Making Golf ‘Greener’ in the 21st Century

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By Travis Lesser

Golf is an ancient game, and the legend of its origin is debated. One theory suggests the game was started by Scottish shepherds hitting rocks around a field with sticks. Their objective, of course, was to get the rock into a hole in the ground in as few attempts as possible. Regardless of how golf actually got its start, the reason the sport is alive after all of these years is clear: The game is a great way to spend the day.

Fast forward to the modern game here in the United States. Every April, the hallowed grounds of Augusta National Golf Club are pumped into our living rooms showing us The Masters. The emerald green fairways and stark white bunkers. The limited advertisements and exclusivity. Other than the advent of high-definition telecasts and extended coverage, little has changed over the years.

This is many Americans’ perception of golf. It is an old sport with dated practices and traditions. This notion is prevalent on many levels throughout the game — none more so than the industry’s attempts to be a good environmental steward.

This is not to say the industry hasn’t taken some steps in the right direction. A recent Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) study shows significant reduction in nitrogen, potassium and potash use across the industry over the past 10 years. Additionally, superintendents are finding ways to reduce water usage, especially in places like California where drought conditions prevail.

But these positive actions are not enough. It is clear that more needs to be done in the area of environmental stewardship across the industry — notably in the areas of water conservation, fertilizer and pesticide use, and waste management.

To get insight into just how far golf is lagging behind, we should look at how it compares to other sports. To do so, you need only to look back to late June in Houston, Texas. The Green Sports Alliance (GSA) conducted its sixth annual GSA Summit at Minute Maid Park, home to the Houston Astros. Several sports were featured, and lauded, for their contributions to the environmental sports movement.

Most notably, facilities, ownership and players for Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League were prominently featured throughout the program as leaders in this movement. Taking steps in advocacy, stadium lighting efficiency, food waste reduction, and recycling program adoption were some attributes of these successful programs.

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In past years, golf had been noticeably absent from the Summit, and for the most part other GSA endeavors as well. But this year’s program included people with ties to golf in two separate panel discussions. One was entitled “Going Global: An International Sports & Sustainability Fireside Chat,” and included Golf Environment Organization Chief Executive Jonathan Smith. Smith’s message was clear that golf wants to play its part in the green sports movement. The closing panel topic “Chatting with the Champs,” included former LPGA Tour player Anya Alvarez, who offered the player’s prospective.

In addition, one panel discussion was solely dedicated to golf for the first time in the Summit’s history, entitled “Golf’s Sustainability Agenda: The Power of Collaboration.” The experts included executives from industry associations such as the GCSAA, the Club Managers Association of America and the Colorado Section of the PGA. They discussed steps being taken within the industry, such as the first corporate social responsibility report dedicated to a golf course, as well as considerations for future endeavors.

It was a great starting point and good to see leaders in our industry on the same page. However, as noted during the golf panel discussion, there were several people absent who could have offered even greater insight into the pain points that the industry faces. Much value could have been added by including representatives from the United States Golf Association, the PGA Tour, and professionals from the industry who are already putting environmentally-sound principles into practice. Having these additional people in the room will lead to a deeper discussion on how to improve and implement better processes throughout the industry.

I am more convinced than ever that we are all merely scratching the surface of what is going to be a large, global effort. It is my belief that golf’s environmental and social responsibility movement is about to reach a tipping point. And doing so will also carry with it other benefits. By communicating that golf is becoming more progressive as an industry, it is possible that we can open the door to a new segment of clientele. With an industry desperately looking for ways to jumpstart stagnant growth in participation, it is time to look for other solutions. Simply stating “the game is too expensive” and that it “takes too long” is not solving anything.

In order to encourage this drive, it is imperative that golf have a larger presence in the green sports movement going forward. By bringing together leaders in golf with leaders in the greening of sports, we will encourage informed, open-minded conversations. These types of talks can lead to positive steps not only on an industry level, but on a global level as well.

Attending the Summit showed me just how far we as an industry have lagged behind. While we are late to the party, my hope is that golf has a bigger presence at next year’s Summit. I know I will be there, and I encourage all of my fellow colleagues to join me. More panel discussions and a larger golf presence at the 2017 GSA Summit in Sacramento in June could go a long way to ensuring this great game will still be around for future generations to come.

And the good news is, by taking on a leadership role and moving to the forefront of the green sports movement, we will ensure a legacy of which we can be proud.

Image credits: 1) Pixabay; 2) Courtesy of the author 

Travis Lesser is the Owner and Founder of Spring Mil Solutions, LLC, a consulting practice devoted to working with golf courses to implement zero waste programs. He earned his B.S. in Business Administration with a concentration in Professional Golf Management. He then spent eleven years in the golf industry, working at places such as Philadelphia Country Club, the International Junior Golf Tour, and the United States Golf Association, before returning to school to complete his M.B.A. at Penn State. Travis has also worked on projects concentrating on zero waste and recycling programs.

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