Why We Play Golf Outdoors

Like many golfers, I am sometimes guilty of taking nature for granted. I can be excused, I hope, for failing to regard the arrival of fairway-befouling Canadian geese or the sullen work of groundhogs at my home course as glorious manifestations of Mother Nature, but not for getting so wrapped up in my game that I begin to resemble the crank about whom P.G. Wodehouse wrote: “The least thing upset him on the links. He missed short putts because of the uproar of butterflies in the adjoining meadows.”

Golf newbies are useful for reminding old hands to enjoy the nature show around them. Several years ago at one of the Disney World resort courses in Florida, for instance, I was paired with a guy whose non-golfing wife, riding along, couldn’t stop marveling at the birds. Initially I found her chatter distracting, but by the end I was totally on board. With her guidance that day I saw an osprey swoop down to pluck a fish out of a lagoon, a great blue heron lumbering into flight only 30 feet away, a flock of pelicans squabbling over who knows what and a giant turtle waddling down a fairway. I have long since forgotten my score.

Last week, this column focused on golf-course sightings of large, potentially dangerous beasts such as lions and bears, but my reporting actually turned up more stories about less threatening, more charming animal encounters, and readers this week emailed more. Some of the best involved clubs or courses that have become intimately familiar with the daily or annual movement of animals. A reader from Wyoming rhapsodized about the annual spring buffalo migration across the fairways at the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club. Another reader detailed his club’s fascination with the journey each spring of some turtles from one pond on the course to a different one. At the Sanctuary Golf Club on Sanibel Island, Fla., dozens of brilliantly white ibis do a late-afternoon flyover of the clubhouse at certain times of the year with such punctuality that members plan cocktail parties around the event.

Officially or unofficially, some golf courses adopt wild animals. A club in upstate New York now happily coexists with a den of foxes in the cart barn, after initially trying to shoo them away. A club in Georgia protected a red-tail hawk nest near the pro shop so effectively this spring that members got to watch two fledglings mature. In Texas a club on the Gulf Coast attempted to domesticate an alligator as a kind of conversation piece. After feeding the gator chickens from the kitchen for several months, it became not only huge but also a nuisance, scrabbling across the grounds like an ill-bred puppy to beg for food from almost everyone who walked up the path to the clubhouse. It had to be removed.

Larceny is the theme of many stories. Crows in the southeast and monkeys in the Caribbean, it seems, are extremely clever when it comes to snatching food out of temporarily vacated golf carts. But none are as thorough as the legendary bandit raccoon of the Bay Course at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. It emerged from a swamp near the third tee to steal anything it could from golf carts parked there: food, watches, cellphones, wallets. It even learned to unzip golf bag pockets. The course superintendent, Drew Castillo, frequently slogged through the swamp to recover items stored in the raccoon’s stash, but never found as many items as golfers said were stolen.

Foxes apparently have a thing for golf balls, although no one knows why. At the Sugarloaf Golf Club in Maine, playful fox kits dash into the fairway to filch drives from the middle of the fairway. Workers at the course from time to time find caches of these balls, sometimes more than 100, in hollowed-out logs. Seagulls have also been known to make off with golf balls, including most famously, because it was televised, the tee shot of Brad Fabel from the green of the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass in Florida during the 1998 Players Championship. The gull then dropped it into the water.

According to the rules of golf, foxes and seagulls in such instances are considered “outside agencies,” and the ball may be replaced without penalty at the spot of the theft if you actually saw or are “virtually certain” the theft take place. If, however, a ball in motion hits an outside agency, the golfer must play it where it lays. (Spectators lining the gallery ropes at tournaments are outside agencies, too; hitting them usually works in the Tour pros’ favor.) A dead animal, on the other hand, is considered a loose impediment, so if your ball snuggles up against the corpse of a snake, you can move the snake (as long as the ball doesn’t move in the process). Unless, of course, such a loose impediment lies in the same bunker or water hazard as your ball, in which case you cannot move the serpent before taking your shot.

It’s not surprising that the rules makers have all this figured out, however complicated it may seem, because the game as we know it was first played on linksland in Scotland riddled with rabbit holes (free drop if the ball goes in) and teeming with grazing animals that often came into play. Two of golf’s original 13 rules, first written down in Edinburgh in 1744, provide for encounters with animals.

For a while there‚from the 1950s through approximately the 1980s‚it seemed that golf was doing everything it could to keep nature at bay. Architects took advantage of cheap earth-moving machinery to design courses for which they essentially blasted flat, nature-free corridors through the ambient landscape. Greenkeeping crews dumped horrific amounts of toxic chemicals on the wall-to-wall turf to keep weeds, disease, insects and even animals away. Bunkers were neatly edged and filled with artificially white sand.

In recent years, luckily, the tide has turned back to more natural courses. The new ideal in course design is to locate the holes in the land’s existing formations while moving as little earth as possible. Bunkers on many modern courses are more naturalistic and irregular in shape and maintained with shaggy borders. Regularly mown turfgrass occupies a far smaller percentage of most courses’ total acreage these days. Seventeen of Golf Digest’s Top 100 U.S. courses now are certified as Audubon International sanctuaries, which usually means around half of their out-of-play areas are nurtured as native habitats, especially buffer areas around streams and ponds. The courses have also taken concrete steps to reduce chemical usage. In 2008 architect Robert Trent Jones II issued a “Green Proclamation” that challenges golf to create courses with a net positive effect on the natural environment.

Stricter local permitting requirements have forced many of these changes, of course, but by my accounting so has an evolving aesthetic among golfers. The simple pleasure of being outdoors has always been one of the game’s greatest appeals, and increasingly golfers are showing a preference for more natural settings. All else being equal, who wouldn’t want to play a course with abundant bird life, butterflies roaring in adjoining meadows and foxes that occasionally sneak out of the woods to steal your ball?
‚Email John Paul at

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