Brown is the new green for golf in parched Spain
By Sonya Dowsett
MADRID (Reuters) – The clipped emerald lawns of Spain’s
golf clubs are a lure to millions of tourists each year.
But a sharp rise in the number of thirsty golf courses has
made increasing demands on dwindling water reserves in a
country fighting its worst drought on record.
Spain boasts hundreds of courses, mostly concentrated in
the tourist regions of the southern coast. Their number more
than doubled from 91 in 1989 to 250 in 2003, according to the
Royal Spanish Golf Association.
More are planned to cash in on golf’s tourism potential:
the sport attracts well-heeled visitors and extends the tourist
season, keeping euros flowing into an industry that accounts
for around 12 percent of Spain’s economy.
The average golf tourist spends around 4 to 8 times more
than someone on a package holiday, says Roddy Carr, former
Irish international and tourism consultant at U.S. sports
marketing firm IMG.
“It’s less people with more money,” he said. He estimated
the golf tourist industry in Spain is worth over $500 million.
Spain needs big spending golf tourists more than ever as it
fights off competition from cheaper, more exotic holiday
destinations like Turkey and North Africa.
Developers are planning around 21 new courses per year over
the next decade, according to environmentalist group
This could be bad news for precious water supplies in a
country where the worst drought on record has slashed crop
harvests and seen over 6,000 fires rage through forests.
The average golf course consumes the same amount of water
as a town of 15,000 people in a year, according to Greenpeace.
Spanish water authorities are investigating 10 of the 28
golf courses based in the Madrid region following reports they
have been using drinking water to irrigate the greens. There
are also concerns that courses are not using enough recycled
But even environmentalists concede golf has an important
role to play in Spain’s profitable tourist industry.
“It’s nonsense to say we shouldn’t have golf courses here,”
says Guido Schmidt of environmental group WWF. “The question is
the availability of water.”
Some clubs have decided to make a feature of natural arid
landscapes, rather than trying to mimic the sandy,
grass-covered links of eastern Scotland, the historic home of
golf which evolved from a game played there during the 15th
One municipal golf club on the outskirts of Madrid uses no
water at all to maintain its course.
Although the land at the public Quijorna club is green
during three seasons of the year, in summer it dries out and
the browns and yellows of the central Spanish countryside
“The only thing we do is cut the grass,” says vice director
Javier Guerra. “At the moment we are using absolutely no
The 9-hole course stretches out beneath the sierras, dotted
with evergreen oak trees, on land formerly used for growing
crops of chickpeas.
The club plans to start watering the greens, where the
holes are, and the tees to improve the quality of the game. But
even so they will use only 20 percent of the water used by an
average golf course, Guerra says.
FISTFUL OF DOLLARS
On a far grander scale is the Desert Springs club, which
has been hewn out of scrub and desert near Almeria, southern
Spain and has hosted the Spanish Open International
The course was designed by golf champion Peter McEvoy, who
led Britain and Ireland to success in the Walker Cup.
The club uses selective watering and aims to blend into the
stretch of desert, beloved of “spaghetti Western” directors in
the 1960s and where Clint Eastwood filmed “A Fistful of
“Rather than watering everything, you’re just watering the
playing areas. You don’t play solid green all the way from tee
to green,” said McEvoy. “It’s a question of trying to design
something that looks right in the landscape.”
There is no reason why these innovative courses should be a
rarity, said golf consultant Carr. Good design should eliminate
problems with water supply, he said.
New strains of grass that thrive on salt and brackish
water, selective watering and recycled water programmes can
make all the difference.
“If the planning laws and regulations stipulate strong
enough policy to ensure that the golf courses are to be built
with environmentally-friendly ingredients, then there is no
argument on the environmental issue,” Carr said.
Back at Quijorna, Guerra points at the larks circling
nearby. He says wild boar come out at night to feast on the
acorns from the oak trees. He doesn’t see why golf must be
played on grass courses.
“It’s like playing football: there are many grassed
football pitches like Bernabeu (home of soccer team Real
Madrid), but there are hundreds and hundreds of earth pitches,”