered this, but it seems to me that the best recreational use of land in populated areas is the kind of use that benefits the greatest number of people. When you consider that ball golf dedicates huge acres of land to one particular kind of use, the contrast is easy to see. Disc golf does just the opposite. Instead of reserving space for one only one kind of recreation, disc golf typically shares public parks with other users. In addition, disc golf courses usually do so in a way that adds value to an existing resource. People don’t use public parks in the same ways they once did. Most park users stick to the perimeters of the parks, walking, biking and running on roads, paths and sidewalks. Playgrounds and ball fields are the exception, but there are often many acres of green space and forest that are not being utilized. Enter disc golf, to reclaim these unused parcels of land for recreation. It seems obvious to me that disc golf represents good stewardship of public land.


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