Global freshwater resources are under ever-increasing pressure that is anticipated to be exacerbated by climate change. Increasing demands for water use will require tourism to improve and disclose its monitoring and reporting, particularly for water-intensive activities such as golf tourism. Using a sample of 129 courses from Ontario (Canada), this is the first study to examine golf course characteristics that influence water use variability (e.g. dominant soil type, ownership type, and age of course). By establishing “best in class” water use efficiency among common types of courses, potential water extraction savings of 35% are identified (or 6.75 billion litres annually). Importantly, the study also accounts for the influence of climate variability on water use by comparing a climatically normal season (for the 1981–2010 period) with an anomalously dry and warm season to examine the potential impact of future climate change on water use (i.e. reduced precipitation and higher temperatures). Average water use effectively almost doubles during an anomalously dry-warm season (increasing from 59.6 to 94.2 million litres), accentuating the importance of achieving potential water use efficiencies. In addition to best management practices, the need to reshape public perceptions of golf course aesthetics is also discussed.