Climate Change Impacts Sports Events

PGA Championship Highlights Threats of Sea Level Rise to Coastal Communities


The second round of the PGA Championship — the second men’s major championship of 2021 — tees off this morning at The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Naturally, the focus over the next three rounds will be on who will take home the coveted Wanamaker Trophy. My pick, Spain’s Jon Rahm, starts the day five strokes back of the first round leader, Corey Conners of Canada. Check that — I meant to say Phil Mickelson would turn back the clock and become the oldest major champion. 

For the long term, climate change has made the prospects for coastal golf murky at best. Sadly, golf courses will fare much better than many people who live in coastal communities around the world. 



The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island has seen its share of extreme weather since its embryonic stages. It almost disappeared from the face of the earth in 1989 during its construction thanks to the wrath of Hurricane Hugo. And it remains vulnerable today. According to a story about Kiawah, coastal golf and climate change in Thursday’s Washington Post, George Frye, former Ocean Course superintendent, told writer Dave Sheinin that ,”If a Category 3 or 4 came in just south of here, there probably wouldn’t be much left. It would be devastating.”

To be sure, hurricanes, now more intense and frequent thanks to climate change, pose serious threats to Kiawah as well as other coastal courses in storm zones. Yet it is sea level rise — while not nearly as dramatic as hurricanes — that is a more predictable and existential danger to coastal golf all over world. Per Sheinin, “The U.K.-based Climate Coalition released a study in 2018 saying the Old Course at St. Andrews, the famed ‘home of golf,’ and other storied U.K. courses were in danger of being wiped out by sea-level rise.”

Montrose Golf Links in Scotland, which opened in 1562 and claims to be the world’s fifth-oldest course, has ceded about 75 yards of land and parts of several holes to the North Sea in recent years. “As the sea rises and the coast falls away, we’re left with nowhere to go,” Chris Curnin, Montrose’s director of golf, said in research published by the University of Dundee. The Scottish Government is coming to the rescue with a £5 million cash injection for construction of a huge sandbank barrier.


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Sand bank at Royal Montrose under construction (Photo credit: The Express)


And, from the “you can’t make this up” department, Trump International Golf Links Ireland in Doonbeg in County Clare, owned by the climate change-denying former president’s Trump Organization, is trying to adapt to sea level rise caused by…climate change. According to Sheinin, the company “petitioned government officials for permission to construct a sea wall around the course, located on Ireland’s southwestern coast, to help stop the erosion that has eaten away roughly a yard per year and washed away several greens.”

The problems coastal golf faces from sea level rise are significant but they are a relative pin prick compared to the life-and-death stakes coastal residents — especially those from marginalized communities — are facing all over the world.

In fact, according to a 2019 study from Climate Central, it is not only the seas that are on the rise — so too are the projections regarding the rate of the increase. Rising sea levels are on track to affect about three times more people by 2050 than originally thought. This research suggests that 300 million homes will be affected by coastal flooding in the next 30 years.

And a sobering September 2020 story in EcoWatch reported that 23 million people were uprooted by extreme weather in 2017. With an acceleration in the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, the number of climate refugees could credibly be expected reach one billion by 2050. Per the 2020 Ecological Threat Register Report, from the Institute for Economics & Peace, the hardest hit populations in terms of climate refugees will be in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Haiti faces the highest risk of all countries in Central America and the Caribbean.


GSB’s Take: With such a perilous future in store for coastal communities, especially those without the means to adapt, it is hard to bemoan the future of oceanside golf, as spectacular as it is to watch, and as challenging as it is to play.

It says here that high profile coastal courses, especially those — like The Ocean Course, St. Andrews and Pebble Beach on the Pacific coast — that host major championships, to publicly push for climate action that would help slow the rate of sea level rise. Organizations like the PGA Tour and the PGA European Tour, and the networks that broadcast their tournaments, also need to be “all in” on sea level rise action.


Photo at top: The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island (Photo credit: Morning Read)




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