Climate change threatens St. Andrews, birthplace of golf


ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — He’s the rare golfer who doesn’t worry about the weather killing a game or robbing shots from distance.

But along the North Sea, on a windswept edge of Scotland, heralded for centuries as the birthplace of golf, greenkeepers of that era fear far more damning forecasts. In this nightmare, what they call a perfect storm, hitting at high tide and packing an easterly wind, would hit, likely accelerating coastal erosion.


“Year after year, we’re just worried,” said David Brown, general manager of the 460-year-old Montrose Golf Links.

“You’re kind of fighting the unknown, really,” he said. “We could go the next 10 years without having that perfect storm, and then quite easily in one winter we could have that perfect storm three times. And then how much land do we lose?

Montrose, which the government says has lost dozens of yards of coastline in recent decades, is considered one of the most at risk of Scotland’s nearly 600 courses, more than one in six of which are coastal. In a sign, however, of how global prestige can only offer so much security, researchers believe St. Andrews, home to the world’s oldest course and host of the 150th British Open, faces greater threat of flooding within 30 years.

Scientists don’t believe the Old Course will be permanently underwater any time soon, with the Road Hole submerged forever in the sea. But golf has had no choice but to start weighing its own role in climate change – especially through the vast, lush, thirsty courses that sometimes replace trees and then require fertilizing and mowing – while wondering how to preserve fairways and greens. around the world.

Scientists have spent years warning how a warmer planet, which can bring stronger storms and rising sea levels, could change sports. Citing climate change, the International Olympic Committee president said Games organizers “may have to look at the overall schedule and whether there needs to be a change”. Winter sports face a future of artificial snow events, and activities like dog sledding and fishing are transforming in the Arctic.

Golf will be no exception.

“Some of our most historic, famous and revered golf courses are in danger, and this is something that every coastal course needs to give serious thought to,” said Tim Lobb, President of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects. , which predicted an acceleration of the kind of turf-cutting efforts that have already begun on some courses.

Scotland’s long adherence to golf as a cultural and economic juggernaut lends the issue particular urgency in that region, where the Open is set to end on Sunday. At St. Andrews Links alone, six public courses, including the Old Course, together host some 230,000 rounds a year close to West Sands, just steps from some of the most revered holes in the world. (A seventh St. Andrews Links course, opened in 2008, is found elsewhere in the area.)

Rangelands in the east of Scotland, which contain low-lying sediments that can be easily eroded, are generally thought to be more at risk than those on the west coast, where the geology is less vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.

But the answers are generalizing.

Royal Dornoch, a beloved course in the north of Scotland, attempted to revive a bog that had eroded and threatened a fairway. Lundin, about half an hour’s drive from St. Andrews, added 100,000 pounds of fencing to guard against erosion, and the R&A, the Open organizer, earmarked hundreds of thousands of pounds to grants to “develop solutions”.

However, there may be limits to what the courts can do, with their options sometimes narrowed by money, location, severity of the threat, or consequences of action in an area. Some people worry that the resources that could be made available in a place like the Old Course, which is rich in history and international import, may not be as accessible elsewhere.

“There are fears about golf courses, but we will help protect golf courses if we do the right thing to protect the environment and mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change,” said Nicola Sturgeon. , First Minister of Scotland, in an interview by the sea. on Friday. “There is a huge amount of work we are doing in Scotland to achieve this. It’s not just about protecting golf courses, but there’s no doubt that in places like this, it’s also key.

She added: “The climate is changing, but we are really focused in Scotland on making sure we protect what matters most to us in the face of these challenges. And it’s very evident during this week of the year, in particular, how much golf means to Scotland.

Some experts, including Professor Bill Austin of the University of St. Andrews, expect an increasing number of technical fixes to be imposed over the years, balanced by more natural solutions that could involve allowing the sea to infiltrate in a controlled manner.

One of the lingering questions, however, is whether these efforts will materialize quickly enough.

At Montrose, Brown runs a course that has recently been in the stopgap realm, by design and not: tees have been lost, holes have been shortened and rerouted, and fairways have been seeded. However, there is not a lot of money to spend, and weather-related modifications eat up around a third of the course’s greens budget.

“Without government protection, we could see 50 years of golf played comfortably – or the perfect storm two or three times in one winter, 10 years,” he said.

Concerns around St. Andrews aren’t quite as bad yet, but they’re growing. In a particularly grim possibility described last year in a report by a Scottish government project, part of the West Sands could attract around 750 meters in crossovers by 2100 if there are high emissions and an approach” do nothing” to manage the coast.

And Climate Central, a research group based in Princeton, NJ, has predicted that the Old Course and surrounding area will become more susceptible to temporary, even overflowing, flooding by 2050.

Austin, based at St. Andrews School of Geography and Sustainability, also expects flooding to threaten the Old Course and said breaches “could be unavoidable”. Further dune improvements, particularly around the end of the estuary, could provide better protection for the course, he said, building on years of work already done by St. Andrews. Links.

The government report also suggested beach nourishment efforts and the possibility of course redesigns “to ensure that golf can be played sustainably in St. Andrews beyond 2100”.

How long, exactly, is unclear.

“I’m sure there will be a 200th Open played on something very similar to the current Old Course, but there may be engineering behind the scenes,” said Austin, who received research funding from the R&A. at a cafe in St. Andrews on a rainy morning last week.

Beyond that, however, his prognosis is more worrying.

“If you were to ask me around 300, then I would say the Old Course will have moved,” he said, “but there will always be something in St. Andrews that will have the feel and, I think, the heritage. of the Old Course.”