Golf has long had a reputation as an environmental hazard: Courses have long required large quantities of water, fertilizer and herbicides needed to maintain verdant greens, making it the sports industry’s wolf in sheep’s clothing.
But much of that is changing. Over 30 percent of golf courses in the United States are Audubon-certified, which ensures native grasses and habitat for insects and birds. The U.S. Golf Association and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America laid out guidelines in 2017 encouraging all U.S. courses to practice better environmental stewardship by the end of 2020, including deeper commitments to water and energy conservation and pollution prevention.
Golf courses, however, had never been major sources of light pollution. In fact, most greens, seldom lit at night, can help communities understand the importance of darkness. Many residential golf communities are now beginning to limit light pollution as part of the sport’s greening process, embracing the “dark sky” movement, and the payoffs go far beyond a better view of the glittering stars above.
“With golf courses averaging 150 acres per 18 holes, they create dark spaces simply by their land mass,” said Rand Jerris, the U.S.G.A. senior managing director of public services. “Courses are a way for communities to protect green space and provide proper balance to development.”
The idea of preserving dark skies began in the 1970s, prompted by amateur astronomers who could no longer see certain constellations because of an increase in artificial light. The International Dark-Sky Association was founded in Tucson, Ariz., in the 1980s and has since grown into an influential conservation organization with 145 designated Dark Sky locations in 21 countries. Their aim is to reduce light pollution, often by making simple changes like turning exterior lights downward to limit impact on nocturnal wildlife like migratory birds, bioluminescent insects and sea turtles, and help restore night skies to their natural state.
There are five types of Dark Sky designations, each with its own set of light-emitting criteria: Dark Sky Communities, Parks, Reserves, Sanctuaries and Urban Night Sky Places. Golf courses can be found in three of the five categories: Reserves, Parks and Communities.
About 90 minutes west of San Diego, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was designated a Dark Sky Park in 2018, and the town of Borrego Springs is a Dark Sky Community. The two work in tandem to reduce lighting and monitor dark-sky quality. But the area is also home to four golf courses, which are typically not lit at night.
Death Valley National Park, designated California’s first Dark Sky Reserve in 2008, is home to the challenging 18-hole Furnace Creek Golf Course, located 214 feet below sea level and part of the Oasis at Death Valley resort. While it remains one of the world’s largest dark-sky parks and among California’s darkest, the lights of Las Vegas, just 120 miles southeast, constantly threaten to pollute its night skies. Furnace Creek focuses on educating visitors and locals alike about dark skies by hosting star parties, led by the National Park Society and the Astronomical Society of Nevada, on its greens. (This fall, they are offering lightless night golf using glow-in-the-dark balls.)
Texas is home to 15 official Dark Sky places, including national parks like Big Bend and Dark Sky communities like Dripping Springs, just outside Austin. But Cordillera Ranch, about 32 miles north of San Antonio, is one of many residential golf communities forgoing the International Dark-Sky Association’s certification and creating its own dark-sky criteria. The development offers prime turf in Texas Hill Country, with quarter-acre villas, 10-plus-acre estates, valley views, hilltop homes and Guadalupe River frontage. Residents, who include the former P.G.A. champion and dark-sky enthusiast Jimmy Walker, must significantly lower their lights every night and shield all outdoor lights.
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“Cordillera Ranch encompasses 8,700 acres and over 800 residences, so there are plenty of remote vantage points within the community to stargaze,” said Charlie Hill, the Cordillera chief operating officer and a resident. “Our family routinely sits on the patio in the evenings with the kids and watches for shooting stars. Those are experiences many kids don’t grow up with anymore.”
Another community that’s dark-sky friendly but not I.D.A.-certified is Heron Lakes at TPC Colorado, an 865-acre golf community that opened in the spring of 2018 and is in the town of Berthoud, about 27 miles northeast of Boulder. The 200-acre, 18-hole course is home to elk, coyotes, foxes and osprey, and it offers stunning views of the southern Rockies’ Front Range, where residents can regularly see the Milky Way, red and blue dwarves, and fading stars like Betelgeuse.
The Berthoud Heritage Metro District takes dark-sky responsibility seriously and adopted many of the I.D.A.’s criteria, including downward-pointing light fixtures on all new buildings, strictly enforced though audits of both architectural plans and completed construction.
“We love living in a community that considers the dark-sky movement to be of value,” said Sarah Kimmett-Smith, a resident golfer. “Seeing the NEOWISE Comet from our home this summer was an incredible experience.”
But light pollution is not just preventing us from seeing the Milky Way; it poses real health issues. The dark-sky movement had a major breakthrough in 2010 when the American Medical Association released a report recommending “minimizing and controlling blue-rich environmental lighting by using the lowest emissions possible.” Much like the light on our smartphone screens, the report said, white LED light keeps us awake at night and can cause a variety of health problems for both animals and humans.
But the movement’s watershed moment came during the coronavirus pandemic. As more people started to work from home, many started to stargaze from their own backyards. For those buying second homes, access to dark skies became a more important draw. This, in turn, led golf community developers to embrace dark skies as a marketing opportunity. A bonus: It also makes residences cheaper to maintain.
“As a result of Covid-19, we’re seeing increased interest in folks moving to remote areas,” said Daniel Wright, the assistant manager of Springs RV Resort and Golf Course in Borrego Springs, who has been working to preserve dark skies there for 20 years. “Their primary motivation may be getting out of cities and crowded suburbs, but as they spend more time in our area, we believe they will gain an appreciation for protecting dark skies.”
While the dark-sky movement started in the United States, it has picked up real steam internationally in the last decade. Mexico may not yet have an official dark-sky park, but the private sector is forging ahead with residential golf communities like Costa Palmas on Baja’s East Cape, home to residential golf communities like Four Seasons Residences Los Cabos and Amanvari Residences, where all “up lighting” is prohibited and only low-voltage lighting with a maximum of 25 watts may be used for all exterior site lighting applications.
“We have the opportunity and responsibility to develop Costa Palmas with a thoughtful approach to its natural setting and for us, that includes the spectacular night sky,” said Michael Radovan, managing director of Costa Palmas.
Initially, Europe had been slow to embrace the dark-sky movement, but is starting to make up for lost time. Dark-sky parks there started in Britain and spread to the Continent. Today, Britain leads the tally with 14 official I.D.A. sites; Germany has five, and France has four. Coincidentally, these are Europe’s three biggest golf markets.
What’s more, in 2019, France adopted the most progressive light pollution policies in the world — imposing lighting curfews, limits in emission, significantly reduced glare and the strictest emissions of blue light, not to mention an outright ban on lasers, skybeams, lit waterways and other light “trespasses.” This has been especially welcome in places like Normandy’s Alabaster Coast, home to 40 golf courses that are part of an emerald necklace preserving the region’s cultural and natural landscapes.
One link of the necklace is the famed Golf d’Etretat course, which opened in 1908 on a clifftop that inspired paintings by Monet, Delacroix, Manet and Corot. Another is Terre Blanche, an exclusive residential golf community in Provence that enacted strict new lighting ordinances in early 2020, retrofitting outdoor path lighting by adding partial blackout screens to lamps and replacing sodium bulbs with oriented flux bulbs.
Asia, too, is experiencing dark-sky mania, with new I.D.A. places in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, the continent’s biggest golf markets. Shizuoka Prefecture in Japan is home to 88 golf courses, as well as the town of Kawanehon, known for its coal-black skies, and the Nakakawane Mitsuboshi Astronomical Observatory. On the other end of the prefecture is Ashinoko Resort Villa, where sweeping views of Mount Fuji can be seen from the greens and the stars sparkle.
There’s still a lot of work to be done to help golf communities reduce their own light pollution. Some communities are claiming dark-sky compliance without certification, while others are using dark skies solely as a marketing tool — a reminder that certification is important.
“Golf courses have the ability to respect the natural nighttime environment or increase light pollution,” said Adam Dalton, the I.D.A.’s Dark Sky Places program manager. “By using lighting fixtures which have a clear purpose, are aimed only where needed, minimize blue-light emissions, and make use of motion sensors, timers and dimmers, they can serve as exemplary cases for responsible outdoor lighting.”
One selling point for courses and residences may simply be to emphasize a fundamental aspect of golf: its natural surroundings.
“Around the world, golf is leading important conversations in the relationship between recreational outdoor sports and the environment,” said Mr. Jerris of the U.S. Golf Association. “Many are attracted to golf because of its connection to nature, and we have a responsibility to ensure that connection endures.”