A golfer tees off during the first round of the 2005 Irish Open.
As the sun sets on golf, what will become of all those empty greens? Toby Melville/Reuters

As the sport’s popularity wanes, vast amounts of underutilized land will open up. Can it be developed?

Golf is dying, many experts say. According to one study by the golf industry group Pellucid Corp., the number of regular golfers fell from 30 to 20.9 million between 2002 and 2016. Ratings are down, equipment sales are lagging, and the number of rounds played annually has fallen.

Part of the bust can be blamed on the fallen fortunes of a single person: Tiger Woods. Golf boomed in the 1990s and early 2000s as the charismatic superstar raked in titles. Then, beginning in 2009, it faced a one-two punch of recession and bad press when its star golfer’s chronic infidelity came to light.

But the bigger story involves the sport’s aging demographics and the athletic tastes of Millennials, who just aren’t that into an expensive, poky sport that provides few health benefits. Unless the golf industry can change its ways, the decline will mean a lot of empty greens across the country. How that land is used—or isn’t—could reshape America’s suburbs for decades to come.

Golf courses and country clubs currently consume massive amounts of relatively underutilized land in cities and suburbs. Across the country, as courses and clubs begin shutting down, hundreds of thousands of acres of land could soon start opening up for infill redevelopment. While not so great for golfers, this could be a boon for cities, especially those facing a housing crunch.

Consider that the average 18-hole golf course is 150 acres. At standard densities, that means that your average golf course can host at least 600 new single-family detached homes. Mix in townhouses and apartments, and a single shuttered course could provide housing for thousands of new residential units. This is land in desirable communities: Golf-centric subdivisions built in the 1990s and 2000s feature courses threaded among affluent McMansion-style developments, meaning that the new housing could go in areas with access to high-quality schools and work opportunities.

Developers have started to take note of this trend. As communities struggle to figure out what to do with their shuttered golf courses, developers in suburbs across the country are putting together million-dollar commercial redevelopment plans, often buying sections of foreclosed golf courses at bargain prices from banks. In a Kansas City suburb, one golf course is set to be converted into an industrial park. On another golf course in suburban Jacksonville, plans are underway for a mixed-use retail, office, and hotel development.

In fact, at present, it seems like just about everything except housing is going onto the old courses. This is partially due to present zoning: Many golf courses were broadly zoned for commercial uses to allow for allow for things like clubhouse restaurants and bars, meaning that they can be redeveloped into shopping centers and office buildings without much hassle.

But the main variable blocking new housing on old golf courses might be old-fashioned NIMBYism. Golf courses, after all, are often interpreted as high-status amenities that raises the value of neighboring homes, despite evidence to the contrary. If golf courses are gone and not coming back, residents often ask, why can’t they turn into permanent parks? Indeed, converting former greens into open space, wetlands, and natural preserves is happening nationwide in places where local land trusts have been able to purchase the tracts.

This can be a more appealing option for neighbors—often much higher income than the average resident of their region—who push to block permits and rezonings that might allow for infill housing redevelopment on idle greens. Earlier this year, voters in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, an outer suburb of Boston with a six-figure median income, voted down a zoning change that would have allowed for a 154-unit senior housing facility on part of the struggling Sagamore Spring Golf Club. Voters in the Rochester suburb of Penfield, New York, meanwhile, recently passed a $3.65 million bond to buy out the golf course and turn it into a park.

This trend of fending off housing on golf courses is hardly limited to the United States. In May, NIMBYs in Flixton, England, a suburb of Manchester, managed to negotiate a course redevelopment plan down from 750 homes to 380 homes, before killing the redevelopment altogether. The golf course sits barely 500 feet from a major transit hub.  

Golf probably isn’t coming back, at least not at the kind of scale it once boasted. Whether or not this bust can be a boon or a wash for suburbs and cities will likely be decided by hundreds of small zoning fights like these over the next decade. If recent pushes to downzone and preserve golf courses are any indication, it will take some effort and forethought on the part of planners and policymakers to get former greens productively redeveloped. Once the physical embodiment of tony upper-crust seclusion, these silent driving ranges and ghostly sand traps can be an effective way for more people to find housing in exclusive suburbs—or another means of keeping newcomers out.

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