Golf’s battle to survive a changing climate

The future of links and seaside golf is under threat, writes Kevin Markham. But what is Irish golf doing to fight back?

September 2006 brought flooded greens and bunkers days before the Ryder Cup at the K Club. Pictures: Don MacMonagle and Morgan Treacy

With golf under threat from our climate, it is hardly helpful that the most powerful man in the world is a climate change denier, believing it to be a hoax invented by the Chinese. Perhaps Donald Trump will change his tune as his golf courses get washed away by rising oceans and increased flooding.

A strongly worded and worrying report recently published by the UK’s leading environmental organisation charity, the Climate Coalition, has found that every links golf course across the UK is in danger of disappearing in the next 100 years. The world famous courses at St Andrews and Royal Troon are highlighted specifically but with approximately 100 Scottish courses lying on the coast, the report indicates that climate change will have serious consequences for the game we love.

The Climate Coalition is made up of 130 non-governmental groups in Britain and the report, entitled ‘Game changer: how climate change is impacting sports in the UK’, is backed by the Priestley International Centre for Climate (PICC).

According to the PICC’s Kate Sambrook and Piers Forster, a professor of climate change at the University of Leeds, one of the key problems is that six of the seven wettest years on record in Britain have come since 2000.

“Cancelled football matches, flooded cricket grounds, and golf courses crumbling into the sea: climate change is already impacting our ability to play and watch the sports we love,” they wrote.

“There is growing evidence that the UK is becoming warmer and wetter. During the last 20 to 30 years, the UK has experienced a rapid increase in extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall, bringing severe flooding in many areas. Future projections by the Met Office indicate that winter rainfall could increase by 70-100% by the 2080s.

“While there will still be drier years, this suggests that wet winters like the ones we have experienced lately could become more common in the future, increasing the risk of further damaging floods.”

On this side of the Irish Sea, the report ‘Ireland’s climate: the road ahead’ was produced by Met Éireann in 2013. It is their most recent report focused on climate change. Its key findings are: the observed warming over the period 1981-2010 is expected to continue, with an increase of circa 1.5 degrees in mean temperatures by mid-century; warming is enhanced for the extremes with highest daytime temperatures projected to rise by up to 2 degrees in summer and lowest night-time temperatures to rise by up to 2 to 3 degrees in winter; winters are expected to become wetter with increases of up to 14% in precipitation, while the frequency of heavy precipitation events during winter show notable increases of up to 20%. The report also references a study which suggests there will be an increase in the frequency of extreme windstorms affecting Western Europe in future autumn seasons, due to global warming.

The Climate Coalition highlights that other sports (especially cricket and football) are at risk from rain, extreme weather, and erosion… but it is the prediction that golf courses will crumble into the sea which will cause some sleepless nights for golf’s governing bodies and golf clubs in the UK, in Ireland, and around the world.

Steve Isaac, the R&A’s Director of Golf Course Management, said in the report: “It [climate change] is certainly becoming a factor. Golf is impacted by climate change more than most other sports. Trends associated with climate change are resulting in periods of course closures, even during summer, with disruption seen to some professional tournaments.

“We are witnessing different types and timings of disease, pest and weed outbreaks. The future threats are very real, with course managers having to show adaptation if we are to maintain current standards of course condition. It is something we take very seriously.”

Ireland may not have been included in this report but you don’t have to go far back in time to recall the damage inflicted on golf courses by storms and extreme weather. Ex-hurricane Ophelia did plenty of damage in October 2017, but it was the storms of 2014 that highlighted the power and destructiveness of Mother Nature. The damage done inland, at Limerick, Charleville, Fermoy, Dundrum House, Kilkenny, Killarney, Waterford Castle, and Thurles, resulted in some clubs changing their overall appearance as thousands of trees were felled in the high winds.

December 2015 saw Storm Desmond raising the water levels on Lough Leane to flood part of the first fairway at Killarney Golf Club.

More than 300 trees came down at Fermoy that February (the club lost a further 700 during Ophelia). Killarney lost almost 200 trees but its more immediate and lasting struggles will be with the flooding from Lough Leane: in 2016, the clubhouse became an island that was inaccessible for two days.

Alongside the extremes in rainfall, The Climate Coalition’s report focuses closely on the coastal challenges that lie ahead for golf. In Ireland, out of 420 courses, close to 80 are on the coast. That’s an even higher percentage than Scotland.

In February 2014, in those same storms, our coastal courses suffered considerable damage, too. A chunk of Narin & Portnoo’s spectacular 15th fairway, right above the beach, was removed — like someone cutting a slice of cake. Co. Sligo took a few heavy hits with a large chunk of the dunes next to the 16th hole swept away. Doonbeg famously lost its iconic 14th green. The damage was so severe that an entirely new hole was created when the course was renovated the following year. Ardglass’s links holes took a pounding with 40 yards of wall protecting the 11th fairway torn asunder. The most severe damage, however, was to Mulranny, Co. Mayo, where fairways were turned to sea and rock, and the club’s defences were rendered useless.

To give some perspective, the third green, including its flag, was completely submerged at one point. It is not the first time that Mulranny has endured such a beating — the nine-hole course used to boast 18 holes — but it was the storms in January, the month before, that managed to move the sea defences enough that the ocean swept in only weeks later, carrying with it boulders the size of cars.

Coastal golf courses are suffering from storm surges and a rise in sea levels, and this is unlikely to change. Indeed, those winter storms of 2014 generated waves of such power that they tore slabs of rock out of the coastline and deposited them inland. When scientists from Williams College, in Massachusetts, examined before-and-after photographs of the shoreline, they found many coastal sites had been rearranged. Boulders the size of houses weighing over 100 tonnes had been lifted by the power of the waves. Some were moved over 200 metres inland and close to 50 metres above sea level. The study published in Earth-Science Reviews also recorded that one of these boulders, on the Aran Islands, is estimated to weigh 620 tonnes (equivalent to almost three Statues of Liberty). It was moved several feet and established a new world record for the largest boulder ever known to have been moved by storm waves.

So how are our famous links coping with the increasing threat of climate change?

In the west, Co Sligo Golf Club is about to submit a bid to host the 2019 Irish Open.

“Following on from the recent January storms we have taken a decision to repair 40 metres of dunes which are very close to the 16th green,” says the club’s general manager, David O’Donovan. “This area in particular took a real battering from those storms with almost five metres of dunes washed away. We have a long-term plan to try to protect the course on holes 13 to 17 but as you can imagine this is a very big investment. It could cost up to €700,000 to complete a full reinforcement of the dunes.”

To the north, at Castlerock Golf Club, there have been considerable efforts to deal with the threats of coastal erosion. The club is working with the Causeway Coast & Glens council which is positioning posts at two-metre intervals along Castlerock beach to create a new eco-environment for dunes to grow. It is a sand-stabilisation programme that is also being pursued on the course. Sea buckthorn is being removed and replaced by large stone blocks (like Lego bricks). Sand then blows up into the dunes behind the blocks, both extending the dune and covering the blocks. The aim is to secure the dunes while also enabling them to grow.

North of Dublin lies The Island Golf Club.

“We are very conscious of climate change and the effect it has on the course,” says John Lawler, general manager at the club. “One of the main changes we have seen is the slight adjustment in the normal playing season. Traditionally there was a slowdown in the volume of golf in mid-October but we are now finding, due to better temperatures, that play tends to continue well into November and December. Surfaces also require increased maintenance during these periods due to continued growth. On the other side, we notice that spring conditions can provide challenging environments due to cold winds and lower soil temperatures.

“The Island is surrounded on three sides by water with the Irish Sea and Malahide Estuary. Due to this location the club has always been very conscious to monitor the surrounding coastline and this continues to this day. We are fortunate not to suffer from any major coastal erosion, unlike some parts of the west coast, but we don’t take anything for granted and keep a close eye on our surroundings.”

To the west, most golfers are aware of the damage done to Trump Doonbeg in recent years. The golf course stretches for 1.7 miles on the dunes above Doughmore Strand. According to the resort, as much as 20 metres of dunes have been eroded since 2002, leading to the loss of that 14th hole.

In December, Clare County Council granted planning permission for Trump Doonbeg to build coastal defences. These will comprise a 38,000 tonne rock armour defence placed precisely to protect core parts of the course — holes 1, 9 and 18 specifically.

US president Donald Trump might be a climate-change denier, but 20m of dunes at his Doonbeg course in Co Clare have been eroded since 2002.

In the south-east, the sea at Rosslare has changed the coastline constantly. In the 1920s Rosslare Fort, a village of 40 to 50 dwellings, was lost to the sea. Between the 1960s and 1980s the golf club lost a number of holes but major rock revetment work was carried out by Wexford County Council, in conjunction with the golf club, and so far this has been successful in stemming the march of the sea. In recent years there has been considerable dune building on the seaward side of the course as the club remains conscious of dangers from sea level rises.

Any intelligent person knows that most of our current (and future) climate change problems are man-made. Any intelligent person also knows that it will take a global effort to alter climate change’s direction. The Climate Coalition’s report may have singled out golf in a way that hasn’t been seen before but the sport has not been hiding its head in the sand, as the above efforts show. Following the report’s publication, a spokesman for The R&A said: “The effect of coastal erosion on links courses is something golf has been actively dealing with for many years. Through the GEO Foundation, and our own experts, we support sustainable management of golf courses and it is important they take whatever measures they can to protect courses.

“Broader climate change, particularly the impact of sea levels, is a much wider issue, however, and ultimately is not something golf or any individual sport can tackle by itself. We have to continue to raise awareness of effects of climate change and encourage policymakers to consider the impact it is having on our coastline.”



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