The Value of a Golf Course

May 24, 2019

By Brian Horgan, Eric Lonsdorf, Chris Nootenboom and Ben Janke

Golf courses are often viewed as elitist playgrounds that consume land and require extensive inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, and water. They tend to be contained within a community and only perceived as valuable assets by those that use them for recreation. Since the last recession in the late 2000’s, approximately 7% of domestic golf courses have closed; some for real estate expenses and others due to fewer golfers and declining revenue coupled with rising operating costs. Now, there are just over 14,000 golf facilities across the United States and, while the direct costs and benefits are clear, the indirect contributions to the public is not as clear. Are golf courses valuable to the surrounding communities beyond recreation?

To answer this question a research partnership was established between the United States Golf Association, the Institute on the Environment Natural Capital Project at the University of Minnesota, and the Turf Team in the Department of Horticultural Science. To begin, stakeholders from the golf industry, community members, resource managers, conservationists, and local government were engaged to advocate their interests during a recent workshop. The primary goal was to determine what attributes contribute to the potential value of the space a golf course occupies. The workshop helped to identify that golf courses have the potential to positively impact their surrounding environment through multiple facets, including reducing urban heat island effect (UHI).

“Natural Value”
golf_figuresUrban landscapes are complex, involving multiple land uses (e.g. ownership parcels, zoning overlays) and potential land covers (e.g. tree canopy, pavement, buildings). Different landscapes can provide different "ecosystem services" which are often hard to quantify in economic terms - things like water filtration, cooling, and wildlife habitat. To assess changes in ecosystem services resulting from land use change —for example, changing a space from a golf course to a residential development— the team developed a wallpaper method, which uses edited aerial photos to simulate what altered land uses would look like. The images were used alongside environmental data to model changes in ecosystem services that would result from changing land use on a golf course. 

For this project, six alternative scenarios were created for golf courses in the Twin Cities: agriculture, city park, industrial area, mixed natural area, residential development, and suburban development. The scenarios were applied to each of the 135 Twin Cities Metro Area golf courses. Combined with the original golf course scenario, this provided 945 individual scenarios to evaluate ecosystem services.   

The UHI effect is the difference in temperature in the built environment compared to the surrounding natural environment.  Built environment materials tend to absorb and store more heat and reflect less sunlight than vegetation-covered ground. Anyone who has ever walked barefoot on pavement during the summer to quickly run to the cool grass knows the feeling.   

Golf courses make up a significant proportion of green space in cities across the country and they provide a substantial service to the surrounding ecosystem despite their extensive management regimes. In the Twin Cities area, golf courses function as urban green space and provide many of the same ecosystem service benefits as natural areas and city parks; their vegetative land cover provides similar UHI reduction to other urban green spaces.

However, many golf courses are faced with the economic pressures of urban development. This becomes a challenge because economic projections often fail to account for the value of ecosystem services. For example, if all 135 golf courses in the Twin Cities metro area closed, 350 square miles of land would see an increase of temperature as much as 0.83°C per night.

More golf courses may inevitably close, due to declining popularity or increasing cost, and be converted into some form of housing or commercial use. However, it is with research like this that helps guide local governments and urban planners to keep an eye towards the public good.

To read more about what the Turf Team is up to visit their page at