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Caddies hand weed courses to reduce the use of herbicides on the turf at Mission Hills in Shenzhen, China. (Photograph by MIssion Hills)

China’s Green Leap Forward

A confession: I don’t play golf, partly because I’m unable to reconcile my conservation work with a sport also known for habitat destruction, massive water consumption, and heavy use of herbicides and pesticides.

And yet, until the 1950s, the sport of golf as played in the pastures of Scotland existed in harmony with nature. Can the pastime reconnect with its greener roots?

Some groups are trying: Europe’s Golf Environment Organization launched a sustainability program, and Audubon International has eco-certified 988 courses.

Now golf may be about to take a big step, in a surprising place.

“I want to introduce sustainable golf on a scale never done before,” says Ken Chu, the chairman of China’s Mission Hills—the largest golf club in the world. We are riding in a solar-powered golf cart looking at a few of the 12 courses he irrigates using only recycled gray water.

On my trip, I also meet scientists monitoring air quality in a high-tech field station that Chu established. Shark-fin soup has been banned from resort menus, and no retailer doing business with Mission Hills is allowed to sell ivory.

The verdict isn’t in yet, but I’m encouraged enough to start practicing my swing.

This piece was written by Costas Christ and appeared in the February/March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler. Follow Costas’s travels on Twitter @CostasChrist.