Magazine

How much of the UK is covered in golf course?

Hindhead Golf Club, Surrey

A planning battle has been raging over what campaigners say will be the 142nd golf course in Surrey. But how much golf course is too much?

Cherkley Court is the frontline in a fight over golf.

The 19th Century Surrey country house once owned by press baron Lord Beaverbrook is to be turned into a five-star hotel and luxury golf complex. That's if the £60m refit is given the go-ahead.

Objectors say the scheme will overrun the North Downs greenbelt, damaging areas of outstanding natural beauty. But their trump card is sheer weight of golf. It would be Surrey's 142nd golf course, they claim.

A judge recently quashed the local council's decision to back the developers' plan. Mole Valley District Council is now appealing against that decision. The case will be heard in March 2014.

So how much of the country is golf course? There are no official figures on the percentage of land given over to golf. But it's possible to work out a reasonable estimate.

Most courses are affiliated to one of the national golf bodies. Golf England has a county breakdown of affiliated clubs that lists the number of holes for each. The list doesn't include driving ranges, pitch and putts, and non-affiliated courses. According to Golf England, there are a mere 103 clubs in Surrey, with 1,764 holes in total.

One might expect Scotland to have the densest golf territory. It is said to be the nation with the most holes of golf per head of population. The town of St Andrews alone has 12 courses. But when it comes to counties, one can only speculate. The Scottish Golf Union does not have a county-by-county breakdown of golf courses.

Taking Golf England's figures one can work towards an estimate.

Let's take the size of the average golf course as 45ha (111 acres) per 18 holes - it's a figure that a number of golf experts concur with. Divide this figure by 18 and the per-hole figure is 2.5ha.

Multiply this by the number of holes in a county and one should get the total amount of land used for golf course in a county. One can take the figure for county area from the Office for National Statistics and work out the percentage that golf makes up.

By this method Surrey is not the most golfed area of England.

Top of the golf league is Merseyside where 2.82% of land is given over to golf. The West Midlands follows with 2.74%, while Surrey occupies bronze medal position with 2.65%.

The next most golfed county is Middlesex on 1.6% - a full percentage point behind Surrey. It is important to note that proximity to urban areas is a factor. But it's not the whole story. Greater Manchester and Merseyside have almost identical population densities. But Merseyside has more than twice as much golf per square mile.

Merseyside has some of the most admired courses in the UK, such as Royal Birkdale and Royal Liverpool. So does Surrey. "There are wonderful bits of land there," says Shaun McGuckian, managing editor of Golf Punk. It's parkland and downland, treelined and gently rolling with "breathtaking" design. Unlike blowy links - seaside - courses, Surrey's golf is comfortable, leafy and controlled, he says.

The West Midlands on the other hand has less distinguished courses, says Mark Rowlinson, contributor to World Atlas of Golf. They tend to be shorter, more like 6,000 yards than many of 7,000 yards in Merseyside, he says. So the West Midlands may be artificially high in the estimated figures. It's arguable that Surrey - 0.09% behind the West Midlands in the list - is in reality second only to Merseyside.

Rural counties lack the population needed to support a high concentration of golf courses. Yorkshire has 2,704 holes of golf - the most of any county. But they are spread across a huge land area so Yorkshire's golf density is low - 0.58%.

Bermuda is probably the most heavily golfed area on earth. The small Atlantic island has seven courses that add up to 440ha of golf land, according to figures from the Bermuda Board of Tourism. This is 8.2% of the island.

The Naples-Marco Island metropolitan area of Florida has 212 people per hole. However there are no readily available figures for the density of golf in Florida. Because the courses are spread over a large area of land, the state is unlikely to threaten Bermuda's position at the top of the international league.

Merseyside, the West Midlands and Surrey may not be on Bermuda's scale. But with more than 2.5% of their land devoted to golf, the question of how much golf a place needs might be asked.

Image caption Just under 10% of Bermuda is given over to golf courses

For some, immaculate greens, long-grassed and wooded rough, water hazards and sandy bunkers form an attractive part of the countryside - like a modern version of Capability Brown's sculpted nature. For others it's a very artificial look. And this is not really a public garden open to all.

But Adam Lawrence, editor of Golf Course Architecture magazine, says it can improve waste ground. "Quite a lot of land used for golf is not really useful for much else." This is true of many seaside links courses, where the soil is too lacking in nutrients to be farmed productively. In Surrey, golf began in the late 19th Century as a means of using unloved heathland, he says. When well managed it's good for the environment, using less fertiliser than farmland, he says.

Environmental journalist George Monbiot disagrees. "They use a lot of water and herbicide." What counts most against them is that they tend to be in the lowlands, which is good agricultural land. "We will need the land for food production as there's a growing global population and rising food demand. Converting it into golf seems very wasteful."

The Campaign to Protect Rural England says golf courses can damage the Green Belt and public access to the countryside. "As well as taking vast amounts of land out of public access, golf courses are extremely water intensive," says a CPRE spokesperson. "We'd emphasise the importance of the planning process in coming to a decision about whether a new golf course is necessary, appropriate or desirable."

But the argument about golf is about more than land use. It's also about wealth. The Cherkley Court development is aiming at the very top end. In the High Court case the judge said the case revolved around whether a need for further golf facilities could be demonstrated. "The more exclusive the golf club, the less public need is demonstrated," Mr Justice Haddon-Cave said.

Surrey is blessed with venerable courses. Woking Golf Club, founded in 1893, is a haven from modern anxieties on a weekday afternoon. A crunching gravel path leads from car park to white clubhouse. On the terrace a man sips an iced drink and occasionally looks up at the green vista of tree-lined fairways. The only sound is polite birdsong until a shot rings out - someone is teeing off.

On the other side of Woking, it feels like there's another course every three or four miles. It's not all posh clubs. At Traditions anyone can play, the setting is unremarkable - there are pylons in the background - and a more open feel. Two minutes away is the more upmarket Pyrford. Another few minutes drive is the Wisley, an exclusive club. A drive with hedgerows on each side gives way to black and gold gates. "Private Property. No Public Access." The taxi driver says this is where the former Pakistan Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf used to play his golf.

Whether you approve of such golf plenty probably depends on whether you play or not. When academics at Royal Holloway, University of London, surveyed people about whether golf was good or bad for the environment 80% of golfers said it was beneficial. Among non-golfers the figure was 36%.

Haters see it as a game for middle aged, middle class male bores wearing lemon diamond patterned jumpers. But to fans - and there are thought to be about four million golfers in the UK - it is more than a game. It is a shortcut to the British countryside.

Follow @BBCNewsMagazine on Twitter and on Facebook

On a tablet? Read 10 of the best Magazine stories from 2013 here