Environmental concerns over the use of land for golf courses have grown over the past fifty years. Specific issues include the amount of water required for irrigation and the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in maintenance, as well as the destruction of wetlands and other environmentally important areas during construction. The United Nations estimates that, worldwide, golf courses consume about 2.5 billion gallons/9.5 billion litres of H2O per day. Many golf courses are now irrigated with non-potable water and rainwater. In 1988, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prohibited the use of Diazinon on golf courses and sod farms because of its negative impact on bird species.
These, along with health and cost concerns, have led to research into more environmentally sound practices and turf grasses. The golf course superintendent is often trained in the uses of these practices and grasses. This has led to significant reduction in the amount of both water and chemicals on courses. The turf on golf courses is an excellent filter for water and has been used in communities to cleanse grey water, such as incorporating into bioswales.
The use of natural creeks and ponds is generally desirable when designing a golf course for their aesthetics and inherent difficulty, but such areas also typically include wetlands within the flood plain that are unsuitable for golfing and are often filled in and raised to remain dry. In arid areas, dry creek beds can be marked as "water hazards", but the importation of non-native grasses and other plant life can have a detrimental effect on native landscapes, often requiring non-native soil and large quantities of water and fertilizer to maintain the course. In these areas, course builders are often prohibited from growing and maintaining non-native grass on areas of the course other than the fairway, or even on the fairway itself (only greens are allowed to have grass). In the U.S., land administered by the Army Corps of Engineers such as those bordering levees and lakes is often desirable for building courses, due to the scenic natural views and the unsuitability of the land for other purposes due to it lying in a planned flood plain; in these cases, the course designer must work with the Corps of Engineers to plan a course layout that protects environmentally sensitive areas, provides for a means of quick escape in case of flooding, and does not invite players to hit into or toward controlled structures such as levees or dams.
Environmentalists and other activists continue to lobby against the building of new golf courses, claiming they may impede corridors for migrating animals and damage sanctuaries for birds and other wildlife, though some courses have become havens for native and non-native creatures.
A result of modern equipment is that today's players can hit the ball much farther than previously. As a result, because of demand from course customers who possess this enhanced equipment, and also out of an expressed concern for safety, golf course architects have had to lengthen and widen golf courses. Where a 7,000-yard course used to be a great rarity, courses measuring 7,500-yards are now not uncommon, and courses of 8,000-yards are being contemplated. All this has led to a ten-percent increase in the acreage required to build a typical course. At the same time, water restrictions established by communities have forced courses to limit the amount of maintained turf grass. While most modern 18-hole golf courses occupy as much as 60 hectares (150 acres) of land, the average course has 30 hectares (74 acres) of maintained turf. (Sources include the National Golf Foundation and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America GCSAA.)
Golf courses can be built on sandy areas along coasts, on abandoned farms, among strip mines and quarries, and in deserts and forests. Many Western countries have instituted environmental restrictions on where and how courses are allowed to be built.
In some parts of the world, attempts to build courses and resorts have led to protests, vandalism, and violence. Populists perceive golf as an elitist activity, and thus golf courses become a target for popular opposition. Resisting golf tourism and golf's expansion has become an objective of some land-reform movements, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia.
In the Bahamas, opposition to golf developments has become a national issue. Residents of Great Guana Cay and Bimini, for example, are engaged in legal and political opposition to golf developments on their islands, for fear the golf courses will destroy the nutrient-poor balance on which their coral reef and mangrove systems depend.
In Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in arid regions, golf courses have been constructed on nothing more than oil-covered sand. Players may use a roller on the "greens" to smooth the intended path before putting. A course in Coober Pedy, Australia, consists of nine holes dug into mounds of sand, diesel fuel, and oil, with no grass appearing anywhere on the course. Players carry a small piece of astroturf from which they tee the ball. In New Zealand, it is not uncommon for rural courses to have greens fenced off and sheep grazing the fairways. At the 125-year-old Royal Colombo Golf Club in Sri Lanka, steam trains from the Kelani Valley railway run through the course at the 6th hole.