In the rough: Skåne’s wildgolf scene

In a landscape where more and more land is being used for development and agriculture, golf courses can be important ecosystem hotspots—but back in the early 2000s, golfers in Skåne (and elsewhere) wanted to have their cake and eat it too.

Ever since the Scots started lobbing beach pebbles with clubs back in the 14th century, the sport of golf has changed alongside the societies in which it has been played. 

Skåne is at the forefront of the most recent trend: wildgolf! In a landscape where more and more land is being used for development and agriculture, golf courses can be important ecosystem hotspots—but back in the early 2000s, golfers in Skåne (and elsewhere) wanted to have their cake and eat it too. The fairway itself was kept as a manicured lawn with occasional man-made ‘hazards’ (sand-traps and the like), while native flowering species were introduced in the rough and woods. This did improve species diversity somewhat (and provided a habitat for several threatened species of bee) but the ideal golf-course was still an extensive and unstable monoculture that required plenty of water and fertilizer to maintain.

In an effort to maximize carbon sequestration and biodiversity without decreasing food production, the Swedish government mandated a rewilding of all golf courses—or at least the ones that hadn’t already been reclaimed by the environment. This provoked a massive uproar, particularly among the wealthy older men who had long been the game’s core demographic—though some saw this as an opportunity for innovation. 

Sjöbo Golf Club was the pioneer: in a bold move, they kept the holes but removed the green, replacing the turf with deciduous trees, berry bushes and wild grasses, and re-wetting the areas closest to the river. Ecosystemic box-ticking aside, one problem remained: how could one play golf without a green? Three changes to the game were needed: first, GPS-trackable balls were mandated, which also had to be bio-degradable (as there was a real chance that you might not be able to access them, even if you knew where they ended up); second, a half-meter-long tee was developed to allow players to hit the ball without striking the ground; third, the height of the hole-flag was tripled, so as to be visible through the brush.

Naturally, the Sjöbo club was ridiculed by its peers—but as other clubs closed down in protest to the new law (sometimes becoming home to new activities and communities), wild golf emerged as the only alternative. A new young crowd took to it first, alongside a few professionals of the “old school” game, but it was arguably the game footage—shot from multiple perspectives using camera-drones, and shared online—and the inevitable arrival of lucrative sponsorships and big-money contests that really revitalised the whole operation.

Once money and media attention arrived, innovation was quick to follow in its wake. At the low-fi end, new standards emerged for the hole-markers that replaced the flags—the most common type now looks more like a very leggy crucifix painted in black and yellow stripes for maximum visibility—while the hi-tech kit available to serious players includes a “hover-tee” developed by a Madagascan firm, which alleviates some of the injury risks associated with the traditional wooden tee. Meanwhile, other adjustments have been made in the name of accessibility: for example, the Sjöbo course now has a set of hedhål (moor holes), around which cows are allowed to graze. This keeps this stretch of the course a little clearer for those with mobility or visual impairments… though of course the cows have a tendency to leave unexpected hazards of their own.

Today, people come from all over Europe come to Sjöbo to play wildgolf—though the professional circuit’s focus on this, the birthplace of the sport, means that access for amateur players can be hard to come by, with places allocated by lottery during the peak of the season. There are a few dozen other courses around the county, however—including the site of a former “classic” golfcourse in Falsterbo—and they’re starting to appear in other nations as well.

Golf was never a cheap sport, and neither is wildgolf. However, reduced prices are offered to those willing to volunteer a few hours as ecosystem maintainers: tasks include scything meadows, indexing species, and (unfortunately) removing stray beer cans. (Scything actually involves similar movements to putting, so you might want to think of it as free practice.) You might need a pair of wellies and a compass, but most golf courses have these available to loan for casual players, as well as a basic selection of clubs. If you you find yourself truly bitten by the bug, however, it might be worth hitting the swap-shops in search of your own kit… although the wildgolf boom means you may have to do a fair bit of searching.

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