Should Golf Exist?

Golf is not a cool sport. It’s long been dismissed by young people as the pastime of stodgy old rich men — that's nothing new. But it's never felt as cool to actively hate golf as it does now. Golf slander has been having a moment all over social media; scroll your feed and you’re all but guaranteed that someone, somewhere, will off-handedly remind you that golf sucks. As Chrissy Chlapecka — famous on TikTok as a self-proclaimed New Age Bimbo — observed in a TikTok from February, "Men will call me stupid, and then literally watch golf." Writer Saeed Jones asked on Twitter recently, "Which sport is more closely aligned with white supremacy: tennis or golf?" There was a debate, but in the end the crown went to golf. The Reddit community r/nongolfers has over 29,000 members.
This current surge of golf-hate is not just about laughing at nerds in polos and questioning whether it's a "real" sport. Golf hatred can be a determined political stance, with people identifying themselves as "anti-golfer" the way you might label yourself an anti-fascist. One of the most prominent anti-golfers right now is Abbie Richards, an environmentalist whose TikToks decrying golf have become extremely popular over the past year.
They're addictive because they're funny, but they’re also well-researched and persuasive on the sport's environmental impacts, and the economic and the racial injustices it helps perpetuate. They’ve made Richards the reigning queen of the niche known as anti-golf-tok.
Then again, based on the reaction, it's obviously not that niche. Richards says she was definitely surprised by the response to her TikToks. "I have a background in environmental science — I've always hated golf for a lot of reasons," she says. But why was it resonating with so many other people? "With a bit more hindsight, when I look at the discussions we were having at the time, it totally makes sense." She says this recent surge of golf-hate feels like a "larger cultural rejection of what it signifies" — unfettered capitalism, racism, the climate crisis — during a time in which inequality has become more visible to a greater number of people.
Richards' videos are good examples of what makes TikTok so compelling as a platform. You encounter wild perspectives that straddle the line between being a meme and being legitimate discourse, and people pose questions like: Is golf possibly the perfect symbol of American excess and inequality? Should it cease to exist? Haha, just kidding. Unless…? "Maybe you hadn't thought about it before, but now all of a sudden you have a video on your For You page suggesting the idea that, hey, maybe society has evolved past the need for golf," says Richards. "TikToks have the ability to plant the seed." 
To be clear, Richards and her community are 100% serious about detesting golf. It's not merely a meme; or even if it is, it shows how memeing something doesn't mean that your points aren't sincere — and backed by citations. And while golf haters may use various labels to describe their politics, Richards says there does seem to be a unifying ideological message behind this wave: "Why do these people deserve so many more resources than we do?" She likens the sport to a "giant board game" in which rich people destroy existing forests, harm wildlife, and displace residents, just so they can enjoy their hobby. "For most people who want a more equal society, I think golf is representative of those few people hogging up all the resources," she says.
One common criticism is how much water the sport uses, particularly in areas that need it most. The Desert Sun reported that golf courses in California's Coachella Valley used an average of 307 million gallons of water in 2017. While sometimes courses are built on landfills or other areas where having a vast lawn may actually improve the environment, often these greens are created by clearing existing vegetation and habitats. For the 2016 Rio Olympics, a golf course was built within the protected Marapendi Natural Reserve in Brazil, home to multiple endangered species. Locals questioned its legality and protested the damage its construction caused and would continue to cause in Rio. The Guardian reported in 2015 that over 5 million liters (1.3 million gallons) of water were used by the course per day.
Golf courses guzzle up so much water both because golfers prefer a certain saturated shade of green, and because there's no sport quite like golf in terms of commandeering land. According to the National Golf Foundation, there are currently over 16,000 golf courses in the U.S., taking up over 2.2 million acres, which is greater than the area of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. The average 18-hole course is 150 acres. For comparison, the area of an American football field is about 1.3 acres
And it's not just about a particular course's land and water use — golf courses are often signifiers of broader overdevelopment. Spot a golf course and it's not uncommon to see a luxury resort attached to it. Golf courses aren't desired just by golfers, either; they're an amenity for developers and homeowners because they drive up land and property values. Activists in Rio contend that the Olympic golf course wasn't really built for the Olympics but for "property speculation", because the emergency law that allowed its construction in the reserve also opened the way for the building of luxury developments there.
Golf tourism has helped spread this kind of damage to other regions of the world. Richards notes that the original anti-golf movement kicked into high gear in the '90s, largely spearheaded by activists in the Asia-Pacific region. "Basically, they'd colonize, set up a hotel, set up golf courses that just destroyed the local environments, kicked people off their own land, and forced them to be laborers on their own land," Richards says.
It's a struggle that continues in the present. Last year, The Intercept reported on the ongoing development of a luxury beachfront community, which includes a golf course, in the Caribbean island of Barbuda, a venture funded by American investors. Barbuda comprises an area just under 62 square miles. Especially given its small size, the construction of such a resort isn't just seriously harming the island's environment; the development of the tourism industry is jeopardizing Barbudans' way of life. The island's foreign development sped up after Hurricane Irma destroyed much of the buildings and infrastructure in 2017, with the government allowing the privatization of land previously owned communally by Barbudans. The Barbuda Council and the Global Legal Action Network have challenged the privatization and development of this land, but it's unclear what the outcome will be.
Even if you ignored the emblematic role golf plays in disaster capitalism, there are examples of inequality within the sport itself. Though it has become more accessible over the decades, the perception that it's an elitist sport has persisted. According to sports market research firm SBRnet, 61.8% of people who golfed in 2018 had a household income of $75,000 or above. A National Golf Foundation report on golf participation in 2015 showed that the plurality (26.7%) had a household income of $125,000 or above. Even if you could afford a round of golf here and there, access often depends on whether you live in an area where golf courses exist at a reasonable price. It depends on who you socialize with — it’s a self-selecting group of elites who have someone in their lives to suggest golf as a hobby in the first place.
All of this contributes to the racial gap within the sport. "It has been bridged a lot, but affordable golf access is still a problem for many, especially in some key urban areas," says Lane Demas, a history professor at Central Michigan University who has written a book on the African American history of golf. "Golf courses take up space, and there are still large populations and many neighborhoods where there aren’t many courses located within a reasonable range. Moreover, urban golf courses tend to have higher relative greens fees because they have more demand and are located on more valuable real estate."
"Golf exclusion was first marked by privacy, wealth, and racism. The first major courses in America were private, elite country clubs," Demas continues. "Once more affordable public and municipal golf courses arrived, African Americans faced the barriers of Jim Crow segregation. Segregated golf could mean no course open to Black players, the city offering segregated access (like Black players can only play on Mondays or Tuesdays), or the city providing a separate, usually inferior Black public course." The famous Augusta National Golf Club, site of the Masters tournament, didn't have a single Black member until Ron Townsend was accepted in 1990. It didn't include women until 2012. Forbes estimates that Augusta's initiation fee is between $250,000 to $500,000.
The progresses made in making professional golf more diverse aren't exactly linear either. "Tiger Woods is important because he's the best player in the game’s history, and because he sparked an important discussion in the late 1990s about race and golf, Black athletes in American society, and multiracialism," says Demas. "[But] he wasn't the first Black elite player or professional golfer — that would be John Shippen, more than a hundred years earlier. Nor was he the first Black PGA player to compete in the major events or win big golf tournaments. There were dozens before him, and in fact the PGA Tour of the 1970s and 1980s featured more Black players than the PGA Tour after 1997, or today. Woods represented the end of that era, not the dawn of it."
In so many ways, golf serves as a metonym for power. A study has shown that the CEOs who are better golfers are paid more, with the researchers theorizing that being good at golf contributes to a "halo effect" around those CEOs. Richards mentions the term "grass ceiling," used within golf (and other sports) to describe the barriers that women and people of color face. "So much networking historically has been done at these men's-only golf clubs and social clubs, that were centered around playing golf and then hanging out afterwards," she says. 
Another study analyzed the tweets of one of the world’s most notorious golfers — former president Donald Trump — to see how many days he golfed in 2017, and found a disturbing correlation: though the number of tweets remained roughly the same, he was more likely to tweet racist, anti-Muslim views on days when he was golfing. The study is careful to remind us that correlation is not causation. "One intuitive explanation of this finding is that day-to-day politics may be less salient to the President when outside of Washington, DC," it says. "There is also anecdotal evidence that Trump may be influenced by his social media director Dan Scavino—former manager of Trump National Golf Club Westchester and Trump’s former caddie—who is the likely source of many particularly inflammatory tweets."
Trump obviously isn't the only president to be an avid golfer. In fact, the list of U.S. presidents who didn't golf is a lot shorter than the opposite. John F. Kennedy's team didn't want the fact that he was an excellent golfer to become widespread knowledge, because he would seem less like a man of the people. In the post-war era, golf was a symbol of the wealth and ease to which the American middle class aspired, and it's clear that this aspirational association with golf endures today. "I feel like people are still clinging to the idea that this is what success looks like," Richards says.
"I can just rage about this for hours," she says. "It really does represent, in my mind, the decay of the 20th century." Her outspoken anti-golf views have attracted some detractors, including a pro golfer that Richards says sent his army of fans to her comments section. "When I was first going viral for it, one of the major pushbacks I got was, 'Oh, a golfer broke your heart.' That was one of the biggest things I got told — 'some golfer must have dumped her,'" she recalls. "First of all, ew, no. But also, if that were the case, that would be the sickest break-up revenge. I broke up with someone and went after their entire pastime." Like a reverse Gatsby, where a dashed romance with a rich person drives one American on a mission to undermine capitalism (through anti-golf propaganda).
But overall, the response to Richards’ TikToks has been resoundingly positive, with many people coming to terms with why they're bothered by the sport. "For me, the more I thought about [golf], the less sense it made and the more angry it made me," she says. "It's just pointing out something that most people just accept as is." When asked whether she has any close friends or family members in her life who golf, Richards jokes, "Nope. Cut them all out."

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series