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For many travellers, a holiday means getting in at least a few rounds of golf and enjoying the great outdoors in the process. But golf courses don’t have the best environmental reputation when it comes to taking care of their manicured landscapes, which can put a damper on your day out in the sun.

Luckily, many courses around the world have taken steps to conserve water, preserve natural habitats and limit – or even eliminate – chemical use when getting the grass to look that green. And the change is not just because of pressure from environmental groups or increasingly eco-conscious consumers -- conserving resources also helps the bottom line.

“Primarily, it’s the right thing to do,” said Kimberly Erusha, managing director for the Green Section Department at the United States Golf Association (USGA). But course superintendents also try to minimize pesticide and fertilizer use because these products cost money. “They find that balance … on the economic and agronomic side,” Erusha said.

Here’s a look at what some courses are doing in three major environmental areas.

Water conservation
For the golf industry, water is big. Courses in the United States – of which there are approximately 16,000 – use a total of about two billion gallons of water per day for irrigation, according to a report by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. But some courses are using recycled and collected water and better irrigation systems to improve conservation. Pebble Beach Golf Links in California, for instance, converts local wastewater so it can be used for irrigation, and the high-tech irrigation system allows crews to factor in weather and soil conditions to water the grounds only as needed. Portugal’s Belas Clube de Campo captures water runoff to reuse in irrigation and to fill lakes on the course – an effort that earned the course an environmental certification from Scotland’s Golf Environment Organization (GEO).

Pesticide/fertilizer reduction
The Vineyard Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard is an organic course, because the local community demanded it. “Water quality is the big issue here,” Jeff Carlson, club superintendent, told Golf Digest magazine in 2008. “There's a single-source aquifer for the whole island. They felt that any pesticides would poison the water.” Applewood Golf Course in Colorado ditched chemicals back in the late 1980s, also because of an aquifer concern. (That same water is used by MillerCoors to brew beer.) And Chambers Bay along the Puget Sound in Washington state earned kudos from Links magazine partly for generating fertiliser from a waste-treatment facility.

Out-of-play sanctuaries
Courses can preserve the surrounding habitat by letting the out-of-play areas run wild. That means “no mowing”, Erusha said, no irrigation and no fertilising. “We’re going to save money, which is a positive…, and you’re improving habitat for the wildlife. That’s one of the draws of the game… you’re outdoors and you’re able to enjoy the outdoor environment.” Moon Palace Golf and Spa Resort in Cancun, Mexico, preserves two-thirds of its property, providing habitat for birds, crocodiles and jaguars, and earning an environmental certification from the Golf Environment Organization. Both the Moon Palace and Belas Clube de Campo courses also were featured in National Geographic last year for their environmental stewardship.

To find eco-friendly courses, golfers can consult GEO’s directory of worldwide certified courses, browse case studies and research environmental award winners on the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America website, or look at courses certified by Audubon International – a group partly funded by USGA and not affiliated with the National Audubon Society. More important, golfers can do their part by lowering expectations of plush carpets of green grass. “They have to remember that we’re dealing with nature, and it’s not supposed to be perfect,” Erusha said.

Lori Robertson writes the Ethical Traveller column for BBC Travel. You can send ethical dilemmas to bbcethicaltravel@gmail.com.

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