Environmental man


Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

Of all the professional golfers who have sought, as their playing careers wound down, to reinvent themselves by using their name and reputation to drive other business opportunities, surely none have been as successful as Greg Norman. From wine and clothing to one of the industry's leading signature golf design businesses, the Great White Shark has built an empire.

Even as his business interests get wider – and in some cases further away from golf – Norman hasn't forgotten the sport that made him. Still as passionate about the game as he was when he emerged from Queensland in the 1970s to make a rapid impact on the professional tours, he now acts as front man for the Environmental Institute for Golf (EIG). "Golf gets a bum rap about its environmental impact, but we have surveys that prove the amount of water used on golf courses is way lower than other uses of land," he told GCA.

"And the industry is working hard to reduce it further. Look at the efforts being made to propagate new grasses that are more drought tolerant. But we also have to get away from the idea, especially in America, that everything has to be green.

Turn off the water system! Let's go play courses like at the Australian Open. There's nothing wrong with the brown look. The deeper the root structure, looking for water, the healthier the grass." Ever the businessman, Norman reckons the way to sell the environmental message to clubs and golf course owners is by financial justifications. "With the research the EIG has done we can go to clients and say 'If you cut down on water, if we build your golf course to play firm and fast, your maintenance budget will go down," he says.

"All the irrigation companies are building systems that can concentrate where the water goes, so you don't have to overirrigate to keep the grass alive. Only 12 per cent of water used on golf courses in the US is recycled water. There are issues getting it but if we were able to get that water we could use it.

"I always ask Americans, 'Why do you guys like to go to the UK, to Ireland and play golf? they answer, 'Because it's different.' But then they come back to the USA and they don't want to implement what they see and love over there." Education, at all levels of the game, is the key, he reckons. "Instead of going from the top down we need to spread the message from the bottom up," he says. "I've been chairman of EIG for five years now, and the first three were a hard slog but now the door is open. We've got to start with the members. Normally it's the members going to the super to say 'we want the course a certain way'. It should be the super going to the members and saying 'we have to maintain the course in a certain way'. But we also have to get the mainstream media behind that message.

Who remembers Augusta when the greens were Bermuda and the course was hard and fast? Only really Arnie and Jack now, but imagine if we went to Augusta and played the course the way it was then, but at 7,500 yards, I guarantee the players would love it.

In his own design business, Norman cites several examples of practicing what he preaches. Famously, at Doonbeg in Ireland, the course design had to be changed at a late stage to protect a rare microscopic snail that lived in the dunes. "Take what we're doing at TPC San Antonio," he says.

"We're on very sensitive land, on top of an aquifer, so we are working tightly with the environmentalists. It might cost more initially but it will save money in the end.

At South Ocean we took the existing lakes and enhanced them to trap the water –and drained the golf course to capture the water and put it in the lakes." On the familiar debate about club and ball technology, Norman is among those calling for a rollback – but only at professional level. "Why do we have to have one set of rules for everybody?" he asks, questioning why more golfers are leaving the game than new players are taking it up.

"How do you get golfers to reduce their scores when we're lengthening courses, putting on more water and rough, making the greens faster to putt? The answer is technology. But we've got to get the PGA Tour guys in tune to the fact that they rock up to a course for only one week in the year. They don't realise what's been done to that course to get it in that shape for one week of the year. To get a course from 7,000 yards to 7,500 is a huge cost. So a club spends 20 million upgrading the golf course and the members get assessed. The way to control that is to put restrictions on Tour players' equipment, but allow the masses to get the maximum benefit. When events are hosted on our golf courses we want the courses to be consistent to the philosophy of how we built them – not changed just for one week. We were asked to build a golf course at sea level of 7,800 yards. We told the guy he was crazy!"