Expansion of Golf Courses in the United States

By Napton, Darrell E.; Laingen, Christopher R. | The Geographical Review, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Expansion of Golf Courses in the United States


Napton, Darrell E., Laingen, Christopher R., The Geographical Review


Few sports leave an imprint on the land as large or distinctive as golf. Golf courses are highly visible from the air and are easily distinguishable in remotely sensed satellite imagery because of their large size, distinctive patterns, and normally bright green, irrigated grasslands. Golf is the eleventh most popular sport in the United States, and during the last quarter of the twentieth century the number of golfers increased four times faster than the nation's population, from 10 million to more than 25 million. These golfers played nearly 600 million rounds annually (U.S. Census Bureau 2002).

Golf courses are an important national land use. The nation's 16,000 golf courses occupy an area as large as the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined (Santiago 2005). These golf courses represent a significant investment of public and private capital and land. Often, they are centerpieces of destination resorts and vacation areas and consequently have had impacts on vacation travel and retirement migration (R. L. A. Adams 1995).

Our objective in this article is to explore the changing geographical distribution of golf courses in the conterminous United States at the regional level using county data and to determine whether golf-course construction and distribution were influenced by some of the major socioeconomic driving forces of the twentieth century (Kates, Turner, and Clark 1990; Turner and Meyer 1994). In some ways, this study updates and expands on the work of Robert Adams and John Rooney (1985, 1995). We, however, focus more explicitly on golf courses as a significant land use that reflects the socioeconomic and environmental drivers of their construction epoch.

Using a database we purchased from its creator, Golf Magazine, we divided dates of golf-course construction into four growth epochs that generally correspond to major socioeconomic conditions of the time: Epoch I, urban, elite beginnings (1878-1919); Epoch II, growth and stagnation during turbulent times (1920-1949); Epoch III, increased leisure time and affluence (1950-1969); and Epoch IV, maturation and saturation (1970-2000) (Figure 1). Some of these epochs roughly correspond with urban and economic periods that have been recognized by other geographers. The beginning of Epoch II, for example, corresponds with the beginning of John Borchert's auto-air-amenity epoch and John Adams's recreational auto era (Borchert 1967; J. S. Adams 1970). The similarities of our epochs compared with those of Borchert and Adams are not surprising, for each of them attempted to do exactly what we attempt to do--discern patterns in recent U.S. land-use changes. Understanding the drivers of golf-course construction will be crucial to understanding the geography of golf and golf courses.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

EPOCH I, 1878-1919: URBAN, ELITE BEGINNINGS

Wealthy travelers brought golf from Scotland to the United States during the 1880s (Adams and Rooney 1985; Jackson 1985; Wyckoff 1990). In 1878, Saint Andrews, north of Yonkers, New York, became the first documented American golf club (Wind 1956; Betts 1974). Golf began as a sport for the social elite, who had the first golf courses constructed in the suburbs of eastern, coastal population and financial centers (Adams and Rooney 1985) (Figure 2). These first golf courses were predominantly private, and private courses outnumbered public courses until the 1960s (Fishman 1987). Golf also quickly became part of the athletic programs of socially elite universities such as Harvard and Yale (Adams and Rooney 1985,1995; Young 2002).

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

Scottish golf-course designers also came to the United States and replicated the course designs of their homelands (Bremer 1981; Adams and Rooney 1984). These courses were primitive, with minimal alterations to the existing landscape. The land used for the courses was minimized by golfers playing "around." The golfers played the first nine holes, turned around and played nine more holes that were alongside the first nine. …

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