WASHINGTON — In a 1996 Sports Illustrated interview discussing his ethnicity, Tiger Woods declared that he was "mathematically Asian." If current trends continue, the same could be said for the sport of golf. With exciting players like Mr. Woods dominating the game, golf's popularity in Asia doubled in the 1990s. Industry analysts expect twofold growth by 2008 - but new players will materialize only if the region constructs more golf courses.
Though much of Southeast Asia offers the tropical weather and cheap, plentiful land that first lured golf course developers to the area, the industry has now set its sights on the greatest prize of them all: China. While China entered the golf business more slowly than its neighbors - the country is expected to have constructed only 100 courses by 2004 - it is poised to play a much larger role in the industry than its Asian neighbors. With China's immense urban population growing wealthier and more westernized, the possibilities for further growth are nearly endless.
Golf is more than a sport; it has the potential to help drive economies. In Japan alone, golf has added as much as $14 billion to the national economy, according to The Economist. While China is primed to reap the benefits of golf's growing popularity, the country is also susceptible to the problems that have plagued other Asian countries. The costs of increased golf course development, though less apparent, are high; construction disrupts ecosystems due to heavy water demand and the use of harmful chemicals, and it has even led to social unrest.
The United States - home to more than 16,000 golf courses - was ranked the world's No. 1 wasteful water-user at the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto recently. Golf is partly to blame. By conservative estimates, to maintain one 18-hole American golf course, 3,000 cubic meters of water run through sprinklers every day - the same amount of water sufficient to meet the average daily usage of 15,000 Americans.
Water wastage on golf courses is far worse in some Asian countries. Thai courses exploit nearly 6,500 cubic meters of water per day, or about what 60,000 rural villagers use in a day.
Developers maintain that Asia's high rainfall makes concern about heavy water use irrelevant. However, golf courses have a poor water retention capacity. While rainwater may fall regularly, most runs off. The course loses natural irrigation, and downstream areas are easily flooded. China is doubly cursed with water crises. In addition to floods in the south, widespread drought in the north will be made worse by an expected deluge of golf course construction in the region.
Heavy dependence on pesticides to maintain golf's green look is universal. A New York study found that the typical 18-hole course uses seven pounds of chemicals per acre per year, seven times the amount used by large-scale agriculture. These quantities are likely to be higher in countries, such as China, where pesticide regulations are weaker and enforcement is nearly nonexistent.
Governments eager for tourist revenue make golf course development easy for investors, but often to the detriment of local populations. In the early 1990s the Malaysian government reportedly paid $7.5 million for a pipeline to feed clean water to an island golf resort. Yet a cholera epidemic broke out in a nearby city due to a lack of clean water.
Discontent throughout Asia has led to the creation of numerous groups that loudly denounced golf course development in the region. Some see golf as a symbol of the growing disparity between rich and poor - the vast majority of Asia's population will never set foot on a golf course, let alone grab a club. Throughout Asia, residents are refusing to make way for golf courses. An Indonesian farmer was imprisoned for resisting eviction from his land. And villagers opposing a golf course near Hanoi clashed with riot police.
These negative experiences throughout the region need not be China's fate. The country can benefit from its late start and learn from the mistakes of its Asian neighbors.
Though the government limits the activities of nongovernmental organizations, Chinese environmental groups have begun to mobilize, successfully derailing some planned course developments. Moreover, the Chinese golf industry can adopt a more environmentally responsible posture, learning from some green certification programs advanced by US and European golf associations.
But, ultimately, the future of China's environment lies in the hands of the central government. If the government uses its heavy hand to further environmental friendly policies, ecological impacts of golf course construction could be diminished. And there's reason to hope the government will do that, given the tremendous resources it has devoted to the 2008 Olympics - dubbed the "green" games.
Under almost any scenario, economic opportunities presented by the golf industry will compete strongly with environmental interests. But it's time for the Chinese government and developers to shoot for the flag of environmental sustainability and avoid the bunkers of degradation that give the sport a bad name.
• Timothy Hildebrandt is managing editor of China Environment Series, an annual policy journal of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.